How to Bring Organizational Change: Top Down or Bottom Up

How do you create organizational change? Does it have to come from the C-suite, or can it happen organically?

Last week at the LavaCon conference, I was lucky enough to listen to a panel discussion titled “Achieving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in Content Teams.” During the panel I heard David Dylan Thomas, Kiana Minkie, and Jonathan McFadden share their thoughts on how to create organizational change around DEI. Early on, Jonathan stated that diversity is HR’s job. Kiana then pointed out “there’s only so much HR can do without leaders getting involved. You need a top-down and bottoms-up approach to meet in the middle.”

This made me think about what other areas of organizational change need a top-down approach, and which need to be addressed from the ground up.

Organizational changes from the top down

All the good intentions in the world can’t change organizational culture. It’s important to be realistic about the changes a middle-manager or individual contributor can make. For example, I can’t:

  • unilaterally decide that the company will work fully remotely
  • create transparency in leadership
  • decide on the organization’s strategy or goals
  • make a for-profit company into a non-profit
  • improve DEI beyond a performative level (as Kiana and Jonathan discussed)

If these are the types of things a team is struggling with, they have two choices. One is to raise them with a trusted member of the C-suite. The other is to work for a company that more closely aligns with their goals.

There’s a lot to be said for raising issues to a higher level. As a manager I try to make sure my team knows that they can bring concerns to me, and I will help make sure they are heard. After all, most organizations do want employees to be heard, and the C-suite takes many opinions into consideration.

But too often I hear people complain about lack of change in their organization. They aren’t frustrated because their company is a for-profit rather than a non-profit – they knew that when they accepted the job. More often the challenges are things that any single individual can change.

What we can do from the ground up

Individual contributors and middle managers have so much more power than they realize! Here are a few of the things that I’ve seen change from the ground up:

  • Meetings: your CEO doesn’t care if you have more or fewer meetings. You can encourage more productive meetings by including a goal and agenda in a meeting invite, and listing the roles of the people invited.
  • Video protocol: whether it’s training the team on when to mute, or instituting “video free Fridays”, you can set your own team’s protocol and spread that good behavior to other teams.
  • Transparency: while you can’t impact how transparent the C-suite it, a team can make a point of sharing out more often across the organization. Emails, chat rooms, standups, and other tools (think Asana) all help.
  • Celebrating success: Anyone can make a point of celebrating the moments when the team achieves something. Too many teams focus only on launches, when really we can celebrate the end of user interviews, or a completed content audit. These can be recognized via team emails or a coffee-and-cake break. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but it’s important for teams to notice what they’ve done.

You have the power for organizational change

When it comes to organizational change, of course the C-suite matters. But not all change needs to come from the top down. Each individual can have an impact. What can you do to make your team even better?

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