How to Sustain Organisational Change — These 5 Vital Ways

Photo of two Pacific white-sided dolphins in California.

Dolphins Not Whales — Sustaining Organisational Change

Organisations must become increasingly able to change quickly and easily. The business must be flexible yet capable of implementing and sustaining organisational change.

Change has to be built into the way businesses work.

However, many organisations have problems with the way they tackle change. These problems are usually related to people, processes, systems, technology or structure.


Quite simply, change is complex. Change is wicked! And the pace and scale of change today can overwhelm many organisations.

Stick with me and I will explain what is needed.

Sustaining Organisational Change

Projects are key to creating beneficial change. Projects are the vehicles for managing and implementing organisational change.

Those organisations that recognise project management is a core capability — or competence — are more likely to find success sustaining organisational change.

Successful business change projects have the following vital characteristics …

1. Business-led Change

They employ a single project team.

That is, a team that is business-led. One that comprises of all the required resources from the business, human resources, information technology and so on.

Ideally, team members should be collocated and allocated to the project full-time because this encourages communication and helps to build strong relationships.

2. Benefits Realisation

Business change is about delivering benefits.

The project team is responsible for delivering clearly specified benefits to the business not for creating systems, structures nor introducing technologies.

There should be no other success criteria!

Business change projects should always be driven by benefits that support strategy.

3. A Sense of Urgency

Executive management describes the business need — why the business change project is necessary — from the outset. Their mandate will also specify the time-scale within which the project must deliver the benefits.

What’s more, successful organisations set a challenging schedule and stick to it — even when expert opinion suggests this is unachievable.

Organisational change should be delivered with urgency and in no more than nine months.

4. Time-Boxing

Detailed analysis has the effect of putting the brakes on change.

Therefore, the idea of time-boxing is used to push the project team to make decisions about what is really needed.

Successful businesses break tradition and create a sense of urgency when delivering change.

5. Quick Wins

Large scale organisational change needs momentum plus a sense of achievement and bags of optimism.

Time-boxing encourages quick wins, ensuring results are achieved quickly.

Instead of detailed analyses and the preparation of a hefty business case or full requirements specifications the project team is moved to change and learns what is really required through a series of iterations —breaking large scale change into smaller chunks and success stories.

Dolphins Not Whales

To conclude, large scale organisational change projects are broken down into a series of shorter steps or phases.

Each step will deliver benefits and move the organisation to sustaining change.

What’s more, it is urgency that sustains change and this is only possible when results are achieved rapidly.

Not only does this give recognition and encouragement to those working hard to accomplish change it also builds faith in the change effort.

David Feeny — a prominent British academic and authority on business transformation — first introduced the concept of dolphins not whales.

It effectively shows people how sustaining change should be implemented.

That is, creating a climate for change by increasing urgency and engaging and enabling the organisation through short-term wins.

A chart shows the distinction between a project delivered in one monolithic step and in many incremental bursts.

Sustaining Change: Dolphins Not Whales

Dolphins, not whales is a great way to grasp what is at the heart of change. When leading change use this to win hearts and minds.

Want to learn more about organisational change?

Great. But first, please explain what approach you use to implement large-scale change?

Creative Commons image courtesy NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Last updated 28 April, 2014 9 CommentsShare the knowledge …


  1. says


    I agree with what you’ve said but would add a couple thoughts.

    First, I encourage people to think in terms of value, rather than benefits. This is particularly useful when generating and engineering solutions, as the idea of value encapsulates both benefits and cost.

    Second, I think there is a difference between delivering change through a projects and sustaining organisational change. On the latter of these two, John Kotter recently wrote and interesting piece for Harvard Business Review, in which he proposed a ‘dual operating systems’ for organisations. What he means by that establishing an informal leadership organisation, alongside the formal one. This is also and interesting idea that can be applied to programmes and one that I am currently experimenting with for a current client programme.

    Here is a like to the article, in case you haven’t seen it


    • says

      Hello Gary, Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not sure I’m with you on the first point. Whilst we may derive value from change it is often the promised benefits that move us to change.

      Accelerate! is an interesting piece. But I’m not convinced that the dual operating system will work since organisational culture is deeply embedded and a new operating system is likely to adopt the organisation’s beliefs and behaviours. Nonetheless, I do think there is benefit (value) in an agile approach akin to the Agile Manifesto and Management 3.0.

      As ever,

  2. says

    The reason(s) for change should be well thought through, and most importantly clearly and widely communicated. The focus on benefits milestones helps sustain the why message round the organisation, and when they’re achieved celebrate them!

    As change normally requires a period of additional work / effort, it is worthwhile identifying what will no longer be done when the milestone is hit. If nothing is being dropped, what capacity is needed to do things differently and where will it come from? Encouraging people to raise such concerns with the change team, and ensuring they address them, will help keep everyone on board.

    • says

      Hello Nick,

      Yes, I agree. The reasons and benefits of change must be known and understood. And communication is important … but it has to be done right. Communicating change using briefings, reports and email is usually ineffective. Good communication is two-way. It is an open and honest dialogue. To move people to change you have to change their beliefs … invariably showing people why change is needed works better than dry impersonal communiqué.

      As ever,

  3. says

    While I don’t have any issue with the points you made, and see them as generally supportive, I find that creating and sustaining organizational change can be driven by getting organizational consensus on what winning means, and continually monitoring and reinforcing winning behaviors. The following Harvard Business Review article makes this point.
    While complementary to the points you made, I think this is a bit more focused and effective. It fits in the overall context of open book principles, that is, improving the business results and the lives of the employees that drive those results by making the economics of the business broadly understood, and aligning compensation accordingly. Does that make sense to you?

    • says

      Hello Bill,

      Thanks for making some interesting observations. I read your post and thought it tackles another aspect of change: gaining buy-in. While I agree that transparency — openness and honesty — is crucial for those leading change I was not convinced by your “winning” score nor the sports analogy. Twisting what you say: In sports, everyone gets that and knows what losing looks like. In any league there are winners and losers … even in the top flight.

      Thus, winning alone doesn’t sustain performance. What is needed is momentum and a sense of purpose. Winning may motivate some people. Delivering excellent customer service does it for others.

      But it is short term wins … tangible results for the team … that sustain change. Hitting a profit forecasts is rewarding and uplifting but it’s what the team does to achieve the goal that really matters.

      As ever,


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