Peeling the onion: This analogy can transform your change management outcome

Peeling the onion: This analogy can transform your change management outcome

Change management, much like peeling an onion, involves uncovering multiple layers before reaching the core. Each layer peeled back in the journey of planning and implementing change reveals new insights about the organization and the stakeholders impacted by the change. This process is essential to understanding the full scope of the change, adapting strategies accordingly, and ensuring successful implementation. By examining the various facets of an organization, such as leadership capability, operational practices, and cultural traits, we can better navigate the complexities of change management. Let’s explore the analogy of peeling an onion in change management and some practical insights for transforming change outcomes.

The Layers of the Onion in Change Management

Peeling the layers – each layer reveals a different facet of the organisation and how they may or may not be conducive to supporting the change.  Here are some ‘layers’ you may want to examine.

Leadership and Managerial Capability in Managing Change

Effective change management begins with strong leadership. Leaders and managers play a crucial role in guiding the organization through the transition. Peeling back this layer reveals whether leaders are equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge, and attitudes to drive change. It also highlights their ability to inspire and mobilize their teams, communicate the vision effectively, and manage resistance. Assessing leadership capability is fundamental, as inadequate leadership can hinder the entire change process.

Operational and Business Practices

The next layer involves examining the organization’s operational and business practices. This includes evaluating current workflows, processes, and systems to identify areas that may need adjustment or improvement. Understanding how daily operations align with the proposed changes helps in anticipating potential disruptions and devising strategies to minimize them. Are existing practices consistent with the end state of the change? Are existing practices consistent? Why or why not? This layer also involves identifying key performance indicators (KPIs) that can measure the success of the change initiatives.

Change Governance Practices and Structure

Change governance refers to the frameworks and structures in place to manage and oversee change initiatives. Having the right governance structure ensures that the right oversight and decision making is setup to steer the change to success. Peeling back this layer involves assessing the effectiveness of existing governance mechanisms, such as steering committees, decision-making protocols, and accountability structures. Strong change governance ensures that change initiatives are well-coordinated, resources are allocated appropriately, and progress is monitored consistently. Weak governance, on the other hand, can lead to confusion, misalignment, and failure to achieve desired outcomes.

Key questions to ask here include such as:

  • Is there sufficient governance bodies in place at different levels of the organisation to support change?
  • Are there too many governance bodies?
  • Are decision-making processes clear and effective?
  • Are the right stakeholders involved in the relevant decision-making areas?

Engagement Channels

Effective engagement is critical in change management.  This is more than just communication. This layer focuses on the channels and methods used to engage with stakeholders throughout the change process. Evaluating engagement channels helps in understanding how information is disseminated, feedback is collected, and concerns are addressed. It also highlights the effectiveness of internal communications and the role of external communications in managing stakeholder expectations and perceptions. What channels are most effective for what audience groups? Are there any gaps for engaging with all groups of stakeholders? (beyond just blasting emails or messages).

Change Champion Network

Change champions are resignated individuals within the organization who advocate for and support the change initiatives. Peeling back this layer involves identifying and empowering these champions. It also includes assessing their influence, credibility, and ability to motivate others. A strong network of change champions can facilitate smoother transitions by promoting buy-in, addressing resistance, and reinforcing positive behaviors. With the right nurturing and experience, an organisation-wide change champion network can act to support a myriad of change initiatives.

System and Process Maturity

The maturity of systems and processes within an organization significantly impacts the success of change initiatives. This layer involves evaluating the current state of technological systems, process automation, and data management practices. Mature systems and processes provide a solid foundation for implementing changes efficiently and effectively. Conversely, immature systems may require significant upgrades or overhauls to support the desired changes.

Change Management Maturity

Change management maturity refers to the organization’s overall capability to manage change. Peeling back this layer involves assessing the maturity of change management practices, methodologies, and tools. Organizations with mature change management capabilities have established frameworks, experienced practitioners, and a culture that embraces change. In contrast, organizations with low maturity may struggle with inconsistencies, resistance, and a lack of structured approaches.

To read more about improving change management maturity visit our article – A Comprehensive Guide to Elevating Change Management Maturity.

Resources and Capacity

This layer examines the availability of resources and capacity to support change initiatives. It includes assessing the organization’s financial resources, human capital, and physical infrastructure. Adequate resources and capacity are essential for executing change plans, overcoming obstacles, and sustaining momentum. Insufficient resources can lead to delays, reduced quality, and increased stress on employees. This does not just include the resources required within the project itself, it points more to the impacted stakeholders and if they have the resources and capacity required to undergo the change.

