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Positive Organizational Change: The Cookbook


Thu Feb 04 2016

Positive Organizational Change: The Cookbook

Leading positive change is challenging, and a large number of transformations fail or are derailed. One of the top factors is change fatigue—namely, rolling out multiple change efforts at the same time without good prioritization or methodologies that are based on research or best practices. 

In fact, the ATD Research report, Change Agents: The Role of Organizational Learning in Change found that 61 percent of enterprises go through three or more changes each year, while 26 percent experience six or more changes. Moreover, 45 percent of respondents to the study said that they plan on initiating still more change efforts, and 48 percent said the pace of change is faster and more unpredictable.  


Adding to the problem is that many organizations lack expert skills to sustain change. For instance, only 17 percent of respondents rated their enterprises as highly effective at managing change initiatives. What’s more, only 30 percent of all organizations polled have change management teams. 

Clearly, the data shows that driving effective change can put an enormous strain on the enterprise. But it can be done.

Micro-Transforming and Self-Change

Organizational change efforts do not need to be cataclysmic shocks or massive earthquakes. As it happens, positive organizational and personal change can start with self-generated insight and what I like to call “self-change.” 

One strategy for entering into generative self-change is by following daily check-ins. This reflective change leadership routine boosts self-improvement for reflection and spurs realizations. (You can read more in my TD magazine article, “Daily Check-Ins Stimulate Self-Improvement.”) Introspective professionals, who use this method to retool into “micro-transformers,” become active and magnetic personifications of the desired future state. In this way, they energize others in the workplace—helping them to constantly learn, self-develop, improve performance, and innovate.  

In addition, neurochemistry and experimental psychology research finds that action observation is action execution. This basically translates to “seeing is doing.” (You can learn more by reviewing research from Cattaneo and Rizzolatti, 2009  and Iacoboni, 2009.) Therefore, as an employee, you must model the way forward with positivity, because others are watching you—and they will “mirror” you. This is important not only from a top-down approach, but at all levels in an enterprise. And positive upward spirals (toward peak individual and organizational functioning) can revolutionize the way we work. 


This was evidenced in the practices of Juniper Networks, a Silicon Valley-based innovator of high-performance networking technology. In 2011, Juniper Networks became one of the first global players to ditch forced performance rankings by way of annual reviews. Alternatively, the organization instituted regular “conversation days” when managers and employees discussed areas for development, goals, and aspirations. 

This sort of creative—and radical—approach is happening on a global scale. In the 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “Bright, Shiny Objects and the Future of HR,” authors Boudreau and Rice chronicle how one young engineer in Bangalore, India, decided to speak out against performance rankings. He felt that the performance management process was demoralizing and made little difference to the business. 

On that account, self-managed employees (micro-systems) can self-regulate, self-organize, and transform enterprises (macro-systems). Indeed, positive organizational behavior and intended outcomes generated by self-change can flow upward through individuals, teams, and organizations.

Organizational Learning and Change

Successful transformation often relies on superior organizational learning. Over the long run, organizational survival and thriving rests on continuous positive change—being “continuously” change-ready rather than “episodically” ready. This is critical to designing, building, and sustaining change-able enterprises. These organizations can change more easily, and build an “adaptability” advantage that helps them get ahead. 

A good example of the change-able organization is the so-called “knowledge-creative enterprise” (Learn more in my 2015 DMI Review article “Leading as Constant Learning and Development: The Knowledge-Creative Enterprise.”) This is a new kind of organization, buzzing with positive energy, continuous learning-based process improvement, as well as organic radical innovation. In these organizations, everyone is talent, and learning is rooted in culture. 


In fact, organizational learning—as a constant process—is strategically and organically integrated with business and work activities. Thus, these organizations can continuously design, develop, connect, manage, and renew their knowledge base. This is critical for organization effectiveness, performance improvement, and business transformation. Bottom line: This sort of workplace is smarter, happier, and driven at all levels.

The Change Program Cookbook: Energize, Redesign, and Gel (ERG)

Ultimately, reforming and transitioning people, teams, and organizations to a desired future state requires a shift toward positive design thinking. It also needs a transformation mindset that is geared at developing (and sustaining) a positive culture that is energized by change, desire for change, and has an identity around change.

Through my own research and practice of change management, organization development, and leadership, I have developed a transformation execution methodology. This approach outlines a clear and effective framework that organizations can use to establish and think about organizational change. It also helps put into place a common language for thinking about change, and it positions a playbook for executing transformations in a disciplined way. 

The new playbook for positive organizational change is composed of three positive strategic change phases: 1) Energize, 2) Redesign, and 3) Gel. Additionally, the playbook is positioned around 15 associated dynamic actions that enterprises should continuously cycle through when executing organizational change.  The focus is on the “positive” (think: energizing the workplace, organizational health, and renewal) and “design” (think: employing collective design thinking and appreciative future search) to deliver the desired future and results for the enterprise. 

Here’s a breakdown of each positive strategic change phase and corresponding dynamic actions. (Learn more about the framework in Strategic Change’sA Playbook for Positive Organizational Change: Energize, Redesign, and Gel.”) 


  • Diagnose for change, including a pre-change audit of the system-wide fitness for organizational change, an inquiry into organizational memory, and experience of past change initiatives.

  • Awaken by building a compelling case for change, as well as by evangelizing the change purpose, touching and connecting with people by means of storytelling and collaborative “change conversations.”

  • Mobilize resources and find strengths.

  • Select and engage positive culture-fit “change energizers.”

  • Socialize and empathize with others and with the work-place environment as a whole. 


  • Co-craft the “sunnier side of life” in strategic collaboration with organizational members and stakeholders, by way of collective design thinking and appreciative future search. (What is already working well? What if anything were possible? What exactly rocks? What exactly works?)

  • Remodel organizational structure, processes and components, if necessary.

  • Navigate and manage power and politics, resistance, and a change coalition (such as a dedicated design team) and core business.

  • Coach and develop for positive leadership.

  • Before rollout, run disciplined learning launches—to minimize risk change initiative execution.  


  • Constantly model, monitor, and measure progress and performance, basing decisions on metrics chosen in an open-book way.

  • Reward and celebrate quick wins.

  • Integrate change lessons learned.

  • Reinforce and sustain the organization’s new state.

  • Keep strategizing to win, and keep self-regenerating through continuous, experiential, social, and reflective learning, designing, experimenting, innovating, and self-organizing. 

Uber offers an example of a company that is good at energizing, redesigning, and gelling. Over one weekend, Uber staff used a “workation” to build a new product called UberEvents. This “work vacation” offered an energizing and “designy” mix of company retreat, jam session, and hackathon—they were really “cooking with gas.” The outcomes spiraled upward through the enterprise, and the product was successfully launched in November 2015. 

Finally, it’s important to note that leading positive change is an iterative process. While this alternative way to think about organization development and change is described as a stage process, it really is a dynamic and continuous process in practice. Ultimately, it is part of the day-to-day ritual that should be embedded in the business culture of the enterprise and in the strategy setting. Remember: Positive organizational change isn't optional. It’s organizational oxygen.

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