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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

Institutionalizing and Sustaining Positive Change in Your Organization

The terms “change” and “institutionalize” might at first seem to be mirror opposites. Yet Harvard Business School professor emeritus John P. Kotter has shown us how institutionalization of change is the natural culmination of a successful change project. Once an organization has made the desired changes a part of institutional culture, the cycle of change begins again, building on this stronger foundation. In other words, change is an organic, continual, and, yes, institutionalized process.  


Kotter synthesized and widely publicized his eight-step change model in the mid-1990s in his book, Leading Change. Now considered a classic leadership text and a guide for numerous Fortune 500 companies and other prominent organizations, Kotter’s book goes beyond simply managing change. His eight steps take us from creating an initial sense of urgency through key mid-points that include forming a vision, building coalitions of active stakeholders, removing roadblocks, celebrating smaller successes, and accelerating the change effort toward completion of the goal. 


The end is the beginning 


The eighth step is all about what you do with the change you have created: First, you make sure it adheres in the real world of your organization, rather than as a binder gathering dust on a shelf. You encode it into your organizational DNA. You make it the foundation on which you build a better organization. You establish it as a permanent “new normal” around which new and ongoing strategies revolve.  


By institutionalizing the change you’ve achieved through all your previous hard work, you aren’t allowing your organization to rest on its laurels. You’re setting yourself up for the next change project you will inevitably have to undertake. You’re creating and sustaining a culture of change, rather than a culture of stasis. In this way, institutionalizing your change project is the most revolutionary act of all, because it prepares you and your team to successfully meet the next project.  


Make it stick 


How, exactly, do you go about institutionalizing change and ensuring it takes root in your organization?  

First, make sure that every leader and influencer in your organization is on board with the new institutional changes. Each should be able to articulate key talking points and use cases associated with them. As in Kotter’s Step 4, which asks your “volunteer army” of change advocates to spread the word and raise awareness, these leaders should keep their focus on serving as change ambassadors to employees throughout the organization.  


It is crucial to recognize and reward everyone, at each level of responsibility, whose work contributed to the success of the change project. Promote individuals who understand the importance of the project, and who can continue to carry the change forward in leadership roles.  


You should also build key aspects of your change project into your succession planning. Ensure that, as senior change leaders retire, their successors learn the history of the change project and how it has become embedded into organizational culture.  


Talk about the change at every opportunity. When possible, show don’t tell. Share the stories of real people in your organization whose implementation of change has transformed their jobs, their lives, and the lives of customers in positive ways. Help fix the value of the change in your team’s minds: Delineate for them the connections between their new ways of doing things and the successes they see at every level of the organization. 


Keep the change visible in your organizational communications, branding, and conversations with internal and external stakeholders. Make it stick as a key component of your public image. Update vision statements to reflect the key values that you’ve institutionalized as a result of your change project. 


Continue paying attention to streamlining your policies and practices in ways that support the change you’ve built, and clear away any remaining ones that stand in the way of progress.  


Incorporate the change into onboarding, trainings, and staff development programs for new hires and existing team members, from entry-level to the C-suite. Ensure that it plays a role in job candidate interview conversations, so that prospective employees better understand that this specific change—as well as change in general—is a core aspect of your culture.  


Stay up-to-date on trends and evolving frameworks from change leadership experts whose ideas resonate with you. Kotter’s own books include not only the classic Leading Change, but his 2021 Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times. 


Continue to monitor and evaluate how well the changes you have made serve your organization, your team, and your customers. Work with your HR department to ensure that ongoing management practices align with, and reinforce, the kinds of behavior that sustain the change you’ve worked so hard for. 


With this kind of dedication and focus, your change project should now have turned into a long-lasting culture shift. You’ll have replaced old habits with new ones that are more responsive to where your organization is now. And you’ll have better positioned yourself and your team to recognize and take advantage of the next new opportunity to transform your organization for the better.  

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