Principle 5: Build good bridges

BridgeI was in California this Easter and drove the second most popular tourist attraction in the USA, The Big Sur: a fantastic stretch of coastline south of San Francisco with spectacular coves, cliffs and the occasionally very large gorge that Route 1 needs to cross. It would be impossible to drive down this coast without the presence of bridges to cross these chasms.

Major change, if it is real, is an organisational chasm. Without good bridges it is impossible for people to travel wholeheartedly with it.

The sixth principle is therefore to make sure that the bridges for change, all the structures used to shepherd it forward, are really effective.

As I reflected on the essentials of wholehearted change, I started thinking that this one was simply too obvious.  Surely everyone realises that you must have things in place to enable change? However, in the end it stayed on my list for my ‘one side of paper’ principles because of the frequency with which I have observed that there have not been effective structures in place.

It is a frequent and major problem. Without effective bridges commitment to change is drastically undermined. It is like trying to drive along Route 1 without all the bridges being in place… fatal.

What are bridges?

Bridges are the key elements that will connect the way things are now with the way they need to be in the future  – but we need to think broadly…

Some are easy to identify. Most organisations have long since recognised the need for supporting structures for change programmes, and have project groups, program offices, plans and software to  handle everything from system changes and business projects, to strategy work and most any other major change. These are really useful.

However, they are rarely sufficient on their own. Effective bridges need to cover both the management and control elements that typical project management delivers and the context and environment in which the program office operates. Only in this way will the management elements work as they are supposed to!

Three challenges typically need to be addressed:

1 Clarity, capacity and contingency

The governance approach needs to deliver:

  • simplicity – as opposed to a bureaucratic or complex process
  • clarity – as opposed to confusion about who and where decisions or information are located
  • capacity – as opposed to overwhelming people with change on top of an unmitigated day-to-day workload
  • contingency  – to be clear how key risks or possibilities will be handled, so that current defaults do not undermine the change itself

These characteristics are not difficult to highlight but all too often change structures do not deliver. Overly complex processes, unclear responsibilities, work overload and unforeseen events overtake the support that is needed.

A critical eye is essential to challenge weaknesses against these criteria. Teams can misjudge how well these are fulfilled, especially if they are involved 24/7 when others interact only for a part of their work.

2 Careful use of metrics

Metrics are essential and need to be put in place but all too often in corporates they also present dangers.

They are sometimes used as a substitute for management – to squeeze people into new ways of working or reshape a business by the progressive tightening of key metrics. Either approach undermines wholeheartedness unless the measures are understood and owned by those in the change.

Secondly, measures that help scope or assess the desired state are sometimes simply loaded on top of the old as oppose to the old being redesigned. Established metrics quickly subvert new or undermine real change and commitment to it. Measures need to reflect what the organisation is really committed to doing and old measures need to be eliminated.

Finally, incentives are often built on measures to boost change (bonuses, price changes, premiums etc). These need care. Sometimes they work and sometimes they can backfire (as in the Israeli daycare facilities that introduced a small fine when parents picked up their children late and experienced an increase in late pickups rather than the desired reduction!). Again ownership and rationale are vital.

3 Proactive handling of obstacles…

As much as I dislike the term ‘proactive’, here it is critical. Too often the soft obstacles to change, reflecting power and decisions, key people or clear messages are not addressed upfront. It is left for those involved to resolve – work around people, work  through unfriendly powers or invent the narrative and rationale.

In terms of corporate politics, this is often not addressed as rigorously as it needs to be.

If, to create commitment, people are involved upfront and decisions are taken – then these need to be supported. Too often participants are disempowered either because they are not involved until after decisions are taken or because insufficient action is taken to support the implementation in the face of the status quo. Dealing with these issues then takes too much energy and time and undermines commitment.

What might this mean in practice?

This principle might be realised in many different ways. Priorities might be to:

  • Ensure that the participants in change help to shape it – with meetings, teams or other approaches and identify the things that might really derail its success
  • Investigate the history of failed changes in the organisation and what factors have driven this – then mitigate these. If necessary with some tough alignment at the top level
  • Where a discrete project is identifiable – establish a clear structure and staffing to drive the change and make sure that the new procedures are no more onerous than existing ones (even better make them simpler!)
  • Use teams to examine key areas (e.g. governance, measures, workload) and recommend the best mechanisms for change in each area
  • Use a framework that looks at the organisation in systemic terms to define what bridges are needed to help change move forward (eg Burke-Litwin, Nadler-Tushman)
  • Test that ‘things are clear’ by taking the temperature regularly. Find someone who can get alongside staff to check that people understand the story of the change, near term goals, how it’s going, how the ‘undiscussible’ obstacles to change are being handled etc. Capture the ‘voice of the participant’ in change
  • Early on, check that the change is not overly inside-out or top down and that the approach is ‘pulling’ change through not just pushing it forward
  • Check that the organisational talent is where the heart of the organisation wants to go… not sitting on the sidelines and waiting for failure
  • Cascade the change to ensure that leaders pull all constituencies through the change
  • Build in review processes to check that what is intended is realised – follow up checkpoints are really useful


In one client company, the cascade of new ways of working and a six monthly health check provided two invaluable bridges to help the business make the transformation of its sales approach. In another, the repeated polling of the ‘voice of the customer’ continually called people to account for the goals they were setting for service. In both cases these bridges were not the core project management of change that most energy tends to focus on but they ensured that power aligned with the change and not against it.

We typically underestimate the breadth and strength of the bridges needed to support change effectively. With wholehearted change the difficult things that must be covered are both the human and the technical elements.

In change, as in life :without good bridges people cannot travel very far. They will get stuck at one chasm or another.