The Non-Linear Nature of Organizational Change

Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a client who is focused on transforming the organizational culture of their workplace. The goal was to transform into a more communicative and transparent environment.  The process started by completing many leadership discussions, employee focus groups, internal stakeholder interviews, and observations of interactions. Then we developed a set of recommendations to be implemented immediately, over the next few months, and ongoing.

Implementing Change

To my surprise, on a recent visit to the client site (only a couple of weeks after starting the engagement), the leader expressed frustration. She didn’t see an immediate impact from some of the interventions we introduced.  Rather than becoming dismayed or matching her frustration with my own frustration, I used the conversation as a learning/teaching opportunity to discuss the non-linear nature of organizational change. How, in our pursuit of organizational change (in this case, organizational culture change), we should never expect a path that is direct, smooth, or fast.

We should expect the route to be somewhat convoluted, occasionally repetitive, and even seemingly off-track at times. But, as long as we have defined objectives, an understanding of scope, and metrics (to the extent we can define them), we can point to directional correctness in relation to the big picture.  For me, this is at the essence of the non-linear nature of change.

Sustainable change does not occur overnight.

Neither the term “non-linear nature of change”, nor the topic as a discussion point is new. However, we must often remind clients of this concept to reassure them that their organizational change projects are, indeed, progressing.

The Non-Linear Organization

No specific developer has claimed the term ‘non-linear nature of change’.  As an organizational change management consultant at Accenture years ago, I first encountered this concept.  Many years later, I revisited the concept while working with my colleague and friend, Al Sullivan, founder of Inspirus Consulting.   Over the years, the concept has been discussed and explored by various researchers, scientists, and scholars across many different disciplines. Not just organizational change management. Researchers in fields such as physics, mathematics, biology, social sciences, and systems theory recognize that change often occurs in a non-linear or unpredictable manner.

The path to the end result is rarely straight.

In the context of systems thinking, the idea of non-linear change is closely related to concepts such as complexity, feedback loops, and emergence and have been influential in fields like chaos theory, complexity science, and the study of complex adaptive systems.

Embrace the Change

For our client, it was a matter of pointing out the complexity of their workforce.  We responded to the departure of key team members. Then realigned misaligned schedules and vacations to expedite training rollout. Then finally, recalibrated metrics after reviewing additional stakeholder feedback. We must include all of these variables in our understanding of the route the project is taking and potentially the trajectory but not change our desired end goal.  In fact, I reframe this type of client “frustration” as a clear sign that they are eager to see results stemming from their investments in the change effort… and we must remind them that it may take just as long to root out detrimental organizational culture and behaviors as it took the organization to form them in the first place.  Sustainable change does not occur overnight.

It was a matter of pointing out the complexity of their workforce.

For my fellow organizational change practitioners and clients seeking long-term change within their respective teams and organizations, remember the path to the end result is rarely straight.  Each perceived setback, recalibration, or re-rerouting can result in a much stronger solution that has overcome obstacles to build tighter alignment and increased buy-in from those involved/impacted by the change.

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