Most Organization Change Really Isn’t Change


Changing the title or job description is not really change. Real change is adopting and implementing a new set of behaviours appropriate for the situation.

When faced with a change in market conditions, new competition or a disruptive technology, most companies are quick to revamp their business strategies to adapt. Once the new strategy is developed, the next step is usually to reorganise to more readily deliver on the new strategic imperatives.

New programs and in some cases new departments are set up and staffed.  This usually requires one or more members of the senior leadership team to move from his/her old role into a new role.  The changes may be designed to focus more on customer relationship marketing or to capitalise on a regional opportunity.

An organisation, no matter how well designed, is only as good as the people who live and work in it. ~Dee Hock

The problem, however, with most reorganisations, is that real change rarely happens, or it happens too slowly to catch up to the external market changes. One of the key reasons is that changing strategy and structure is not enough. The culture must change as well. Otherwise the corporate culture (the habitual work behaviours and routines that determine how things get done) can act as an anchor to real progress and change.


A Real Life Example at the Granular Level

A few years ago I was asked to consult with the GM and senior leadership team of a major US defence company.  The senior team was made up of very capable engineers with years of expertise in their particular market niche (weapons and weapons systems). In fact, on the staff were some of the recognised “gurus” in this field.

As a result of several shifts in the global defense market, the senior team developed a new go-to-market strategy and initiated a reorganisation.  One particular member of the senior team was asked to move from his current role to take on an entirely new function, which he did. The results however, were dismal and after 6 months the GM had to make another set of organisational changes.

What really happened? Wasn’t the VP smart enough? Did he not understand the new business challenge?

“The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.”  ― Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

It took me a while to figure out what the problem was with this senior executive since he had a brain the size of the planet and deep expertise in all the required areas.

One day, sitting with him in his office, it suddenly dawned on me. He was approaching the new job with old habits.  He had a new team and a new business challenge, yet he went about managing and leading just like he did in his former position. I remembered Marshall Goldsmith‘s famous quote: “What got you here won’t necessarily get you there!” in relation to corporate advancement.

The clue was in his office. It was filled with memorabilia of his past successes. Photos of him accepting a conference award, several advanced degree diplomas, momentos of former development programs, models of ships, aircraft and weapon systems he had helped engineer. His office was a shrine – of old habits and old thinking!

He had been in the same office for many years. He ate at the same time in the same cafeteria. He parked in the same parking place. He managed people in the same way he had all his life. He held meetings in his office, just as he had always done. He was surrounded by habits of work patterns, habits of thought and habits of dealing with people.

All breakthroughs begin with a break from.

After that lesson, whenever I am asked to help coach an executive in a new role, one of my key recommendations is to move offices, pack up all the old memories and old successes, and start fresh. After all, they aren’t the same old people and it’s not the same old business environment. New roles and new business challenges require new and fresh thinking. Use past “success principles” if you need to, but don’t go into default mode and just repeat the past.

Your immediate environment tends to reinforce old behaviours. In my own life I runnig kitdiscovered this as a marathon runner. To train for my first marathon I had to totally alter my environment.  Getting up at 5:30am for a 2 hour morning training run was not easy for a night owl like me. To design my environment for success, I would put my running shoes and clothes on the floor beside my bed every night so they were handy in the early morning. I moved the alarm clock to the other side of the room so my old habit of hitting the snooze button wouldn’t kick in. I put a bottle of water by the front door so I wouldn’t forget to hydrate during my run. I put up a visual chart in the kitchen plotting my daily, weekly and monthly running miles and times.

You can either design to fail, or design to win.

Real change is difficult, so make certain you change your behaviour, not just the title on the door!

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid


PS: John also writes thriller novels

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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