Cascading Corporate Change: How to Engage Your Team in Transformation


Major corporate transformations are typically developed by a small group of people, generally pulled from senior management. Yet for such programs to succeed, many people need to work hard and start doing things differently. This large group must be convinced that it should change and then commit to doing so. As a recent Bain survey of more than 400 organizations confirmed, once again, an engaged organization is one of the most important elements of achieving any corporate ambition.

Informing thousands of people and getting their buy-in and feedback cannot be done by senior management or a small central team alone. They would be outnumbered. Yet the support of the majority of the organization is needed for a change program to succeed.


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Luckily, they don't have to. In fact, they are better off if they don't even try.

Top management can share a compelling case for the future they envision and provide clear guidelines on how to get there—for example, outlining a new strategy, developing a new operating model or creating a plan for the digitalization of processes. From this point forward, some companies rely primarily on human resources departments and large town hall meetings to communicate detailed instructions on how to execute change.

Unfortunately, this hardly ever works. It neglects the fact that line managers play the central role. Change will reach the front line only if line managers engage. They must truly understand the intended changes, embrace them and, eventually, work with their teams on their actual implementation.

A cascade of workshops, level by level, can be a powerful way to get line managers and the whole organization engaged. Imagine that each team leader runs a workshop with her or his team. Based on the same content and guidelines from top management, the leader makes the content personal and relevant to the team's individual situation.

This serves three objectives. First, it allows the leader to convey tailored information, most relevant to their everyday business. Then participants define how to implement the program based on given guidelines and how they can best contribute. This fosters strong ownership as they create their own destiny and take responsibility for making the transformation work. Finally, asking employees for feedback makes them feel like valued and useful contributors. It can also surface critical topics that a central team might never have identified.

This played out recently when a manufacturing company shifted from a strong country-driven model to a more centrally driven approach. Country managers lost some autonomy, and some processes were perceived as more complex and rigorous. In addition, work became more data-driven and operating cycles shorter—good for business, but not easy to adapt to.

The company designed a workshop-in-a-box to bring the strategy and new operating model to life. They packed around 800 parcels with videos, infographics, a CEO's message, a poster on which team members write their contributions, and giveaways like T-shirts, creating a one-team spirit. The CEO delivered the first workshop to his executive committee, and then the cascade started. Level by level, leaders picked up their parcels at the end of their own workshop, in order to deliver to their team afterward—a scene somewhat reminiscent of children receiving a gift at Christmas. Of course, a decent facilitator's guide was included to help them prepare.

With this, line managers of the affected business units ran interactive workshops, focused on conversation, of 90 minutes to three hours in length. One by one, the teams thought through the implications for them. Who will be their new key contacts? How would the new priorities change their daily work? How would they sell the new product portfolio? Momentum picked up as whole business units drove the same cascade of workshops. After all, managers and team members had jointly decided how to make the operating model work. Most important: The teams started to implement the changes right away.

Within about eight weeks, each parcel had been used in a workshop, and almost 10,000 employees were engaged. Results beat expectations. The organization was off on a good path, and the share of employees supporting the new operating model increased markedly. Energy had picked up, and follow-up surveys showed that loyalty and commitment to the leadership rose, too.

Most people like to contribute—if you only give them the opportunity.

Sebastian Walter is an expert vice president in Bain & Company's Results Delivery® practice. He is based in Berlin.