Culture and Behavioral Traits

Organizational culture and behavioral traits play a significant role in how change is perceived and adopted. Peeling back this layer involves understanding the underlying values, beliefs, and behaviors that influence how employees respond to change. It also includes identifying cultural strengths that can be leveraged and cultural barriers that need to be addressed. A supportive culture fosters resilience, adaptability, and a positive attitude towards change.


  • Do existing behaviours and practices support the change end state?
  • Are there potentially inconsistent behaviours comparing the end state and the current state?
  • Beyond the specific behaviours required in the change initiative itself, how are these in alignment with broader cultural practices?

Key Takeaways from the Onion Analogy in Change Management

1. Each Layer Needs to Be Peeled Before Another Layer Can Be Peeled

The process of discovering and understanding the complexities of change cannot be rushed. Each layer provides valuable insights and learning opportunities that prepare the organization for the next layer of discovery. Skipping layers or rushing through the process can lead to incomplete assessments, overlooked challenges, and ineffective solutions. Patience and persistence are crucial for a thorough and successful change management journey.

Assessing and understanding each layer can take time. Data, both quantitative and qualitative, may be required to truly understand what each layer means and how it implicates the change.

2. How the Onion Appears May Not Be What It Is at Its Core

Initial perceptions of the organization may not reflect its true state. It takes time and effort to uncover the deeper issues, strengths, and opportunities. This requires a willingness to look beyond surface-level indicators and delve into the core aspects of the organization. Attention to detail and a commitment to uncovering the truth are essential for developing accurate and effective change strategies.

For example:

  • Are publically communicated and reinforced messages acted on?
  • Do leaders practice what they preach?
  • Do stakeholders commit to decisions already made? Or do they ignore it?
  • Is there clear alignment between different layers of the organisation? How is this done?

3. You May Discover Rotten Parts That Need to Be Replaced

During the process of peeling back layers, you may encounter parts of the organization that are severely inadequate or dysfunctional. These “rotten” parts may need to be replaced or significantly improved before the change can proceed. This could involve overhauling critical capabilities, restructuring teams, or implementing new systems. Recognizing and addressing these issues promptly is essential for ensuring the overall health and success of the organization.

You may find, for example:

  • Stakeholders that are adamant to block the change for various reasons
  • Teams that simply do not have the right skills or attitude to transition to the required state
  • Processes that are simply outdated or convoluted, so much that end state targets cannot be achieved
  • Systems that are outdated and do not provide the right insights to support the end state

4. Different Types of Onions and Organizations

Just as there are different types of onions, organizations vary in size, complexity, and nature. Assessing the complexity of the change at the outset helps in determining the time, effort, and resources required to peel back the layers. A comprehensive understanding of the organization’s unique characteristics allows for tailored change management strategies that address specific needs and challenges.

Practical Steps for Applying the Onion Analogy in Change Management

Step 1: Initial Assessment and Planning

Begin by conducting a thorough initial assessment of the organization. This involves gathering data, engaging with key stakeholders, and understanding the current state of affairs. Develop a comprehensive change management plan that outlines the objectives, scope, and timelines for each layer of the onion. This plan should also identify key metrics for measuring success and mechanisms for tracking progress.

Step 2: Assess Leadership and Managerial Capability

Evaluate the capability of leaders and managers to drive change. This includes assessing their skills, experience, and attitudes towards change. Provide training and support where needed to enhance their ability to lead effectively. Strong leadership is foundational to the success of any change initiative.

Step 3: Examine Operational and Business Practices

Analyze current workflows, processes, and systems to identify areas that may require adjustment. Engage with employees at all levels to gather insights and understand potential bottlenecks. Develop strategies to streamline operations and ensure alignment with the change objectives.

Step 4: Review Change Governance Practices

Assess the existing governance structures and practices in place to manage change initiatives. Ensure that there are clear decision-making protocols, accountability mechanisms, and regular progress reviews. Strengthen governance frameworks as needed to support effective change management.

Step 5: Evaluate Engagement Channels

Review the channels and methods used to communicate with stakeholders. Ensure that there are effective mechanisms for disseminating information, collecting feedback, and addressing concerns. Enhance engagement strategies to foster transparency, trust, and collaboration.

Step 6: Identify and Empower Change Champions

Identify individuals within the organization who can serve as change champions. Empower them with the necessary tools, resources, and support to advocate for the change initiatives. Leverage their influence and credibility to promote buy-in and address resistance.

