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TBM 207: Organic, Planned, and Manager-Drive Change
I will be in Dublin, Ireland, this week:
March 22nd—Industry discussing product mindset, sense, and thinking.
If you're around, say hello!
I recently asked some friends from different companies a fundamental question.
"How does change actually happen at your company?”
Some answers sounded like this:
"Over time, they kind of work themselves out."
"We chipped away at the rearchitecting for a year or two."
"It takes us a while—probably too long—but eventually, things improve."
"It's not in our culture to force things, but we fix the painful things."
"When we create a big task force and make it a priority."
"I know the word gets laughed at, but it was the digital transformation."
"Long, drawn-out change management."
"It is really up to managers. When they drop the ball, we replace them."
"Anything outside the team/department is a little opaque to me."
"Leaders leave me feeling a little meh, but our team is well-run."
"I'm basically a middle manager, and it isn't fun. We absorb stuff like this. When the engagement survey is crap, I get a lot of pressure."
See the difference? The categories represent three types of change—organic/incremental change, top-down strategic/planned change, and manager-driven change.
Organic change happens gradually over time. It is more collaborative, less formal, and from the outside (and sometimes from the inside), feels very ambiguous. Risks: Difficulty responding to disruptive events. Some employees get frustrated with the rate of change. It can feel too chaotic and unstructured. "Too nice! People try too hard to get along!"
Planned change is more top-down, structured, and deliberate. It is the bastion of more formal "change management." Risks: Difficult to adapt the plan. Overemphasis on 'the process" and may not be as resilient. Fails to nurture local creativity and variability. It can become bureaucratic. "Too top-down, too much conformity!"
Manager-driven change is more decentralized (mixed with "strong" leaders) and not as optimized for cross-department improvement. Risks: Misaligned incentives and priorities across departments. Heavily reliant on middle managers (and their relative experience and training). "Too chaotic; there's no one consistent way!" "Things are working fine on our teams, but leadership is a mess!" Often paired with a chaotic conveyor belt of new leaders and chaos at the leadership level.
All three models can exist in the same company in their effective and less-effective states. Product "just makes it work" with organic change, and sales and marketing prefer manager-driven change. And occasionally, finance strolls in with some big top-down change initiatives.
And shifts happen! For example:
Organic change can work well across departments and functions when an organization is small(er). To preserve the ability to change organically across departments "at scale," there needs to be careful attention to limit dependencies and prevent silos while limiting cognitive load (e.g., business units with their dedicated marketing teams). If that doesn't happen, you tend to see a drift into planned or manager-driven change.
In organizations with more functional separation, manager-driven change remains possible "at scale" (because it is more decentralized), but this comes at the cost of anything spanning departments. The only option for "big things" is planned change or organic change, but neither is a strong suit for the company in this case.
How is this information helpful?
You can't magically change your company to operate how you want your company to work!
You may heavily identify with more communitarian and organic change approaches, but that doesn't mean your company will magically shed its plan drive or manager-driven change models. Similarly, you may prefer structured change management spanning departments, which will be ineffective in a startup with many blurred boundaries (organic change).
Additionally, for many roles spanning boundaries (e.g., UX Research, Product Management), you must navigate the various change approaches across the organization. This is draining, so you'll have to take care of yourself.
Start by asking, "how does change REALLY work in my company as it currently exists?” Your best bet is almost always to—at least on the surface—use existing mechanisms and gradually integrate new ideas vs. trying in vain to shift the change culture.