Takeaways From an ATD Workshop on Organizational Change

Monday, September 22, 2014

Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. With the possible exception of volatile, these words, which come together to form the military acronym VUCA, could very well describe a typical workday. Our supervisors, co-workers, subordinates; our organization’s technology or strategy; projects, processes, and protocol; and above all, external market circumstances—all of these can contribute to a VUCA work environment.

In their book Rapid Retooling (ATD Press, 2013), change management consultants Antoine Gerschel and Lawrence Polsky use examples from major multinational corporations to small start-ups, to explain how successful businesses adjust their internal structures, processes, reward systems, and so forth to enable continual change—making them more competitive in VUCA markets. Gerschel and Polsky now have an ATD workshop of the same name, which was held for the first time on September 15-16 in Washington, D.C.

The workshop began with an assessment of participants’ own change management challenges. New executives, lack of infrastructure, competing priorities, peacekeeping, employee morale, resistance to change—the list was long. One particularly daunting challenge was balancing normal work priorities with change initiatives—keeping the customer experience as smooth as possible while dealing with internal turmoil. Another perplexing problem that surfaced during the workshop was balancing the number and rate of changes—too much or too fast, and employees will typically perceive their leadership as incompetent, Polsky said. Too little, too slowly, and business performance will suffer.


From day one, part one of the workshop, here are a couple straightforward tips for dealing with a major change initiative:

  • Be able to deliver a succinct, compelling case for change in a few sentences (elevator speech-style).
  • Don’t worry about crafting the perfect email to announce the change to the entire company—in fact, don’t do that at all. “A leader’s job is to clarify,” said Gerschel. “You cannot clarify a complex, uncertain situation in an email.” Polsky added, “Nothing meaningful will be communicated in writing.” So practice explaining the change in a few well-spoken sentences. Banish VUCA words from this speech. Be sure your organization’s managers and team leaders can do the same—employees will look to them for guidance through the daily realities of the change.
  • Know that people’s urgency to change is awakened by the prospect of punishment or reward. Be honest and explain what will happen if the change is not made, and how that will impact employees.
  • A simple way to increase business acumen at your organization is to make sure each employee understands how your organization makes money, and how they individually contribute to the bottom line. This keen awareness will help employees cut through unnecessary changes or ill-informed ideas, straight to solutions and innovations that will bring in revenue. 

More executives recognize the importance of continual change—a statistic published in Rapid Retooling shows that 67 percent of CEOs believe their business models are sustainable for three years at most. Yet the ability to respond to continual change with foresight, agility, and efficiency is something few organizations have. These are qualities that must be embedded in an organization’s culture. For more guidance on change management, check out Rapid Retooling or follow Gerschel and Polsky’s blog at

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About the Author
Stephanie Castellano is a former writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD). She is now a freelance writer.
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