Step 7: Assess System and Process Maturity

Evaluate the maturity of technological systems and processes. Identify areas that require upgrades or improvements to support the change. Invest in the necessary infrastructure and tools to ensure seamless implementation.

Step 8: Assess Change Management Maturity

Conduct a maturity assessment of the organization’s change management capabilities. Identify gaps and areas for improvement. Develop and implement strategies to enhance change management practices, methodologies, and tools.

Step 9: Review Resources and Capacity

Evaluate the availability of resources and capacity to support the change initiatives. Ensure that there are adequate financial, human, and physical resources to execute the change plans. Address any resource constraints proactively to prevent delays and disruptions.

Step 10: Understand Culture and Behavioral Traits

Conduct a cultural assessment to understand the underlying values, beliefs, and behaviors that influence how employees respond to change. Identify cultural strengths that can be leveraged and barriers that need to be addressed. Develop strategies to foster a supportive culture that embraces change.

To read more about driving behavioural change check out The ultimate guide to behaviour change.

The analogy of peeling an onion provides a powerful framework for understanding and managing change within an organization. Each layer peeled back reveals new insights and learning opportunities that are essential for successful change management. By carefully examining the various facets of the organization, such as leadership capability, operational practices, and cultural traits, organizations can navigate the complexities of change more effectively.

Patience, persistence, and attention to detail are key to uncovering the true state of the organization and developing tailored strategies that address specific needs and challenges. Ultimately, the journey of peeling the onion in change management leads to a deeper understanding, better preparation, and more successful change outcomes.

The forest fungi and the secret power of change champion networks

The forest fungi and the secret power of change champion networks

Captured during a 5-day trek in Tasmania’s southwestern wilderness known as the Western Arthurs, this photograph reflects a journey undertaken four years prior, just before devastating bushfires swept through Tasmania, altering its pristine landscapes. The region, notorious for persistent rain and limited sunshine, graced us with consecutive sunlit days, making it a standout global hiking experience, rivaling trails in the Italian Dolomites, the Himalayas, and the Canadian Rockies.

Embarking on a 5-day expedition in Tasmania’s southwest demands self-sufficiency—carrying all your food, drinking from rivers, and sleeping in a tent with no huts or running water. The solitude is profound, with few fellow hikers; most of the time, it’s just you and Mother Nature.

Childhood lessons painted Mother Nature as a battlefield for survival, where each tree competes fiercely for sunlight, nutrients, and dominance over the land. However, this narrative is challenged by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Over two decades of study revealed that a forest’s essence lies not in individual tree struggles but in subterranean partnerships. Simard unveiled the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, known as mycorrhizas—thread-like fungi merging with tree roots. They aid trees in extracting water and nutrients, receiving carbon-rich sugars produced through photosynthesis in return. (For more details, refer to the New York Times article.)

Mycorrhizas serve as the connective tissue of the forest, intertwining trees of different species through an extensive web. This transforms the forest into more than a mere collection of trees. In times of crisis, a tree at the brink of death may altruistically share a substantial portion of its carbon with neighboring trees. The forest thus emphasizes cooperation, negotiation, reciprocity, and selflessness alongside survival and competition.

Remarkably, this ecosystem mirrors the principles of effective change networks. A change network possesses the capacity to reach every individual in a company. Unlike being confined to a specific business unit or hierarchy level, a well-designed change network transcends organizational boundaries.

Let’s delve deeper into the characteristics of a robust and efficient change network…

1) Project-agnostic

In the dynamic landscape of change networks, a paradigm shift from the traditional project-specific model to a project-agnostic approach emerges as a strategic imperative. The conventional methodology, with its exclusive focus on single projects, often results in a staggering 69% of projects achieving initial objectives, while 15% are considered failures.
This project-specific model, besides its high failure rate, also contributes to significant resource wastage. Identifying, training, and sustaining a robust change champion network for each project frequently overshoots the project’s lifecycle, hindering desired outcomes and accounting for the 70% failure rate in projects.

Contrastingly, a more efficient paradigm involves nurturing change champions with the ability to support multiple projects. This not only optimizes resource allocation but also aligns with the agile principle, as highlighted by the 56% of companies that exclusively use a single project management methodology.

These versatile change champions, akin to Starbucks’ “My Starbucks Idea” initiative, play a pivotal role in connecting the dots across projects, providing invaluable insights, and fostering a culture of collaboration. Starbucks’ successful implementation of change through customer-driven ideas, resulting in over 5 million monthly page visits, is a testament to the power of adaptable change networks.

