Large Scale Organizational Change: Look Before You Leap!

I am often asked, “Should organizational change be done quickly or slowly over time?” and “Should management attempt large radical changes or small incremental changes?” The safe answer is, “It depends.”

The literature on organizational change identifies two general types of changes: first-order change and second-order change. First-order change gets less attention because it is less dramatic. It is incremental and evolutionary in nature. We see first-order change today in organizations in the form of quality improvement programs (e.g., TQM or Six Sigma). First-order incremental change is also important after large-scale, organization-wide, second-order change.

Second-order change is discussed more often in management literature because it is dramatic, radical, and revolutionary. The very survival of the organization may depend on these changes. Examples of second-order change include interventions to create and implement a new corporate mission (or strategy) or to completely restructure the organization’s hierarchy. Second-order changes occur rather infrequently, but they get the attention of many interested parties (customers, employees, suppliers, competitors, consultants, management authors, academics, investment analysts, the media, and communities of various kinds).

There is clearly a bias in the management literature toward big changes at high speed. John Kotter, the author of Leading Change, has stated, “To change an organization successfully, you have to make big moves. No matter who you are, there is a tendency to want to take the ball forward only a couple of yards. But that doesn’t work. You can’t coax people into change.”

Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, said, “Incremental nudges in a world that’s moving in nanoseconds is absolutely not acceptable. Strike boldly when you believe in something. Take action and live with the consequences. If it’s right, soar with it; if it’s wrong, cut your losses and do something else.”

While these comments, from two management-thought leaders, are inspiring, I would recommend that you look before you leap into these large-scale, second-order changes. Keep in mind that two out of three organizational transformation initiatives fail. Many organizations already have a poor track record with organizational change efforts. A poor track record will dampen organizational members’ hopes for success with current large-scale changes.

Also, remember that organizational change is a complex topic. A search on for books on management and change produces a list of over 6,000 titles. Each author has a distinct take on the subject.

I am not against large-scale changes, but they require an ongoing, visible commitment from senior management. Organizational leaders must devote considerable amounts of time to leading the initiative and encouraging “the troops.” Most senior leaders seriously underestimate the time required of them.

Before deciding on a large-scale organizational change, maybe you should look before you leap!

Dr. Mike Beitler is the author of "Strategic Organizational Change." Read 2 free chapters of the book right now at

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