Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Three Questions to Frame Change Initiatives

three-questions“Framing” an organizational change initiative means setting the context – clarifying fundamental questions about what the change is about and why it’s worth the time, effort and resources it will take to get from here to there.  It means being clear about these issues in one’s own mind and communicating this frame to the initiative’s key stakeholders.

At the heart of a good frame for a change initiative are the answers to three key questions:

  • What is the need for change? What problem and/or opportunity is so compelling that it is worth investing the time and resources it will take to change the current reality?
  • What are the desired outcomes? What desired future state is so valuable that it is worth investing the time and resources needed to bring it about?
  • What is the scope of the change? What aspects of the organization will be subject to change in this initiative, and what aspects are out of scope?

None of these questions is about “how” the change will be carried out.  None asks for a change plan. This will certainly be needed.  However, all change plans are ultimately based on answers to these three fundamental questions.  If they are not answered, there is no clear frame on the change initiative. Because the most basic underlying questions have not been articulated, the assumptions underlying them are unlikely to be examined.

The first two questions may seem like no-brainers. Yet it is remarkable how often at least one of the two is overlooked, and how often they are mixed together in a way that reduces their clarity and impact.  In my experience working with change leaders, it’s the third question that’s most likely to be overlooked.

Let’s walk through a specific example:   A cross-functional team of senior executives in a Fortune 100 corporation who put together a “charter” for a change initiative to increase software revenue.

  • The need for change:The company needed to increase revenue in order to increase shareholder value.  A strategic analysis of the industry determined that one way to increase income would be by significantly increasing software revenue.  However, an examination of internal operations revealed that this would require organizational changes.
  • The scope of the change:Based on a high-level understanding of how the different areas of the company’s software division worked together, the company’s leaders realized that a significant increase in software revenue would require organizational changes within and between sales, marketing, and product development within the company’s industry-focused business units. They were open to changes in structures, processes, roles, incentives, and goals and priorities.
  • The desired outcome was to increase annual software revenue by $80 million.

Of course, creating the frame is actually a bit more fluid and complex than this summary might imply. Often the answers to these questions are clarified, in part, through conversation with key stakeholders, and the questions are so interrelated that, each time one question is clarified, it sheds light on the others. And there are often a few other important questions that need to be addressed.

However, by answering these three questions the company’s top leaders set the context that was needed so that managers in the relevant organizations could come together, identify the specific changes that were needed, and make specific change recommendations to senior leaders.  Because the proposed changes were made within the context of a clear high-level charter, all recommendations were improved and implemented within 90 days.

It’s worth noting that good answers to these three questions require a systems perspective.  Rather than simply focusing on the sales organization, company leaders stepped back and looked at the interactive system of units that needed to work together to maximize software sales. In addition, the strategic decision to focus on software sales resulted from an examination of industry dynamics, including competitive moves and customer needs.

Our research on Leadership Agility found that, while leaders operating at the “Expert” level of leadership agility tend to dive in without fully addressing these questions, leaders who’ve developed to the subsequent “Achiever” level of agility are strategic thinkers who find it very natural to step back and clarify these questions and communicate their answers to their key stakeholders.

It is rarer to find leaders who’ve developed to the third or “Catalyst” level of agility. Like Achievers, leaders at the Catalyst level of development also clarify the strategic change questions just discussed, but they typically come at organizational change from a broader, deeper perspective that brings more focus to the “human system” that underlies and animates organizational structures and processes (e.g., the organizational culture, the working relationships between the relevant units, the interpersonal and leadership skills of those who needed to collaborate).

For an example of a successful change initiative undertaken with a Catalyst perspective, click here.

Image41Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility.  He is CEO and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

2 responses to “Three Questions to Frame Change Initiatives”

  1. Eamon Croke says:

    Thanks Bill. Nice reminder on the importance of framing. Getting good answers these questions is rarely as simple as it sounds.

  2. Bill Joiner says:

    Thanks, Eamon. Yes, I find that to really benefit from these questions takes some real reflection and discussion.

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