Individual vs. Organizational Change: What Works?

Two questions that I often hear from leaders who don’t have much experience with change management are:

  • What is the difference between organizational and individual change?
  • Which is more important for success?

Fundamentally, change is change. The difference, however, is that organizational change only happens successfully when a lot of people make individual changes.

Whether we’re implementing new technology or processes, or merging organizations—whatever the change—it’s always predicated by individual employees doing something different. So, if when broken down organizational change is the accumulation of many individual changes:

  • How do you handle both effectively to achieve a successful transformation?

Organizational Change

Organizational change has to be built from the ground up and is based on moving the biggest mass of people through the change successfully. Everett Rogers covers the rate at which change spreads in detail, in his book Diffusion of Innovations.

The image above illustrates the motion of change and categorizes individuals experiencing that change into groups.

When looking at change in this way, as a curve, it shows its momentum. Oftentimes during a change initiative there is a focus on the people that don’t buy into it. Rather than focusing on those individuals that resist, or laggards, we should focus on the majority to build momentum.

As discussed by Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the ‘tipping point’ is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” In terms of popular culture, look at the adoption of digital media over physical media. Now that the majority of people read their news online a tipping point has been reached, and there has been a major decline in newspaper sales.

When change happens en masse, it creates a lasting impact. Therefore our real focus should be on moving the early majority and the late majority over the tipping point. That being said, there are other things that leadership should do in order to facilitate organizational change, such as:

  • Setting up the people, process and technology to enable successful change
  • Building the capability to cultivate and grow change within an organization
  • Building a culture of encouraging change
    • This includes promoting values such as open communication, failing fast, being agile, continuous improvement, etc.

Individual Change

How do we move the early and late majority over the tipping point? At the end of the day it all comes down to the WIIFM, or ‘what’s in it for me’, for each individual employee. This is because beyond those enabling factors listed above—the basis of organizational change relies on individual change. Without the critical majority there is no momentum.

The most practical way to achieve this is by involving several different levels of management. A manager needs to understand each employees’ motivations, desires, and concerns related to the initiative. This is so they can support, encourage, and enable that individual to adopt the change.

If every manager does this for each of their direct reports, you then get the momentum to reach the tipping point. It’s helpful to remember:

  • Really understanding your audience is critical
  • Never overly generalize your audience
  • Using audience profiles can be useful
    • Such as: demographics, user needs, target audience, etc.

While both individual and organizational change play a role in shaping an initiative, the crucial difference is that change can’t succeed without individual support. This understanding of individuals shapes the organizational support for change listed above and will help drive the overall transformational effort.

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