Ready to Change: An Organizational Readiness Checklist

An email from a far-flung correspondent brought this question:

“I know that there are certain times when an organization is ready to change and when it doesn’t make sense to try. Is therea rubric or evaluation tool that I can use to assess an organization’s readiness for change? What are the indicators I can look to and the levels to pull to get change going?”

An excellent question, and for anyone in a position of leadership it is certainly one of THE questions. Ultimately what leaders bring to an organization is change. This is not always perceived by the organization as a good thing. Even when people who do see change as needed may not realize the degree of dislocation that changes often require. Hence, being able to assess readiness is a central part of a leader’s tool box.

Whether it is increasing sales, growing into new markets, fixing processes, cutting costs, or improving the current quality of what customers are getting for their money, change should be an ongoing leadership agenda. The degree and timeliness to which that change takes hold and “works”, is hard or easy, or captures the commitment of staff is a function of the organization’s readiness. If leadership reads readiness incorrectly, haphazardly, or jumps before thinking through broad issues, then change might not be realized as envisioned. Readiness to change is, in a sense, the degree to which all people in an organization are led to recognize that things need to be done differently now and that they are the people who will-must-make it happen. That’s the end-state. Let us deconstruct that notion on our way to making a checklist of sorts for leaders.

The Need. Frankly, how painful is the status quo? Does it hurt enough to capture everyone’s attention? Do people in the organization get the idea that there is a big gap between where they are now and where they want to be, should be or could be? What are the consequences if nothing is done? How desirable and valued is moving away from the status quo to a new goal? Are there numbers that describe the gap? Numbers and data seem to be the gold standard in getting people’s attention. No felt need, no impetus for change.

The Instigator. Who was the one who had the courage to raise his/her hand and say the gap hurts? Or that there is an opportunity waiting? Was it a position leader, aka “the boss”, or someone else? A small group? The whole group? A single-voice in the wilderness? Credibility and critical mass are issues here. To get change moving, there has to be a palpable pusher who is taken seriously. Complaints do not start change initiatives unless they are from the right people at the right volume. Staff who are savvy about building coalitions and influencing can impact direction if they focus on documenting the business problem and solutions and being helpful contributors and not mutineers.

Alignment. Is everyone in the system seeing the same relative problem? Is the gap being interpreted the same way by all parties? Has the gap caused disparate coalitions and interest groups to form? Is this a case of overcoming inertia and mediocrity and getting a critical mass on side, or is everyone in the organization actively looking for answers from…somewhere. Do people agree there are challenges and opportunities ahead that need to and can be addressed? The same will be true of the solution when it emerges; is there commitment to the approach, the solution, the strategy-whatever it is that turns the corner. Research has consistently shown how withholding full and wholehearted agreement at this point can sink the most righteous change effort.

Timing. What else is the organization facing? Is the need-gap center stage now? Are there distractions and too many activities and agenda items clouding up a clear path to getting people’s attention? Are teams working on other initiatives? Dedicated effort makes change happen; a change effort is sunk if it looks like simply something else to do.

Structure. Can the leader build a mechanism for making change happen? Is there a change management governance committee in place, a task force, a group of anointed managers who are deputized to lead the charge? Could there be? Is this a cross-functional, multi-level team? The leader of an organization can’t do it alone; the “structure” is the team that is focused on alignment, mobilization, and accelerating the change.

People. Are there core, A-team allies on board who “get it”, who have the courage, patience, skill, dedication and vision to make this happen? A talented team consists of people who are persistent, yet open. How many are there on board? The right people on the proverbial bus is the metaphor that Jim Collins indelibly embedded in the corporate world. Are they present and accounted for? As for the staff, how resistant are the resistors? Will reason, patience, involvement and care-and-feeding help accommodate the antagonists? Some people can be led only so far before they have to make a decision to commit or go. How far is far? Is there a sense on the part of leadership that there is specific and liberal amount of patience to deal with resistance and withholding at the end of which is a decision point?

Flexibility. This is related to People. Are people in the organization willing to be flexible? Can there be a consensus about a solution or approach that might not be ideal, but is good enough for this time and place? Is there room for people to come to terms, so to speak, on a reasonable new way of doing things? What has the organization’s history lesson about adapting?

Leadership. The best for last. Is there a courageous leader with the vision or who constructs a vision and who is determined to press that agenda home? Diplomatic, astute, willing to listen, political but always focused on the goal, determined to keep the pressure on for progress and never being easily discouraged, at least in public. This leader has to enlist for the long haul, and be prepared to do what it takes. Leaders, are you ready for that? Without leadership, there is no change.