The Five Conditions for (Organizational) Improvement

Understanding why organizations get stuck and won't change

Back in 2017 Roy Rapoport wrote “The Five Conditions for Improvement”, talking about the conditions necessary for an employee to fix a performance problem. I think he came up with a great framework for helping people improve, but what really keeps me coming back, over and over again, is how applicable it is in larger contexts. I think what Roy really described were the five conditions necessary for any entity to improve. And that includes organizational entities.

Let’s say, the “Bob” in Roy’s essay isn’t an individual, but is instead Bob’s Organic Bagels, a scrappy start-up that has grown to become a solid little company bringing in a few million a year. They’ve reached the stage where they need to develop a little more maturity in their processes in order to scale, yet they can’t quite seem to get there. Why?

  1. Does BOB agree there is a problem? Is there consensus across BOB senior leadership that there is a problem? What about outside the senior leadership team? If only one or two senior leaders agree there is a problem to be solved, it’s not likely to be solved.
  2. Does BOB actually want to see this problem resolved? Ok, so a useful plurality of BOB management sees the problem, but there is no consensus that it’s a problem — maybe they don’t want extra process or scale, maybe they think it will happen organically, or they’re just busy and don’t want a new initiative. Whatever they reason, they don’t care. Even if they want to care, they can’t manage to really care. So it doesn’t happen.
  3. Does BOB management see their role in the creation or ongoing care and feeding of the problem? If thinking around the BOB general managers meeting is that there is a problem that just arose mysteriously out of the ether and is an unsolvable mystery, then the outcome is certain: nothing will happen. Problems are created – and solved – by people, and this is what management exists to do. To solve the thorniest problems, management must be willing to recognize their own part in the creation of the problem and course correct. If they’re unwilling to change how they manage the business, then how the business is managed will not change.
  4. Can BOB figure out a plan to solve the problem? Imagine BOB management agrees the problem exists, needs to be solved, and recognizes their part in the creation of the problem. They know they need to change course, but can’t figure out how to chart a new one. If Bob can’t figure out what to do about things, they’re not to get better.
  5. Can BOB successfully execute the plan to solve the problem? The final step: Can they stop managing how they’ve been managing, successfully change course, and go in a new direction without stumbling or turning back around? This may take some time to prove out, and they may find they need to change course again. That’s normal and expected. Or should be.

Knowing where you and your company are at in the five steps is key to successfully navigating organizational change, and that’s what keeps me coming back to Roy’s piece, time and again.

OK, great, now what am I supposed to do with this?

If you’re a leader at BOB, understanding where you’re at on that scale – and being honest with yourself about it – is going to be pretty key to the success of any initiative you’re undertaking. The more important the change, the more important it is to understand where you’re at.

And if you’re a leader thinking of joining BOB, you need to understand where they’re at, too. Worse, you need to try to separate where they think they are at from where they are really at, because the problem may not be seen the same way across the management team. See Levels 1 and 2, for example. Plenty of great leaders have joined companies both large and small and then found out the difference between an organization that truly wants to change versus an organization that wants to feel like it is changing.

But here’s the thing: recognizing the levels is a great tool for overcoming them. And just as Bob successfully made it through in Roy’s original essay, BOB can, too.

A nonsensical AI-generated image I somehow liked for this, courtesy of
A nonsensical AI-generated image I somehow liked for this, courtesy of