In his 2007 book Change or Die, Alan Deutchman wrote “the reason change (is so difficult) in America’s major corporations isn’t that the people who run them don’t want to change or can’t change, but rather they don’t understand the basic concepts and keys to change or have the right tools to effect it.” Yet, to highlight the potential for every organization to realize success when attempting change, Deutchman concluded “if (large multinational companies) with decades of entrenched culture and hundreds of thousands of employees around the world, can pull off a major change, then there’s hope for any company, organization or institution of lesser size and scope.”

Despite Deutchman’s optimism for the capacity for change, the vast majority of companies don’t find success easily. And given the statement made by the title of his book, this is not at all good news. Simply put, change is to corporations, organizations and institutions as the heartbeat is to nature. By observing a few very simple features of a heartbeat, we learn a lot about Organizational Change Management (OCM) as well as some of the difficulties that make it elusive for so many organizations.

The first observation is that there is a predictable rhythm to a healthy heartbeat. The heart beats consistently, resting between beats. While this rest is essential, if it persists, death follows quickly. Likewise, the organization must rest between periods of change (beats). By remaining at rest too long, though, it loses its ability to compete, adapt and grow; death eventually occurs. It changes or it dies!

In nature, heart rate normally varies based on easily identifiable characteristics. For example, larger animals tend to have slower heart rates, as do those at rest and under no stress or threat.

OCM Principle 1: The rate of effective organizational change is determined by size, activity level, and threats and/or pressures from outside conditions and/or events.

Larger organizations should plan for slower frequency of change. Their rate is limited by higher levels of activity and energy required for keeping things functioning properly, leaving less capacity for change. Additionally, outside pressure (from regulation, etc) and national, regional or local events (natural or man-made disasters, short term macroeconomic trends, etc) tend to slow the rate of planned, strategic change. Interestingly, a final outside factor, external threat (from hostile takeover attempts, disruptive competitive advancement or highly sophisticated market entrants, etc) tend to demand increased rate of change; the company that does not respond quickly or change significantly enough may find survival unlikely if not impossible.

Sustained excited pace of change, however, can itself cause death. When the heart beats without rest (fibrillation) it never fills with blood since filling takes place during the rest stage between beats. Though the heart beats much faster than normal, no blood is pumped to the body; soon the brain and lungs are starved, causing death. The remedy is to shock the heart with electricity (defibrillation), forcing it to resume normal rhythm and circulation of blood.

In a company, fibrillation results from repeated, uncoordinated change many times lacking clear strategic intent or governance. Without adequate rest, each successive cycle becomes less effective and soon no improvement is flowing, despite extreme energy committed and focused toward change. “Organizational Defibrillation,” the jolt that provides a severe enough shock to resume normal rhythm, often requires turnover in leadership, philosophically if not literally.

OCM Principle 2: When the pace of organizational change loses effectiveness, starving the organization, the only viable solution for survival is leadership turnover.

Finally, in a healthy heartbeat, each cycle is identical in shape; each can be perfectly overlaid on any other as if created from a single mold. In fact, unhealthy activity is often indicated by variations in the shape of beats.

OCM Principle 3: There is a repeatable process (pattern) for implementing successful change that, once mastered, results in “muscle memory,” facilitating successive change more naturally, easily and quickly.

This repeatability is due, in part, to the heart’s makeup of specialized cells that beat in precise sequence with total independence from outside stimulation. Each individual cell is programmed to repeat its exact and unique activity until something causes it to stop.

OCM Principle 4:  Effective change is promoted through a culture where individuals understand and relentlessly and collaboratively carry out roles and assignments in support of an overall mission toward improvement.

Size defines optimal tempo. Effective leadership establishes manageable pace. Reliable process fuels consistency. Aligned culture drives focus and persistence. Understanding these simple principles, The Heartbeat of Change(SM), is like aerobic exercise, arming companies, organizations and institutions with the concepts, keys and tools needed to improve OCM success rates and ultimately sustain vigorous, vibrant life.


NOTE: This first appeared as a guest contribution in the Upstate Business Journal on November 7, 2013.