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How To Kick-Start Radical Organizational Change

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree September 21, 2019

Many feel the need for organizational change. They want to transform outdated structures and become more human workplaces. And rightly so. Many of today's workplaces are troubled by disengagement and widespread frustration.

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The problem is many don't know how to start. The results? Over-analysis, endless discussions, and fear of action. In short, things look more complicated than they need to.

The solution is simplicity. But to find simplicity, sometimes we need to be inspired by others.

Organizational change through simplicity

Recently, we were invited to Cardiff (Wales) to give a presentation on what we had learned from the world's most progressive organizations. It wasn't just to inspire them with what's possible. We also aimed to celebrate their own transformation and challenge them to go even further.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
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So, while we were there, we learned about their simple - yet powerful - approach to organizational change. Here's what we learned.

United Welsh

United Welsh is a registered social landlord operating under charitable rules. They build homes, create communities and transform lives via a group of ~360 people. They manage almost 6,000 homes across 11 local authorities, and they have a new building programme that is worth around £21m each year.

In conversation with CEO Lynda Sagona, she shared why they wanted to change the way they work: "We have always had very good benefits for employees and a real acknowledgement that people are at the heart of the organisation’s success. However, over the years the workplace had not kept up with modern ways of working, and what was once seen as innovative and cutting edge had not evolved."

"There was a perception that working practices were perhaps more restrictive and controlling than they needed to be—with parent-child style relationships the norm between managers and employees. This was leading to the suppression of creativity in improving working practices as well as creating unnecessary hierarchy in the organisation, and both were impeding autonomy in decision-making, and stifling the ability to make changes to service delivery."

Here’s what they did.

1. Set up a project team

Lynda: "For such a wide-ranging organizational change programme it was crucial everyone felt they could be involved. The first step was for the Executive Team to outline, in broad terms, what they were looking to achieve. Everyone was then invited to express their interest in being part of the project."

As of that moment, the Future Workplace Project was born, with representatives from across the organisation. Their aim: to look at how to make the workplace future-proof. The project team of 23 people was split into smaller teams of 2-3 persons. Each team set out to visit businesses that are renowned for their innovative approaches to working practices.

It was like a miniature Corporate Rebels adventure—visiting pioneers to get inspired and gather ideas.

2. Create an action plan

Lynda: "Regular updates and presentations were given to the rest of the organisation and there was healthy skepticism about some ideas as well as some preconceived notions about what could work. But because the project was sponsored by the Executive Team, and the changes were being driven by the project team, and not in a hierarchical way, the barriers were minimal."

An action plan, dubbed the "Phase One Action Plan", with 14 recommended changes was drawn up. The project team presented the plan to the Executive Team back in April 2017. To give you an idea, here are some of the 14 recommendations:

  • Remove core hours
  • Reduce hierarchy
  • Establish a modern work-space
  • Change group structure
  • Ditch annual performance appraisals

Other recommendations focused on distributing decision-making, improving flexibility through technology, recruitment changes, and more.

3. Walk the talk

Now, it was up to the Executive Team to respond. And respond is what they did. Lynda: "After the project team presented the recommendations, we had to decide what we were going to do next. We knew that we needed to act quickly, so it would be clear we were serious about this. That's why we started immediately."

Core hours were removed, and the time-clock system was abandoned the day after the presentation. Lynda: "I remember walking around the office with a bin. We invited everyone to get rid of their time clocking devices. The symbolic act of ditching the clocking system was very powerful. People are still talking about it." Staff at United Welsh stopped clocking in and out and instead now work on a trust basis, with a focus on outcomes rather than “presenteeism.”

The symbolic act of ditching the clocking system was very powerful. People are still talking about it.
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Also, the annual appraisals were removed directly. Lynda: "People now have meaningful and regular 1:2:1 sessions with their line manager. These meetings are led by the employee rather than the manager and cover key areas around personal wellbeing, development, the team and objectives/outcomes." Additionally, they have introduced a regular temperature check of the organisation using "a quick weekly question to check how people are feeling about things rather than waiting for a mammoth annual survey".

Besides the immediate action, the Executive Team encouraged the project team to work on some other changes. A team started to work on a plan to refurbish the workspace. Tools like Yammer and Skype were introduced to reduce email overload.

Lynda: "The project has been team owned which has given it far greater traction than if it were imposed from the top down."

4. Communicate regularly

Regular communication has been crucial to keep interest in the project high. Lynda: "We continuously share the progress we're making. Some changes simply take longer to implement, and that's perfectly fine. We just need to show we're actually progressing on these topics."

They improved communication by introducing the CEO Breakfast Briefings. All staff contribute to these monthly half-hour meetings at the start of the working day and with breakfast provided. These meetings are also available via video-conference for those working remotely.

Lynda: "Additionally, the intranet was revamped to make it easier to use. Yammer and very visible areas for people to congratulate and thank their colleagues also contributed to better communication."

Importantly, communication shouldn't become corporate propaganda. Talking about the things that are going well is just as important as talking about the things that are not changing (or not quickly enough).

When we presented during United Welsh's staff away-day, we witnessed how Lynda openly discussed some of the challenges. Frustrations on, for example, workplace refurbishment were openly acknowledged and discussed: a powerful way to build trust and increase transparency.

The results

A lot of changes have been made since the 14 recommendations were presented.

Lynda: "We’ve changed how we recruit, looking at fit rather than just experience, and we’ve revamped our job descriptions to highlight skills and behaviors. Our work spaces are being redesigned to provide space for quiet working, team meetings and catch ups over coffee. People are actively encouraged to move around the office to cultivate better collaboration across teams."

She continues passionately: "We are working hard to soften hierarchies with greater delegation of decision making and reduced ‘tiers’ within teams. Also, we've implemented a unitary board structure to show that we're also making changes at the top of the organization."

Lynda continues, "We've had the largest ever turn-out to our staff conference (at 80%) despite heavy snow; 80% attendance either in person or remotely for the monthly breakfast briefings and 100% membership of Yammer with 70% active users."

When it comes to organizational change, many tend to over-analyse, get lost in endless discussions, and fear proper action. As such, things start looking a whole lot more complicated than they need to be. The solution? ...
Click to tweet

Additionally, a weekly pulse survey reveals more of the progress. Currently response rates are around 60% each week. The culture question ("On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate the culture at United Welsh?") scores 8/10 and the "How happy are you at work?" question scores around 7.6/10.

The pulse survey also reveals an increase in staff satisfaction: 95% of staff feel their job has real purpose (compared to 85% in the old annual survey) while 86% recommend United Welsh as a place to work, placing them among the top scorers in their industry.

Kick-starting organizational change

United Welsh has successfully kick-started their organizational transformation. While they still have lots they want to do, their journey so far has been one of powerful change.

While many get a kick out of over-complicating organizational change, at United Welsh, simplicity prevails. Screw jargon, salute common sense.
Click to tweet

Part of the power - we believe - lies in the simplicity of their approach. Involving enthusiasts from within the organization, giving them the opportunity to redefine their workplace, listening to their recommendations and taking action: all the while, measuring what you do and communicating the successes, challenges, and setbacks.

While many get a kick out of over-complicating organizational change, at United Welsh, simplicity prevails. Screw jargon, salute common sense.

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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