Which change first? Strategy vs. structure

There is an interesting debate going on amongst those who have little else to debate these days. The question is this. For effective change to take place, does one first change the organizational structure and systems and then adapt a strategy (and human strategy as well) to fit the new structure and system, or does one start with the strategy and mindset changes and then adapt the systems and structure to fit it?

This is one of those interesting leadership questions because, if you have an answer, you probablyStrategy vs structure
  believe it is the only logical answer to have. Of course my answer is one of those amazingly frustrating answers for many people. I believe it depends on the change being instituted and the context of the specific leadership and organizational challenge.

In my opinion, it is possible for a full scale and successful change initiative to be instigated by the recognition that current systems, hierarchies and processes are either producing less than desirable results or, more likely, are not creating results quickly enough. This is a carry over from the industrial age that we haven’t quite settled yet. Systems that create efficiency and run at the lowest cost are not necessarily the same systems that create the greatest speed or quality. The obsession with cost reduction has created many organizations that now find themselves able to do things inexpensively, but without innovation or speed to market.

On the other hand, organizations that have flat structures, few complex processes and an innovative mindset are not immune to dealing with change. The current economy for example has hit everybody. Many of these innovative companies (Google, 3M, Apple) have come to recognize that their cowboy mindset worked well in good times, but did not prepare them for the more team-oriented approach that may be necessary today. Yes, these companies have had teams forever, but the kind of collaboration that is necessary now is so entirely cross functional and focused that few organizations are accustomed to it. These aren’t organizational design issues…these are internal issues. In these cases, the mindset has to change first, and the design will follow.

I believe what is most important is the manner in which the change process is approached. First of all, we should quit acting as if the “change process” is a unique and perhaps frequent stand alone event. In the current environment, change is not separate from leadership…it IS leadership. Second, for either design driven or internal driven change to work, stakeholders have to be enlisted early in the game. We have become a complex environment and diverse perspectives will provide the framework for understanding what and how change will enable the new corporate.

Finally, we have to get away from believing that there is one way to either make change happen or even to describe the phenomenon that occurs during change within an organization. We have become comfortable with approaches and theories that date back to a much more stable and industrial age. For change to work, leaders have to have open minds and hearts and be willing to understand that they don’t understand.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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