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Balancing Top-Down and Bottom-Up Change Processes

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is http://www.clemmer.net/


"Grass-roots change presents senior managers with a paradox: directing a 'nondirective' change process. The most effective senior managers in our study recognized their limited power to mandate corporate renewal from the top. Instead, they defined their roles as creating a climate for change, then spreading the lessons of both successes and failures. Put another way, they specified the general direction in which the company should move without insisting on the specific solutions."
Michael Beer, Russell Eisenstat, and Bert Spector, Why Change Programs Don't Produce Change
Organization change and improvement planning calls for systems, processes, and discipline. These are often top-down, organization-wide approaches. Developing change champions and supporting local initiatives takes leadership. Like innovation, many change and improvement paths are discovered accidentally by change champions blazing new trails (strategic opportunism).

These can then be formalized and made passable for the whole wagon train. This is an important part of organizational learning. Change and improvement processes evolve and change to fit the shifting environment and what's being learned about what works and what doesn't. Both top-down and local, or bottom-up, approaches are needed. The challenge is finding the right balance.

Managers play a pivotal role in the success or failure of any organization change or improvement effort. Their behavior is the single most important variable in the process. But among those managers working hard to visibly and actively lead their organization improvement effort, many fill only half their role. They personally signal values, plan, direct, and coordinate. That's vital. But what most fail to do as well is follow and serve. They don't manage (or may not even have thought about) the servant-leadership change and improvement paradox.

The leadership component of the change and improvement paradox involves managing the Context and Focus (vision, values, and purpose), identifying customers/partners and the gaps to be closed, and cultivating the environment for innovation and organization learning. Improvement leadership means establishing goals and priorities and setting the improvement planning process and framework.

However, the service side of the paradox is about "followership." This starts with recognition that the organization is full of current or potential change champions. As members or leaders of operational and improvement teams, these people are much closer to the action than anyone in senior management. So they have a much better sense of which change and improvement tactics will work. But perhaps even more importantly, they hold the balance of implementation power. Without their commitment, the best-laid plans will fail (another major cause of "execution problems").

Think Corporately, Act Locally
Balancing top-down improvement planning with local initiatives involves identifying and supporting the change champions, innovative teams, and other efforts that are already underway. At the corporate or organization-wide level, change and improvement planning includes the establishment of strategic imperatives, improvement objectives, setting the broad improvement map (such as the infrastructure and process to be used), and developing preliminary plans.

Part of that planning entails connecting to and incorporating the existing pockets of change and improvement. These teams and champions have often gone through the innovation and organizational learning steps of exploration and experimentation. Their (often unorthodox and unofficial) approaches and experiences can be a gold mine of learning for the organization improvement process. As these early innovators are educated to the full organization improvement plan, they're shown how to adapt the new process and tools. They can use them to build on their earlier experiences and move ever closer to their change and improvement goals.

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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