Drawing a parallel to the natural world, where mycorrhizas take time to strengthen and fortify the forest, change champions undergo a transformative journey with each project involvement. Their sustained engagement refines their change management skills and delivery expertise, enhancing their proficiency with every endeavor.

The diverse and creative approaches observed in change champions, ranging from themed outfits to innovative reminders, reflect the adaptability crucial for effective end-user engagement. This adaptability serves as the cornerstone of a thriving change champion network, where experimentation and varied strategies contribute to its vibrancy and success. Similar to the ever-evolving forest ecosystem, change networks flourish when nurtured with creativity and adaptability.

2) Cuts across layers

In the realm of change networks, adopting a project-agnostic approach emerges as a strategic shift from the traditional project-specific model. The conventional method involves forming change networks tailored exclusively to a single project, with champions disbanded at the project’s conclusion.

However, this model poses inherent challenges, leading to significant resource wastage. The effort to identify, train, and sustain a robust change champion network for each project often exceeds the project’s lifespan, impeding desired outcomes.

To address this, the change champion network needs to cut across not only different parts of the business but also different layers of the organization. A lot of change champion networks are designed at the mid-layer of the organization, typically involving middle managers. While middle managers can influence the outcome of the change more than frontline staff members, relying solely on this layer may not be sufficient.

Here’s why:

  • Detail Feedback: Middle managers are often not the ‘end users’ of systems or processes, making it challenging for them to provide detailed feedback on the suitability of the change, sentiments of end users, or necessary adjustments in the change solution.
  • Signal Loss: Depending on the organization, there may be 1-3 layers between middle managers and end users, resulting in potential ‘signal loss’ where thoughts, emotions, and feedback from the lowest layers of the organization may not be effectively communicated.
  • Limited Testing Input: Middle managers are usually not directly involved in system or process testing, limiting their ability to provide detailed input to shape the change. Their contributions often focus on higher-level strategies for engaging impacted teams.

To build a strong, vibrant, and extensive change champion network, engagement needs to extend to different layers of the organization, not just the middle layers but also the lower layers. While top layers may be engaged through various committees, middle and lower layers require dedicated change champions.

Similar to the mycorrhizas connecting different trees in a forest, the change champion network, when stronger and more extensive, becomes more capable of influencing and driving change both vertically and horizontally across the company. This inclusivity ensures that smaller business groups are not neglected or deprioritized, contributing to the overall success and adaptability of the change network.

3) Routine interfaces

In the intricate ecosystem of a forest, mycorrhizas play a vital role by providing essential sustenance, and supplying critical nitrogen, water, and other nutrients to plants. In the organizational landscape, change champions serve a similar crucial function. Armed with comprehensive knowledge and a deep understanding of the change, along with the latest updates on its impacts, they possess the ability to interpret messages in a way that resonates with those directly affected, using a language that is tailored to each team’s unique history, priorities, and culture.

Unlike program-level communication, which may be too generalized, the interaction with change champions is a dynamic, two-way process. They engage with impacted employees, actively assessing and understanding where individuals stand in their change journey. This engagement leads to a clear comprehension of the specific communication, learning, or leadership support needs of impacted teams. High-performing change champions delve beyond the surface, understanding the motivations and demotivators of the teams they serve. This wealth of insights becomes a powerful set of messages that can be fed back to the central project mothership.

What sets high-performing change champions apart is not just their ability to communicate and collect feedback; they proactively sense-check and virtually “walk the floor” to feel the pulse of the employees. Often, change champions are directly impacted by themselves, fostering a natural empathy that enables them to connect with others undergoing change. In this dynamic, there is a delicate balance between self-interest and selflessness, as change champions strive not only to navigate their own challenges but also to extend support and assistance to those in need. This nuanced approach mirrors the harmony found in natural ecosystems, where organisms cooperate for mutual benefit.

4) Cross-network collaboration

Within the expansive framework of an extensive change network, diverse sub-teams of change champions naturally emerge, often organized by business units or grade levels. While connecting with peers within the same level might be straightforward, establishing collaboration across hierarchies, especially with those perceived as ‘managers,’ can pose challenges.

To overcome these challenges, intentional routines must be established to facilitate frequent sharing and collaboration among different change champion teams. In the natural world, trees emit chemical alarm signals to warn nearby trees of potential danger. Similarly, within a business context, a team from one business unit may sense a looming risk for change failure based on their experiences, which they can share with other teams yet to undergo the change.

