Break down barriers in the infrastructure of large organizations

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Everywhere you look, you see organizations – universities, healthcare providers, and large and medium-sized businesses – struggling to adapt to an ever-accelerating pace of change. In their quest to stay relevant, most organizations are hampered by bureaucratic management systems – with too many layers and too many rules – that hinder breakthrough innovation and proactive renewal.

As any CEO will tell you, changing an organization, especially a large one, is an extremely complex undertaking. Bain & Company research suggests that only 12% of transformational programs meet or exceed their goals, and most of these programs are incremental, not revolutionary.

So what hope do we have of changing our organizations at the grassroots – to flatten bloated hierarchies, roll back the tide of petty rules, and infuse the whole organization with the spirit of enterprise? If the challenge of creating a resilient, self-renewing organization is daunting from the CEO’s perspective, consider the challenge for a frustrated, bureaucratically bound employee three or four levels down. What can it do to unravel and simplify the giant web of convoluted, interconnected processes that dictate how you hire a team member, submit a budget request, change a salary, purchase equipment, adjust equipment specs? a product, deal with a customer complaint, integrate a new supplier or do just about anything else?

That’s the question we posed to Frances Westley, JW McConnell Chair of Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an expert in systemic change. Frances has taught hundreds of activists how to tackle big, thorny issues, and her 2007 book, get to maybeis an extremely practical manual for people who want to make system-level changes.

The first step is to let go of the idea that you can script the change process from start to finish (a conceit of many CEOs). Frances says, “If you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to plan all my steps and move on,’ you’ll hit a wall. Instead, you need to find leverage points throughout the system and apply pressure, and then you are more likely to produce a cascade of change.

Frances knows what it takes to be an effective system-level activist. Some of his most important tips:

  • Find allies who understand the system better than you and who are in touch with senior leaders or decision makers. They are force multipliers.
  • Look for parts of the system that are under pressure or underperforming, as the appetite for change may be higher there
  • Be positive. There’s little profit in impersonating a subversive – it’s scary to most people. Instead, try to understand the fears and concerns of those you’re trying to influence – find areas where you can work with the grain of their personal interest.
  • Sow lots of seeds. If you share many specific proposals with key decision makers, you increase the chances that one of your ideas will germinate when changing circumstances create an appetite for new approaches.
  • Be flexible and relentless. Frances says, “If you hit a wall, just move somewhere else. You must be like water flowing around a stone.

As we conclude our conversation with Frances, we wonder what if every company trained its employees to think like social innovators? How much progress could we make if everyone at work were equipped to play a proactive role in retooling the ossified, highly politicized and mind-numbing systems that make our organizations less bold, adaptable and human than they could and should be ?

Perhaps instead of launching another “transformation agenda,” the average company should commit to building an army of smart, enthusiastic change catalysts.

Editor’s note: This article is part of The New Human Movement video and editorial series, which aims to shine a light on the bold thinkers and doers who are reimagining work and leadership.


Gary Hamel is a business thinker, author and educator. He is on the faculty of the London Business School and the Harvard Business Review Press bestseller, Humanocracy: creating organizations as amazing as the people who make them up.

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