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7 Steps to Leading Change in Your Organization

We’ve all heard it: if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind. But how do you take the risks necessary to innovate, without going under?

November 30, 2017

In a follow-up to her Preview Luncheon presentation comparing Apple and JC Penney, Dr. Suzanne Carter provides some extra insight into leading strategic change. Here are her seven steps. 

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1. Ask why the change is needed.

Determine the type of change you’re looking for. Do you see a need you want to fill? Does your organization have capabilities it hasn’t fully leveraged? Do you need to address some new technology, new way of thinking or cultural phenomenon? Perhaps you already have the market cornered on something, but competitors are gaining on you.

Getting organizations to change when they think they’re already the best is challenging. Change risks breaking a perfect system, but doing nothing risks stagnation. Ikea has become very good at creating image-based assembly instructions for their furniture, but they didn’t stop there; now, Ikea is incorporating Augmented Reality technology to make it even easier on customers. 

Always go back to your customer. Use focus groups to find out exactly what they love about what you offer and how it could be improved; it isn’t always what you think.

2. Consider bringing in someone new.

If you’re unable to draw fresh ideas from your existing team, it can help to bring someone from the outside. That doesn’t necessarily mean replacing your CEO. It could mean bringing in a consultant or allying with a company whose products or services complement yours.

3. Allow time for observation, rollout and adaptation.

Fresh eyes are invaluable, but a new team member can’t make wise decisions if they don’t understand your organization. Make sure you allow them 3-6 months to observe the company, learn what stakeholders want, what already works in the organization and what doesn’t. 

You should also allow enough time for changes to be rolled out at the proper pace, and time to determine whether those changes are beneficial. Profits can dip temporarily during a transition; establish beforehand how long you are willing to wait to see results before reversing any changes. 

4. Test changes first.

Take time to consider all the angles of a potential change. Observe how similar changes have worked (or not worked) for other organizations. Your classmates in the Neeley Executive MBA program can act as a think tank to work through scenarios, drawing on experience from a wide variety of industries to help you consider possibilities you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Next, test your changes on a small scale, in a couple of departments or a handful of your locations before implementing companywide.  

5. Be clear about the ramifications of targeting a new market.

It’s fine to make changes to appeal to a larger customer group – as long as you don’t alienate your main customer in the process. During the recession, Walmart started bringing in more white-collar customers, and started making a lot of in-store changes in order to keep those customers. Things like wider aisles, higher quality brands, better lighting, less clutter. But these changes caused their core blue-collar customers to lose trust in Walmart’s promise of “everyday low prices.” Perception changed even when prices didn’t. Admirably, Walmart recognized the error and reversed the changes. 

6. Aim for small wins early on.

Change is hard, and you’re going to have some pushback. But if you make sure to include small, inexpensive changes with relatively quick, easy victories as part of your larger strategy, you’ll help encourage your team and convert critics. Change guru John Kotter advises looking for sure-fire projects you can implement without help from the doubters.

7. Track results strategically.

We have so much more data than we used to, but just because we can track everything, doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Instead, measure your success based on the key drivers for your stakeholders’ satisfaction. 

For instance, a farmer wants a more efficient harvest, while the customer wants the best and freshest ear of corn, so you might focus on tracking improvements in crop yield from season to season, and measuring the time it takes an ear of corn to get to the customer’s table. You could even track benefits to the community as a stakeholder, in terms of economic growth and environmental sustainability. 

Ultimately, the key factors in strategic change all revolve around pacing: How much urgency is required, what resources and capabilities are at your disposal within that time frame, and whether your leaders have the time and experience they need to be successful. A focus on those factors will help steer your changes in the right direction.

Find this enlightening? Join us for the next preview luncheon to enjoy more business insights and meet EMBA alumni, current students, prospective students and faculty.