Conversely, successful experiments in one part of the business should be readily proliferated in other areas of the organization. For instance, in a large insurance company, a change champion network recognized the need for frontline staff working virtually to have a platform for immediate queries and responses. The solution was a chat channel implemented under Microsoft Teams, approved by IT. In this channel, frontline staff could freely pose questions about system usage, shortcuts, and outages, and addressing customer concerns.

Initially, the channel had few questions, but as prompt and helpful responses were provided, engagement grew. Today, it stands as one of the most active Teams chat channels in the company, showcasing the effectiveness of cross-network collaboration. This success story has inspired similar initiatives in other businesses, emphasizing the ripple effect of successful collaboration practices within change networks.

5) Nurturing the network

Sustaining a change champion network is an ongoing endeavor that demands continuous nurturing, engagement, support, and leadership. Similar to any community, these networks thrive when provided with the right conditions and resources. Several key activities contribute to the nurturing of a dynamic and effective change champion network:

Onboarding and Expectation Setting: New members need comprehensive onboarding sessions where they receive information about the network’s objectives, core principles, expected time commitments, and other essential details.

Change Capability Sessions: Continuous learning is crucial for change champions. Sessions covering various topics, such as impact assessment, change communication, feedback provision during testing, and engagement with impacted stakeholder groups, help enhance their skills.

Leader Support: The involvement of senior leaders in certain sessions can provide valuable support and visibility to the network’s efforts, emphasizing the importance of their work in the broader organizational context.

Cross-Business Unit Networking: Structured agendas for cross-business unit change champion networking sessions create opportunities for sharing ideas and best practices, fostering a collaborative environment.

Routine Forums: Establishing routine forums for discussing project-specific topics allows members to stay informed and aligned with ongoing initiatives.

Formal Acknowledgments and Prizes: Recognizing key milestones and achievements through formal acknowledgments and prizes not only celebrates success but also motivates members to actively contribute.

Data Access: Providing change champions with access to change data, including impact assessments, readiness metrics, and change roadmaps, empowers them with valuable insights into upcoming changes and their stakeholder implications.

Regular Membership Reviews: Like any dynamic network, regular reviews of membership are essential. Some members may not meet expectations, and their roles might need to be filled by others. Expecting turnover and proactively managing it ensures a continuous influx of fresh perspectives and contributions.

Change champions, armed with comprehensive data on change impact, play a pivotal role in facilitating a clear understanding of impending changes and their ramifications for stakeholders. Regular reinforcement, support, and occasional challenges contribute to the resilience and effectiveness of the change champion network.

6) Supporting multiple initiatives

In the dynamic landscape of organizational change, it’s common for each business unit to undergo multiple initiatives simultaneously. Change champions play a pivotal role in navigating this complex terrain, supporting various initiatives and connecting the dots to form a coherent narrative for the impacted audience. Here’s why having change champions who can support multiple initiatives is crucial:

  1. Holistic Understanding: Change champions, acting as the linchpin between different initiatives, provide a holistic understanding of the changes unfolding within a business unit. This comprehensive view enables them to craft a cohesive story that resonates with the audience, fostering better comprehension and buy-in.
  2. Connecting the Dots: A key function of change champions is to connect disparate initiatives into a unified narrative. By highlighting interdependencies and common goals, they contribute to a more seamless and integrated change experience for stakeholders.
  3. Predicting Crunch Periods: Change champions need to anticipate and understand the crunch periods for their business unit. By supporting multiple initiatives, they become adept at forecasting when the organization might face heightened challenges and risks that could impact daily operations.
  4. Strategic Risk Management: With insights into multiple initiatives, change champions become strategic risk managers. They can identify potential points of friction, overlaps, or resource constraints and proactively address them, mitigating risks that could hinder the success of the initiatives.

Change Outcome
Example of a single view of change from The Change Compass

Example of Change Outcome: The Change Compass

In analogy to mycorrhizal networks that span diverse ecosystems, organizations face the challenge of not only developing robust change champion networks internally but also fostering connections with external networks. Just as mycorrhizal networks link various landscapes, change champion networks can extend their impact beyond organizational boundaries.

Research indicates that when change champion networks from different companies link up, a wealth of learning and collaboration unfolds. This interconnectedness leads to a blossoming of reciprocity, negotiation, and even selflessness. Organizations stand to gain immensely by facilitating the exchange of insights and experiences among diverse change champion networks, creating a thriving ecosystem of change management knowledge and practices.

Elevate your change management strategy! Book a weekly demo with us and explore how our solutions can empower your change champion network.

To check out more about designing the change process visit our Designing Change section here.