Developing organisational change capability – Are you serious?

Today much of my work involves helping companies to develop their capability to design and implement organisational change, either on specific projects or in helping to build in-house teams.

Molten Blog Developing organisational change capability Are you serious_1200x500

Clearly the breadth, depth, pace and sheer volume of change to which companies must now respond is driving this, and there are some traditional triggers that are still with us such as M&A, cost reduction and the development of global markets. Newer triggers are now assuming increasing importance with the need to respond more quickly and more often, including the explosion in digital technology, big data and cyber security.


However, this short piece is not an analysis of what is driving change in organisations, nor is it about the latest thinking on how to address it (there’s quite enough of all that already). It is about whether or not you’re taking seriously the need to build your organisational change capability and briefly, what you might consider doing about it.

My clients are often frustrated at their inability to deploy enough capability fast enough, or ofhigh enough quality to make a real difference to the outcome of their programmes and projects, and ultimately to their business performance…and so am I. So why is this and what can we do?

Designing and implementing organisational change is just one capability among many that vie for senior peoples’ attention.  This might be part of the frustration, it could be that it’s just not viewed as strategic enough. The capability to improve productivity, develop new products, exploit new markets, integrate acquisitions and exploit digital technology could all be seen as more strategic, and hence more important capabilities to build. So is that the reason for the frustration?

Well that would makes sense, but it’s wrong to accept it as the whole answer. What about the fact that building any or all of these capabilities demands some level of organisational change that might range from the relatively minor to the rapid and fundamental? At the very least, your capability to design and deliver organisational change effectively enables you to build other, more obviously strategic capabilities. Right? Consider for example the extent to which the capability to manage resources effectively enables a more obviously strategic capability to be built and deployed in, for example, programme and project management, including sourcing skills quickly, mobilising and closing down teams etc.

Many companies have recognised the importance of organisational change as a strategic and / or enabling capability and are addressing it effectively, however there are many who haven’t and are not, but who certainly should. That said, even if you do have this front and centre in your thinking, are you taking it seriously enough? Consider some common traps that people fall into:

  • Just knowing that you can get organisational change capability from a third-party doesn’t mean that you can access and deploy it quickly enough, cheaply enough or in sufficient quality and quantity to make a difference.
  • Just having someone, or a team, who can do organisational change, does not constitute a capability.
  • Just because you have successfully delivered organisational change in one part of the organisation doesn’t mean it will be possible to deliver everywhere.

So how can you be sure you’re really taking it seriously? I offer three suggestions, all of which are in some way linked:

Get the internal / external balance right:

You might be asking…”should we have organisational change capability in-house or outsourced in full or in part? Should we out-source something that is a core capability for our business? Can we really get better capability elsewhere (enough of it, at the right quality, at the right time…)?

You will answer such questions based on your specific context and experience, however in my view, part of the answer must be to build an in-house team that is strong enough to make a difference on critical projects and provide common standards, methods and tools for the organisation to adopt. The other part is to develop relationships with a small number of specialist partners who are agile enough to respond quickly and work seamlessly with you when you need it.

Move the focus of organisational change capability from the individual to the organisation:

It’s certainly important to have and to develop individuals with strong organisational change skills.  However you need to build supporting structures, processes, systems, measures etc. that enable the capability to live within the wider organisation.  Teams and functions should treat change as a continuous process, lumpy at times but certainly not just an event. I haven’t time to address each of the following here as they are topics in their own right but consider:

  • Designing organisations that are less static, and more able to flex, adapt and scale to business needs.
  • Using internal and external data to make better and faster decisions and to focus change efforts more quickly on priorities.
  • Attracting, developing and deploying talent more quickly into where it will make the most difference and deliver change most effectively.

Exploit latent capability, not just that which is manifest:

Too few companies really exploit the latent capability they have.  This is especially true for organisational change.  It’s no surprise that change management methods include such things as ‘change agent network development’, and rightly so. So remind me, what are we building that network for…to increase the probability that a particular change project will be successful, or to build sustainable capability for the future? The right answer of course is both, but all too often I hear the phrase “I used to be in the change network once upon a time”.  Those networks should be fostered and become a key part of how your organisation responds continuously to need for change.

Thank you for reading this far and I hope you’ve found either a thought, a prompt or a question that causes you to stop and think, or to do something different. I will leave you with the following questions, to be addressed in more detail in a forthcoming paper. Let me know in the meantime if I can help you to answer any of them:

  • Is the capability to deliver organisational change something you need to be really good at to deliver your strategy?
  • Will developing it enable you to develop other capabilities more quickly or effectively?
  • Do you have this capability in-house, or do you rely largely on 3rd parties to deliver it? Is that working for you?
  • Do you believe it’s just a matter of hiring or developing the right skills or have you identified wider, systemic, cultural or environmental factors that will underpin and sustain it?
  • Is there an untapped reservoir of capability in this area that you have yet to release and do you know how to access it?