OCI #13: Change Participation
Too much input can be just as bad as not enough; here's how to get it right.
Involvement in Change Planning
In most change initiatives, an important part of the process is gathering thoughts, insights, ideas, and questions from the people who have an interest in the change—either because they are directly affected or because they have information that will help craft a more effective approach.
There is a huge range of options about when, how, and how much involvement and input to include in the process.
At one end of the spectrum, everyone in an organization or system actively engages in co-creating a shared future. Discussions begin long before a specific initiative has been identified. This allows more people and constituencies to be involved in the process of change from the very beginning—shaping the questions that are asked, the possibilities that emerge, and the initiatives that are selected for action1.
At the other extreme, decision-makers agree on what needs to happen with little or no input and then push the change out to the organization. This is most likely to happen when the change is mandated, urgent, and/or non-negotiable, and input is not feasible. In most cases, the level of input falls somewhere in between.
For leaders and change agents, the question of how much input to seek from stakeholders in change-related decisions is significant—balancing the benefits of participation with the time and effort involved is not always simple. And there’s a high cost to getting it wrong.
Too Little Input
The issues that arise when decision-makers seek too little input in change initiatives can be significant. Here are some potential problems:
People who have critical information are overlooked, leading to bad or unworkable decisions about how to proceed.
People who have a legitimate stake in the situation are excluded from the conversation and experience a loss of voice and power.
Lack of time and/or resources leads to rushed decisions that are not well thought through.
Too Much Input
The issues that arise when decision-makers gather too much input are not immediately as visible, but they are equally real. Here are some scenarios I’ve observed:
Decision-makers ask for input and then ignore it, leading to cynicism and frustration.
Unclear decision authority leads to endless discussions involving too many people. Decisions take forever and change bogs down.
A great deal of effort is spent gathering input from a wide range of groups with little new or useful information being generated. This results in wasted time and energy for everyone concerned.
A Contingency Model
I believe a contingency model of decision participation can be applied in organizational change as a source of guidance. The model presented here is based on the work of organizational scholars Victor Vroom, Phillip Yetton, and Arthur Jago and interpreted through my own experience and terminology. It begins by laying out a range of options for the decision process. Organized from lowest to highest levels of decision involvement, they look like this:
No input: A decision is made and communicated to participants.
Review and comment: Decision-makers propose a solution and approach, and offer an opportunity for feedback and comments.
Meaningful input: Decision-makers gather input and use it as one source of information to shape their decision.
Collaborative recommendations: Stakeholders work together to propose a course of action. Their opinions carry significant weight, but the leader makes the final decision about whether and how to proceed.
Collaborative decisions: Stakeholders work together to decide how they would like to proceed; leaders support and enable the decisions they make.
Here’s one way I have presented these options to change leaders:
In choosing among these options, the model suggests that a number of factors are important, and proposes a series of questions to help you select the best option:
How important is the quality of the decision? Sometimes the consequences of possible failure are significant, at other times it’s more important to choose a reasonable direction and get moving. If quality is important and people have knowledge that needs to be taken into account, higher involvement is important.
Do people have a shared vision of success? If success criteria are not clear, it’s often important to include more people in the discussion to include all relevant perspectives in creating a shared picture of success.
How important is participant commitment? If success requires high levels of commitment, higher involvement is important to build ownership and buy-in.
Will additional information help planners make a better decision? If planners have sufficient information to make an effective decision, and more input would not be likely to change the outcome, less involvement will save time and energy.
Do participants have sufficient information to make an effective decision? If people have the information required to make a good decision without the leader being involved, more involvement can build participant trust and confidence.
If the leader makes the decision, are people likely to accept it? If people have high levels of engagement and trust with leaders, it’s often possible to move more quickly on certain decisions; if engagement and trust is low, more involvement may be needed to ensure acceptance.
Are individual and organizational goals aligned? If outcomes that benefit the organization are likely to bring benefit to individuals as well, then lower levels of discussion and involvement may be needed.
Is there likely to be conflict about the best way to proceed? If disagreement is likely, higher levels of discussion and involvement are usually needed to achieve alignment.
To fully consider all these questions and options, it’s important to start thinking about levels of participation very early in the process—even before many organizations think about change management. Here’s one perspective on this issue I shared a while back.2
By considering the tradeoffs involved in lower and higher levels of input, we can make better choices about how to spend our time and energy, maximize the value of stakeholder perspectives, and increase our ability to deliver results.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Organizational Change Intersections! See you in 2 weeks.
Many Organization Development approaches and methodologies, including Appreciative Inquiry, place a strong emphasis on engaging an organization’s members to define their future and identify priorities together. This is particularly important in transformational initiatives and initiatives that need to be fully embraced by the organization—culture, diversity & inclusion, etc.