Supporting Internally Initiated Change

Tony Hsieh, the 32 year old CEO of Zappos, has abolished all organizational hierarchy. No bosses, no supervisors, no top down edicts. Each employee is expected to innovate within their own work to make improvements for the customer, for the company for their co-workers and for themselves. Task groups form as required to make decisions, coordinate work or disseminate ideas and provide feedback. There are no corner offices; there are no offices at all.

Fifteen years after founding, this kind of thinking has disrupted the shoe selling business and brought Zappos $97M in annual profits. Maybe that is too much for you or your organization, but you can take some lessons from the idea of empowering everyone to take on the responsibility for constant improvement.

Idea #1: Nurture and Harvest Internal Ideas. No one knows your organization and its customers better than the people who already work there. They will have insights into improvements at many levels. Some ideas may not yet be fully operational proposals, but those improvement perceptions are organizational gold. You must establish systems that allow these observations to surface, be explored, developed and experimental improvements trialed. Provide your frontline employees and supervisors with an infrastructure, process, and internal contacts that can help them turn their good ideas into meaningful actions to improve your process, better manage costs and produce higher quality outcomes.

Idea #2: Find your Early Adopters and Encourage Them. Most organizational change programs have a pre-set speed of change established by some arbitrary or immaterial reason such as the frequency of senior staff meetings, performance reviews, quarterly results or consultant schedules. In addition to being irrelevant to the change process, a one-speed-fits-all doesn't work for real people. Some are early adopters by nature; some are cautious or have a hard time with any kind of change.
If you can identify and work actively with your early adopters you can identify and develop new ideas, generate early momentum towards change and collect empirical evidence to support or tweak the change effort. Consider assembling early adopter volunteers into networked teams that cross related sections or work areas. Make sure that these individuals and teams get the energetic support of their supervisors, administrators and executives. This unified vertical support will enable the team to work across the existing hierarchy for as long as each specific improvement trial continues.

A cross-sectional change team will open up the flow of information within your organization which will accelerate the change processes. Early adopter change teams will lead improvement from inside the organization. Changes initiated from within the staff will produce less resistance from others. There will be no need for executive edicts or exhortations. The appropriate role for organizational leaders is to partner with these teams of early adopters to bring their improvement ideas into effect. You do this by providing protection from the premature criticism, removing roadblocks, running interference with other sections of the organization and helping lead the change from the top down. You do not have to be the fount of all knowledge or even the decision-maker. Contribute what you can. Who knows, you might even enjoy being a team-player again!


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