A lot has been written and said about organisational change management and how to succeed in it. In fact, this article is an attempt to re emphasise only two critical factors all managers should pay attention to at the beginning of any organisational change initiative for guaranteed success.

If anyone wishes to succeed in organisational change the first thing they should do is a proper organisational diagnosis of the problem at hand. It is not surprising that most managers rush to prescribe solutions and actions based on the wrong problem. Proper organisational interventions should be predicated on the correct and accurate definition and identification of the problem at hand and the root causes.

Proper diagnosis ensures that symptoms are correctly identified and clearly separated from the root-causes. Symptoms tend to be the obvious and visible issues prevalent in the organisation that are immediate pain points or expressions of inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. A common example for most organisations is delays in payments to suppliers, customers, and employees. Delays are just a symptom; however, the root-cause may be different from what one might immediately associate the delays to. On the surface, one might associate the delay to accounts payable department and thus seek to create solutions to ensure the department speeds up payments, such as acquiring a new accounting system. Well, the problem might actually be something totally different, for example, those responsible for preparing documentations for various payments never do so on time and consistently so. But that could also be a result of chronic delays in obtaining various approvals done, which in turn may be a result of lengthy bureaucratic and role duplication in the organisation.

Addressing the problem of delays in payments thus requires a further inquiry to the matter to get to the root cause. This is done by consistently answering the question, “Why?” until no further causes can be identified. This simple example is the bedrock of correctly identifying problems in the organisation and developing solutions that address root causes rather than symptoms. As easy and as obvious as it sounds, most managerial solutions almost always fail this simple test, thus problems tend to be designed on the basis of symptoms rather than root causes. Managers fail to take time and or lack the necessary knowledge and skills to conduct proper organisational diagnosis to get to the root-causes of observed problems.

The second thing that managers ought to be aware of, in addition to finding the root-cause of problems, is the fact that most problems in an organisation do not occur in a liner manner. In other words, it is never a straight-line type of cause-and-effect relationship. The organisation is a system, where a system refers to a collection of many interrelated parts interacting together as one big whole. In an organisation you have people, processes, tools and technologies, policies, and materials. All these interact together to produce goods and services as per the organisation’s mandate. Viewing the organisation as a system means that problems seen in one area of the organisation may actually result from a completely different part of the organisation.

Understanding the systemic nature of organisational problems requires in-depth gathering and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data, applying theoretical models and frameworks proven effective for this purpose. Going back to the example of delays in payments, it might well be that the immediate cause of payment delays is poor cash flow for the business. But the cause for poor cash flow might actually be a result of poor debt collection together with low sales or failure to close deals. What is obvious though might be that the organisation’s payroll is high and there is a need to downsize or lay off staff in a measure to cut costs. Well, that might be a solution but only for the short-term, the systemic problem is actually somewhere else, where in this case it lies in revenue generation and collection.

Further analysis may reveal that sales are down because customers have shifted their loyalty or preference to substitute products or services, meaning that something is being offered in the competition that better meets the needs of customers. Thus, pointing to the needs for the research and development department to look into how to improve the products offering and secure the market.

The systemic nature of problems in an organisation cannot be underestimated in ensuring appropriate solutions are developed for improvement.

One bonus point in ensuring organisational change interventions are correctly designed right from the start is being aware of the fact that more than 80% of problems are people related. The tendency is to assume that the organisation needs to change the IT system, or change its brand, etc. However real change occurs in people’s behaviour more often than not. Systems and tools are only enablers for people in adopting the desired change. Therefore, in designing and implementing organisational change interventions, it is important right from the start to have people in mind. They need to be on top of the list in how the process of diagnosing, defining and designing the change is planned for and executed. People are the most critical resource in ensuring that the organisation correctly defines the problem and root causes, as well as has a proper view on the systemic nature of the problems and the root causes, thus effectively and efficiently generating appropriate solutions.


Dr. Antony Mburu

Organisation Development and Change Management Consultant