According to a 2011 Forbes Magazine article written by Steve Denning, “Changing an organization’s culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges.” The reason, he writes, is “because an organization’s culture comprises an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes, and assumptions.”

People become set in their ways, and changing what they are used to is never easy. Effective managers must set the proper context, boundaries, and deliverables for their teams. However, for organizational change to be successful, this needs to go a step further. Each person in the organization must work together towards a common goal of moving the company forward, according to a well-communicated plan.

Success Starts at the Top

Successful organizational change starts with the CEO. He or she is responsible for driving organizational change and needs to set context for his or her direct reports, to ensure that the project instructions are clear and well-understood—including the deliverables, timelines, and resources. By setting that context with the senior management team, each team member will know what they need to do and can work from there within their own parts of the organization.

Cascading Communications

Particularly in large organizations, it’s impossible for the CEO to connect directly with each employee. This means that it’s up to the management team to communicate with his or her reports to ensure that the strategic plan is implemented. There needs to be a cascading process for the change objectives, accountabilities, and authorities.

What is the Cascading Effect?

The CEO determines the change management plan objectives, and sets clear expectations within the senior management team for what needs to be done within each department. Senior management then communicates the objectives to their subordinate managers. Each subordinate manager must continue to reinforce the change management plan with his or her team. This communication cascades down the organization until the information has been communicated through each level, to the front lines.

Each manager needs to ensure that this communication is two-way. On the one hand, the manager needs to communicate the organizational change objectives, and why they are important. But the manager also needs to understand the potential impact on subordinates, and points of support or resistance. This two-way flow of information up and down the organization is critical.

The cascading effect requires more than simply restating the CEO’s instructions. Managers at each level of the organization must translate the information and let their teams know how the organizational change will impact them, and what tasks are relevant for their departments. They need to communicate in a way that makes sense to their specific teams.

Think of it like an umbrella. The CEO has a giant “organizational umbrella”, where he or she sets the context, deliverables, and accountabilities for the organizational change. Each one of the subordinate managers then has a smaller umbrella, which sets a narrower context that makes sense for their individual departments. The umbrellas become smaller with each level of the organization, with narrower boundaries within which to make decisions. For example, a programmer would have a smaller umbrella than a director or VP. But everyone is working within the boundaries of the organizational umbrella.