Use these four tactics to successfully change organizational behavior.

The world is changing in new and dramatic ways. Every industry faces challenges to its status quo. We refer to it as the disruption economy.

Chris Conley

May 25, 2016

Remember the frog in a pot of water on a stove who slowly dies because it can't sense the rising heat?

Yeah, that analogy doesn’t work anymore. Everyone senses the heat. No status quo is safe. Things are changing and we need to jump out of the pot now!

So, how do we effect that proverbial jump in our own organization? If you are looking to build new capability, solve problems in a new way, and navigate the disruption economy, what should you do?

I’ve never been much of an organizational-change type of person. It always seemed more about org charts and pink slips than anything meaningful.

This time it's different.

This time it’s about creating a new mindset and way of working in the organization. People may or may not have to change positions. People may or may not have to go.

But they do need to be curious about what’s working and what’s not. They need to be experimental and willing to try new things. They need to be able to work collaboratively across the organization.

These are mindsets and behaviors that are critical to shaping new, successful businesses in the disruption economy. Those who are open to — and willing to — shift their mindset from certainty to curiosity will succeed. Those who can learn new skills in spite of feeling vulnerable will thrive.

A Strategy for Change

So how do you make it happen? How do you help your organization shift its mindset and learn new skills? How do you do it in a sustained way? You’ll always have some early momentum when the ideas are new and energy is high. But what does it take to foster real change over the long haul? 

Over the past five years, we've worked with dozens of organizations which are making fundamental changes in how they work. These organizations come from every industry, big and small. They’re looking to be more innovative, faster, and more effective at creating new business value.

From this experience, we’ve seen four tactics that make the difference in sustaining positive change. Each tactic plays a different role. Used in combination, the whole company gets involved; each person at every level can contribute to the change they are responsible for.

Use these four tactics for strategic organizational change.

1. Coach leadership on ways to communicate the new expectations that will foster change.

We all talk about the importance of leadership support. But we rarely define it beyond permission, time, and budget. While in some sense these are important, they don’t change the mindset and behaviors that are at the heart of working differently.

In this case, you must give leadership the language needed to articulate new expectations of others.

For example, in a project review, leaders should ask, “Can I see your prototype?” “Can I see a highlight video of a customer interview?” “What aspect of the idea are you least certain about and how are you testing it?”

Questions like these support two kinds of change: First, the questions make it clear that PowerPoint decks are not the currency of project reviews anymore. Rather, what’s expected is tangible evidence from the project in the form of prototypes and a customer’s experience with them.

Second, leaders begin to learn the power of a more tangible way of working. They will be exposed to customer experience simply by asking to see it from their teams. They will experience prototypes and be able to give much more relevant feedback on the quality of the experience.

2. Run one project as a visible demonstration of how to bring new ways of working to the organization.

Assemble a team of people that can do the project well. Do not starve them for resources or set unattainable expectations. Choose a real project that is aimed at significant value creation.

Conduct the project openly and communicate what is happening along the way as a learning experience for the entire organization. Use a videographer and content specialist to document and communicate how the project is being worked on. Share the challenges and the successes.

A visible demonstration project run well can turn on a lot of light bulbs in the organization. People appreciate transparency and can feel connected to both the challenges and successes the team is having.

3. Create a movement among the staff through communication and training.

Training the frontline staff is often the core of design thinking or innovation skills training. Whether you start with short half-day skill-building sessions or multiday deep dives, providing the staff with the opportunity to try the skills in a low-risk learning environment is essential to seeding the new skills across the organization.

Not all staff will come out of the gate running. In any given cohort of trained employees, a few will resonate with the techniques and begin to use them. That’s normal. But to keep adoption going, make sure you provide a communication channel to share what the early adopters are doing.

For example, the Center for Care Innovations Catalyst Program created a social portal for everyone who goes through the training. This portal allows the catalysts to share experiences and ask questions of each other. It also houses ongoing supporting resources like design-method cards and explanatory videos.

The result? A steady increase in confidence and successes using the methods. More than 20 health-delivery organizations and hundreds of staff have started to work differently, engage each other in their work, and solve problems in a new way.

4. Create spaces and adopt tools that support the new way of working.

I took a poll of Gravitytank’s clients who had started working more like us, asking what they had started to do differently. I discovered that, inspired by our tangible, collaborative, and iterative way of working, all of them had created a physical space and adopted tangible tools.

They made a "Gravitytank" room. This is a space where a team can meet; work on a big central table; and put research, data, and ideas up on the walls. They can work collaboratively and not have to put away the work at the end of the session.

Now it may sound silly, but there aren’t a lot of rooms left in corporate America where you can post stuff on the walls and leave it there. For efficiency reasons, we’ve retreated to email and PowerPoint to communicate and work on our projects together.

But think about it. Can we really collaborate productively with our team through an 8-inch by 10-inch screen and a keyboard? Sure, we let the genie out of the box every so often and project the screen on a wall, so we can all sit back and listen. I can assure you, this is not how America was built.

In addition to creating a space, clients also adopted sticky notes, thick markers, and half sheets of paper. These tools are the most accessible and productive way of getting started. They allow teams to get a lot of ideas out quickly, organize them, and generate structure to move forward.

Many also acquired some type of new tool or technology that gave them increased visualization or prototyping capability. The investment ranged in ambition — from a few hundred bucks for better cutting tools or a key piece of software, all the way to a $100,000 CNC cutting machine.

A space and new tools provides evidence that a new way of working is coming. They are far more tangible and engaging than a description of a process. When your environment and what you see in it everyday changes, it is a strong indication something important is happening. And it’s easy to give it a try.

When trying to change a team or a whole organization, pursue these four tactics.

Each tactic plays a particular role in the process of change.

Coaching leadership on what they should ask to be seeing in review meetings allows new behaviors to emerge without changing everyone’s “scorecard.” Running an example project and making it visible to all allows people to see the techniques used in a transparent way — including the challenges. Training staff is the backbone of long-term change. Creating new spaces and using new tools breeds excitement and accessibility for trying new approaches.

If you’re looking to create meaningful, long-term change in how your company approaches and solves its business challenges, set yourself up for success by planning to implement the four tactics of strategic change.


About Chris Conley

Chris was a founding partner of Gravitytank, an innovation firm that joined Salesforce in 2016.  A former tenured professor at IIT's Institute of Design in Chicago, he is now an innovator-at-large.

about us

Our team is a passionate group of professionals at Ignite who have been working differently (and loving it!) for years. We come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, but share a common love of creating new value and education. We're excited to work with you and your team to help you start working differently today.