Successful organizational change

December 13, 2013

The big idea: Many executives find themselves in a functional, line role and then are also selected to lead an organization-wide change effort. What are the best practices for performing that dual role well? Consider the story of New Zealand-based fertilizer company Ballance Agri-Nutrients and executive Greg Delaney.

The scenario: Ballance Agri-Nutrients was a large, successful, farmer-owned cooperative. Delaney, a native New Zealander, was the general manager of distribution and logistics. He was responsible for overseeing 45 distribution centers, each staffed with two to five workers. Highly interested in the culture of continuous process improvement, he hoped to develop it at Ballance.

After returning from a senior executive program with a “treasure chest” of ideas from colleagues and the energizing cases they had studied, Delaney pitched an initial concept to Ballance. He then worked with a consultancy to train a small cohort of work groups. He said of his launch: “The key to successfully leading change is committing to changing yourself first. Changing my priorities and committing time and effort to the program was the best way to show everyone how serious I was about the change.”

After three months of mixed outcomes, he considered the rollout problems managers had encountered, which are common to change efforts.

Issues included the perception of the effort as a “fad,” lack of an urgent platform and no documentation of best practices. Other problems were an absence of clarity in connecting measurements to company performance and lack of effective coordination. Finally, some groups simply thought of the weekly meetings as a mechanism for airing grievances.

The resolution: Much of Delaney’s progress in building the culture is due to his personable nature and determination, but it’s also due to his ability to collaborate. Building leadership support, working tirelessly alongside his colleagues and chipping away at the list above has helped to build the culture of improvement that he sought.

The lesson: Collaborating and practicing clarity when it comes to communication is, as always, a key to leading a successful change effort — as is making fundamental changes yourself to demonstrate your commitment. The story of Ballance and Delaney spans three years and reveals how a large, highly distributed organization with specific cultural circumstances achieved significant productivity and operational gains — in large part because of the skill and persistence of its change leader.

— Robert D. Landel and Rebecca Goldberg

Landel is a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Goldberg is a management consultant and educator at www.goldbergideas.com. Phillip Deitemeyer contributed to the original case.

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