Management of change


No matter the organisation, the industry or the individual - change is a fact of life and something that has to be dealt with on a day to day basis. The ideas within the discipline of organisational change are not particularly new, but still today the change model of 'best fit' is remains a highly contentious subject.

The ability of an organisation to adapt to change and deal with environmental forces is crucial to its survival. At times, small changes can be predicted, managed and manipulated, but all too often organisations are forced into change. This presents challenges to those responsible for moving organisations forward, for enabling change to happen.

This essay delves into the many facets of Organisational Change management, and shows how over time organisations are (on the whole) gradually evolving from a proactive 'top down' and rather strict 'hierarchical' approach at managing change into an emergent, continually improving and reactive approach that promises more freedom for organisations to manage change from a variety of inputs.

There is only one thing constant in life - change.

- Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), n.d.

The Nature of Organisational Change

The term 'Organisation' is described as the most fundamental aspect of a business, charity, public service or any other goal-directed collection of people. Change is commonly defined as 'to transform, or convert'. Organisational Change is the process of continually renewing an organisation's direction, structure, and capabilities to serve the ever-changing needs of external and internal customers' (Moran and Brightman, 2000).

The ability to adapt to change is commonly seen as the single most important factor in business today and its management is rapidly becoming a highly regarded managerial skill. But can we actually manage change? Sloan (2009) is a keen advocator of the opinion that we cannot actually 'manage' change, but we can however be strong leaders, and to be able to lead under pressure will help us transition successfully through the change.

Change is everywhere - within every business there are ongoing sources of change, every professional discipline is a process of change, and every fundamental business principle directs us to change. Various driving forces (i.e. customers, competitors, technology, regulations, distribution channels, suppliers, globalisation, economic shock etc.) create change that then forces our change in response. Certain rewards are there for the organisations that act quickly, who take the risks, and adapt rapidly to change. Change will occur when an organisation restructures resources to increase the ability to create value and improve effectiveness.

The people who drive change are termed 'change agents', and all employees should be seen as 'agents' who can facilitate change. The purpose of a change agent is to change what is possible by adding value every day. Change agents have the ability to change:

  1. Structure: Change agents can alter one or more of the key elements in an organisation's design;
  2. Technology: Competitive factors or innovations within an organization often require change agents to introduce new equipment, tools, or methods;
  3. People: Change agents help individuals and groups within the organisation work more effectively together; and
  4. Physical Settings: Change agents can affect their environment.

Change comes in many forms - which one is right?

In order for organisations to effect change, the amount and method of change is going to stem from being either a proactive or reactive (emergent) response. The majority of articles and publications found regarding change agree that in theory, the best method of organisational change is the newer 'emergent' model of change. In this model, change is seen much less as a one off exercise, and is seen as a continuous process whereby organisations seek to align and realign themselves against an unpredictable, many faceted and rapidly changing environment (Burnes, 1996). There are, however, still the theorists that believe in the planned, top down approach to change.

Although the successful management of change is generally accepted as being a necessity in order for organisations to survive, as described above the need for change can be unpredictable, reactive, discontinuous, ad hoc and often triggered by a situation of organisational crisis (Burnes, 2004). With the vast amount of information available regarding methods of change, one would think that the processes would almost be step by step, easy to follow with a solid framework for adaptation. This it seems is incorrect, as Balogun and Hope-Hailey (2004) reported a failure rate of around 70 per cent of all change programmes initiated. It has been suggested that this poor success rate indicates a fundamental lack of a valid framework regarding the implementation and management of effective organisational change, and that the models currently available to academics and practitioners offer a variety of contradictory and often confusing theories and approaches (Burnes, 2004).

Resistance to change as described in Figure 1 above is necessarily detrimental to organisations and can actually have its benefits. Resistance forces management to check and recheck the proposals, it helps identify specific problem areas where changes are likely to cause difficulty, it gives management information about the intensity of employee emotions on the issues and it also provides a means of release of emotions.

It is near on impossible to determine whether proactive or reactive change is predominant in today's organisation. As described earlier, the general focus of change management since the 1980's has shifted from planned, top down proactive approach of organisational change into the continuous emergent approach. However, the actual approach taken depends entirely on the situation, the organisation, and the management team. Indeed, the planned 'top down' approach to change management, although appearing to be outdated, may still be the best fit in certain organisational circumstances.

