Changing the change rules at Google

Changing the change rules at Google
At Google, change is constant. But how we managed and messaged change wasn’t always working. So we developed a simple framework to rethink reorgs and it starts by asking “Do we even need this change?”

There is no single way that Google manages internal change, like a reorganization. But we’ve been piloting a new approach that has been used in different parts of the company, impacting thousands of Googlers. Like many companies, we knew we didn’t do change as well as we could. Our employee survey, Googlegeist, indicated that in one group that reorganized fewer than 50% of teams understood why changes were made and meanwhile under 50% were inspired by their leaders when changes were made.

Research shows that over two-thirds of organizational change efforts fail to deliver on their intended goals. We studied carefully some of the classic change management models including Kurt Lewin’s Model of Change theory, Jay R. Galbrith’s Star Model, Jeff Hiatt’s ADKAR (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement) model, and John Kotter’s 8 Step Model of Change, to name a few. But to be most effective, these models, logically, assume you know what you’re transforming into. But at Google, we often don’t have a static endstate we’re looking for; we need to maintain a fluidity in our structures to support the pace of our business.

So we developed a new approach. We needed to start the dialogue around change earlier and force important questions, starting with “does this change actually need to happen?” We wanted to bring teams (not just management) into the process early — gathering diverse input, considering alternatives — to identify the best ideas and make the best decisions.

After piloting and iterating on our work, we came up with a four-step approach to business-driven organizational change we call "ChangeRules." Four analytical questions drive this approach:

These questions create a common language around change, and brings together change strategy with change process.

ChangeRules rules

Phase 1 - “WHY?”

  • Why is making a change necessary? Right now?
  • Does making a change align with your vision and aspirations?
  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What are the threats and opportunities?
  • What diverse input is needed and from whom about why a change is necessary before the decision is made.

Phase 2 - “WHAT?”

  • Is your strategy changing? - Are you suggesting a new priority or direction?
  • What is the desired future state?
  • What are the risks/trade-offs of getting to future state?
  • What will success & failure look like?
  • What are the contrary opinions or alternatives?
  • Who owns the final decision? Is there alignment?

Phase 3 - “WHO?”

  • Who is being impacted by the change?
  • Who are the key stakeholders that need to buy-in?
  • Who should be involved in leading this change?
  • Who will resist the change and how can you help them through the transition?

Phase 4 - “HOW?”

  • How will you execute the change?
  • How will you communicate the change?
  • How will you make the change stick?
  • How will you lead through the change?
  • How will you know if you are successful?
  • How will you measure the change?

We started by testing an early version of this approach with a customer-supporting group in our Global Business Operations function that knew they needed to automate routine work to scale. But we quickly realized the leadership team wasn’t aligned on why they needed to change. So we spent time initially discussing what problem we were solving and the risks and trade-offs of making versus not making a change. Then we involved our managers in what the changes to the service model would be. This approach resulted in 100% of managers understanding the change and 80% of their teams understanding the change (up from 50%), resulting in a 90% adoption rate.

We’ve also seen the model help us avoid a reorganization. In one instance, a new leader took over an existing org and, like many new leaders, wanted to move things around. But in using this framework, we asked why any change needed to happen and what the desired future state was. We determined that a reorganization would not actually help the leader move the organization where they wanted.

But once you decide to make a change, how do you make it stick? When we use this framework, we do three things to “give legs” to change efforts and improve outcomes:

  1. Start with the “why” and “what.” As one of our leaders said, “Change is constant, but this framework allows us to test and clarify strategic business decisions before they are finalized.”
  2. Go slow to go fast. As early as possible, involve employees in creating solutions, rather than just sharing decisions, and you’ll front load the toughest conversations and make it easier to bring everyone along.
  3. Commit to landing, not just launching. Be sure you’re focused on effecting the change, not just announcing it. This will serve you in the long term because for more and more industries, change is constant.

And even if you get change to “stick” how do you know you’ve been successful? Determine what you’re looking to achieve and measure before you make a change. You can measure organizational health metrics (e.g. employee surveys, skills development, attrition) as well as business performance (e.g. customer satisfaction, product adoption rates). In the wake of changes, some teams use monthly pulse checks to solicit feedback from teams about what’s working and where there are opportunities to course correct.

To thrive, companies must be open to change, and equally open to tweaking the way they approach change management. Asking the right questions — Why? What? Who? How? — and involving all stakeholders in the process is a framework that can help companies evolve.