People Ruin Everything (Especially Your Org Change Effort)

Sam Spurlin
Dec 4, 2015 · 6 min read

It’s true, right? You had this grand vision about how you were going to change your organization and it was going to be awesome. New ways of working, new structure, new (better) rules and processes — it all made so much damn sense.

And, of course, it all fell apart. Like it always does. Because… people.

A lot of the work we do at The Ready is helping organizations explore and implement self-managed operating models. One way we think about organizational change toward self-management is by conceptualizing it as two tracks that happen simultaneously and in parallel. Let’s call them the Structural Track and the Human Track.

The Structural Track consists of everything related to governance, how meetings are held, the protocols we use for making decisions, how we decide who is accountable for what, how we decide who has the right to do what… you get the picture. The Structural track is all about the rules of the game. Without the proper rules it’s hard to tell if we’re doing things “right.”

However, there’s a second track, the Human Track, that I think organizations don’t always get quite right. This is everything that has to do with the human psychology, emotions, and behavior that will either sustain the changes made in the Structural track or subtly (or not so subtly) scuttle any chance at long-term change.

Many pay lip service to the human side of organizational change, but precious few think through the process of actually engaging the Human track before, during, and after an organizational change effort. If you’re looking to change your organization’s operating model for the long term (and if you’re not, why are you even going through this hard work?) then you need to take the Human track into careful consideration.

I think it’s helpful to think of the work of the Human Track as happening in three stages during a concentrated organizational change effort; Pre, During, and Post. Here are some ideas about what happens at each stage.

The Pre-Work

Prior to touching anything related to the structure of the organization or conducting any sort of widespread kick-off event a couple things should happen:

  1. Priming a change in mindset: If an organization is going to step into the unknown of trying to change it’s operating model it’s going to require people to approach the project with a growth mindset and with a sense of exploration. A growth mindset is the simple idea that you can either view your individual capabilities as something that grow when challenged or as a fixed quantity that stays the same forever. A growth mindset is exceedingly helpful when dealing with any kind of organizational change because the inevitable challenges that will arrive can be viewed as surmountable (and maybe even exciting) instead of frustrating or scary. More simply, people need to be ready to explore and play when it comes to organizational change. [I have a hypothesis that organizational change initiatives that are approached extremely seriously (no smiling, dammit!) are almost always doomed to fail.] Let’s lighten up a bit, eh?
  2. Acknowledging anxiety related to change: Human beings often fear change. Not acknowledging the anxiety people are likely to feel at the beginning of a change initiative is a great way to drive it underground. Once anxiety goes underground it becomes much more difficult to address and assuage. Set the stage early so that people know that feelings of anxiety are okay, that they aren’t alone in those feelings, and that you can feel anxious but still take positive actions.
  3. Generating hope and optimism for the future: Presumably you are driving organizational change for a reason. The organization will somehow be better in the future, right? Not getting people stoked about the potential of that change at the beginning will likely make for a long slog. Help the group create their own vision of what success might end up looking like. Help them make it real in their own minds. Build hope by thinking about the challenges you’re going to face and coming up with alternative paths toward success. I’m not saying you have to have a crystal clear vision of exactly what success is going to look like but if there aren’t any positive feelings at the beginning it’s probably a bad sign.

The During-Work

You’re deep into the actual work of organizational change now. The project probably feels like it has been going on forever and at the same time isn’t scheduled to be finished any time soon. What should be on your radar now?:

  1. Promoting tolerance for ambiguity: There’s likely to be a lot of moving parts. The end game is getting clearer but there’s still a lot of unknowns. Sitting with ambiguity, trusting in the process — that’s super hard. It’s important to not try to explain away ambiguity in a bid to make people feel better in the moment. That is disingenuous at best and setting yourself up for major trust violations when it becomes obvious that your attempt at hand waving away the ambiguity didn’t accomplish anything.
  2. Developing ownership of the process: At this point the only way a change initiative is going to survive beyond the consulting team leaving or the “official” project ending is if a critical majority of the people at the organization involved in the change actually start to feel like they own it. Stop facilitating every meeting, don’t answer every question, start saying, “I don’t know, what do you think?” a hell of a lot more. Now is the time to start taking the training wheels off.
  3. Working on feelings of inadequacy: A move toward self-management requires people to do things they might have never done before. If they are like most humans chances are they don’t like the feeling of doing things they aren’t very good at (especially in front of other people). Feelings of self-efficacy are probably taking a major hit at this point. Knowing what we know about self-efficacy, that’s a bad thing. Help people see the progress they’re making and scaffold them toward the behaviors you’re trying to develop.

The Post-Work

You’re “done.” Good job! Except, unfortunately, you aren’t actually done:

  1. Developing the reflection habit: Organizational change without learning how to reflect is extremely short-term organizational change. After the change initiative is over there has to be ongoing support to help key people in the organization (and ideally, everyone) regularly step back from the fray of day-to-day operation and look at what the organization is doing from a higher plane. What’s working? What’s not? What are we going to do about it?
  2. Adapting the process to unforeseen challenges: For organizational change to persist beyond the active involvement of the consultants or beyond the “official” project the people within the organization have to internalize the process, not just execute the steps. It’s like the difference between learning a new dance and being able to choreograph. It’s the whole give-a-man-a-fish-and-you’ll-feed-him-for-a-day-teach-a-man-to-fish-and-you’ll-feed-him-for-life-type of thing. True organizational change is in the learn-to-fish, not eat a fish, game.


Organizations are crazy complex human constructions. Unfortunately (or fortunately) they are comprised of equally (or probably more) complex constituents — human beings.

People are fickle and irrational and emotional and extraordinary and without deliberately taking that into consideration our attempts at improving or altering the structure in which we live and work will be doomed for failure. When we think about the cumulative time and attention — two of our most precious commodities — we consume during any organizational change initiative we must do everything we can to do it right and to do it for the long-term.

Ready to change how you work? The Ready helps complex organizations move faster, make better decisions, and master the art of dynamic teaming. Contact us to find out more. While you’re at it, sign up to get our newsletter This Week @ The Ready delivered to your inbox every week.

Follow me on Twitter | Follow The Ready on Twitter |

Photos courtesy of Ron Wiecki, Viewminder, and bark on Flickr.

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store