Making Real Change Or Just Rearranging The Chairs?

It’s popular to be a champion of change. We see it every day in politics, businesses, and institutions. At a personal level, we’re all aware of the pace of change around us and privately hoping that we can keep up. We hear “Change or die.” We see successes and failures. We all want to be agents for positive change in things that matter to us.

Yet for all our talk about change, the results often fall short. Change initiatives can seem superficial and even disingenuous, leading to cynical comparisons like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The larger the group or organization, the more difficult it is to effect meaningful change in culture, strategy, policy, or operations.

In my work with design firms, construction firms, architectural clients, and community organizations of all sizes, I’ve seen three common impediments to positive change:

The organization’s vision and motivations for change aren’t clear. If they can’t see the big picture, people won’t be engaged or willing to work in new ways. There may actually be competing visions and agendas, driven by internal politics, leading to fragmentation and chaos just when you need everyone on the same page. Ask yourself: why should people believe you, and believe in you? What’s the big idea?

The senior leader isn’t walking the talk. While good ideas can come from anywhere in a group, significant change must be actively led from the top of an organization and be modeled in senior leaders’ behavior. In large firms, change initiatives can lost from being delegated to people who aren’t empowered to implement them. In smaller firms, a sole leader may talk about change but lack the time, courage, or focus to do what he or she knows is necessary.

Nobody’s really managing the change process. Serious change needs to be treated as a project, with capable leaders, sufficient teams, work plans, budgets, and performance measures. The people doing the blocking and tackling should be accountable directly to the senior leaders of the organization, and everyone should know it. Communication is key: everyone should appreciate the purpose, how it applies to him or her, and the progress that’s being made.

Half-hearted change initiatives are much worse than wasteful of time, energy and money. They sow doubts about an organization and diminish the credibility of its leaders. If people are thinking “this too shall pass,” you can be sure that the status quo will be well preserved and the best people won’t stick around to be part of it.  We can do better.


Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP is a Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group. He leads services in strategy, leadership development, and organizational change. If you are interested in learning how Clark can help your firm, contact him directly at 636-448-9227 or via email.

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