Small changes can make a big difference: The role of teams in continuous change

Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology explores how and why small changes, at a local work-unit (team) level, can feed in to the wider organisation and become a key facet in continuous change.

The researchers, Elijah Wee and M. Susan Taylor, developed a theoretical model of emergent continuous organisational change and start with the premise that,

“Although work-units engage in continuous change at the lower levels these changes often go unrecognized by the organization itself”

Wee and Taylor’s empirically untested model has three aims:

  1. To explain how routine changes at a team level (e.g. a cancer unit in a hospital) amplify and accumulate across the wider organisation and in effect, help create emergent continuous change;
  2. To take a multilevel approach to show how specific team changes might be interpreted and implemented in other parts of the organisation; and
  3. To understand how managers help facilitate the many and different team changes which may take place across an organisation at any given time.

Wee and Taylor define emergent continuous organisational change as,

“The dynamic, interactive, and bottom-up processes that involve both work-unit members and managers in the amplification and accumulation of valuable, ongoing work-unit level changes over time that become substantial changes at the organizational level.”

With this in mind, their model examines the importance of attention and search as mechanisms through which managers and team members identify and make sense of new ways of working.  Where a person looks for information is key, along with the amount of time and effort they put in to evaluating that information. The researchers suggest that non-managers are more likely to focus on information that helps them with problems that are relevant to them, rather than wider. They also suggest that organisations might do well to reward managers who actively pay attention to finding, evaluating and adapting changes from elsewhere within the organisation.

The researchers also suggest the importance of the extent to which a routine or process is embedded. The more strongly embedded a routine is in teams across an organisation, the more likely it is that changes will be made more widely, in other units, in a homogenous way. Conversely, the weaker a routine is embedded across an organisation, the more likely it is that a change by one team will be picked up by other teams but implemented in a different way, suitable for their context.

Implications and suggestions

The main criticisms of this model are that it is, as yet, empirically untested and draws on limited organisational examples (a furniture company and a church group). In addition, it is inward-looking and as such, doesn’t take in to account things like partnership working – where you might have teams from different organisations working together and who might learn from changes each other has made. However, it is an interesting approach to balancing out the tendency for research to focus on whole-organisation, top-down driven change.

The key points of interest in this paper which managers and practitioners might find useful:

  1. Change doesn’t have to be ‘big bang’ or whole-organisation in order to count as change. Local changes to routine processes can count, especially if other teams find these changes relevant and can adopt them in their own areas.
  2. The concept of ‘agency’ is at the heart of this model. In other words, power to the people. By helping people to understand that change is something they can do, even in the smallest of ways, can perhaps make it feel a little less overwhelming and help them feel like they are contributing in their own way.
  3. The role of the team manager is crucial. In particular, their ability to not only seek out different ways of working but to evaluate these in a carefully considered way in order to decide what, when, how and if a change made by another team is relevant.
  4. The importance of sharing local changes across the organisation so that others can learn from these;  and senior leadership can appreciate the impact even small changes can make in helping the organisation to continuously change and improve.
  5. The role of managers in sharing information on local changes with each other so that they can better assess opportunities, the pace and sequencing needed. This builds on the notion that if you change a process in one part of an organisation it will impact another team elsewhere.

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