Whether it is a proactive or reactive change management response, there are several well established models of change on either side to help practitioners develop a method to deal with change and reach the desired outcome. The model of best fit for an organisation will be on a case by case basis, and are explained briefly below.

Planned change (proactive change)

Kurt Lewin's three step model

n Lewin's three step model, the emphasis is on individuals behaviour (or forces) acting or opposing in opposite directions. These opposing forces either facilitate or inhibit change in the individual as they push or pull the employee in the desired or undesired direction.

Stage one in the three step model is to unfreeze the existing situation, or what Lewin refers to as unfreezing the status quo. Unfreezing is the need to change existing attitudes towards working practises and processes before the change can begin to take place. This can be done in three steps:

  1. Increase the driving forces to change direction away from the status quo;
  2. Decrease the restraining forces that negatively affect the movement from the status quo; or
  3. A combination of the above two methods.

Some activities that can assist in the unfreezing step include:

  1. Motivate participants by preparing them for change;
  2. Build trust and recognition for the need to change;
  3. Actively participate in recognizing problems and brainstorming solutions within a group. (Robbins 564-65).

Stage two of Lewin's change process is movement. This is the implementation stage, where we move to a new state of equilibrium. The success of this movement stage will depend entirely on how thorough the planning and preparation was in the first stage. Three actions that can assist in the movement step include:

  1. persuading employees to agree that the status quo is not beneficial to them and encouraging them to view the problem from a fresh perspective;
  2. work together on a quest for new, relevant information; and
  3. connect the views of the group to well-respected, powerful leaders that also support the change.


The third stage in Lewin model is the stage of refreezing. This is done for consolidation once the desired change has been incorporated into the culture. This effectively stabilises the new equilibrium that has resulted from the balance of the driving and opposing forces. This stage can be implemented via formal and informal reinforcement through policies and procedures (Robbins 564-65).

Kurt Lewin - Action-Research 'spiral' model

Kurt Lewin also penned the highly debated action research 'spiral' model of the 1940's. The model consists of a spiral of steps, each step composing a spiral of planning, action and fact finding about the result of the action, and provides for a basis of continual learning and improvement

Lewin's spiral approach includes the following steps:

  1. Identify an idea,
  2. Fact finding
  3. Plan a course of action
  4. Take the action
  5. Evaluate the action that was taken
  6. Revise the plan of action from what was learned in step 5
  7. Take another action step, which leads into the next spiral.

Criticisms of the action research method and Lewin's spiral model

McTaggart, in his 'Issues for participatory action researchers' article of 1996 warns that action research is not a static or 'rigid method of inquiry and by following Lewin's research spiral model does not necessarily mean we are doing action research'. McTaggart suggests that the focus for action research should be on the actual research and not of the procedures. He argues that it is too easy to get caught up in the process and miss the learning that should be acquired from the experience. He also argues that the notion of a spiral may indeed be a useful teaching device - but it is too easy to slip into using it as the template for practice (McTaggart, 1996. p249).

Bullock and Batten integrated four phase model

Bullock and Battens' integrated four phase model draws on some of the disciplines used in project management. These four phases or steps are as follows:

  1. Exploration - Organisations become aware of the need to change. They begin to explore the resources needed;
  2. Planning - This involves information collection, identification of goals, identification for the support required;
  3. Action - implementation of the plan, evaluation, adjustment and control;
  4. Integration - Feedback, monitoring the behaviour, reinforcing the desired behaviour, consolidating the behaviour.

This particular approach implies the use of the machine metaphor of organizations. Wheatly and Kellner-Rogers (1996) suggest that this is one of the common failures of Organisational Change models. Organisations as machines refers to the 17th century and outdated notion that organisations are 'machines' and only working in specific conditions, exhibit no intelligence and have no capacity to adapt.

Unplanned, emergent change (reactive change)

As described earlier, the emergent model is focused on the unpredictable nature of change. Change can be instigated through any number of variables, including context, political processes and consultation. The rationale from emergent change stems from the idea that change cannot be conceptualised as a series of linear events undertaken within a given set time. Pettigrew and Whipp devised a model that involved five interrelated activities:

  1. Environmental assessment;
  2. Leading change;
  3. Coherence;
  4. Linking strategic and operational change; and
  5. Developing human resources.

It was suggested that by organisations undertaking these activities they can become 'open learning systems' with strategy development and change emerging from the way the company as a whole acquires, interprets and processes information about its environment.

Although not always stated, emergent change operates on the assumption that all organisations exist in a turbulent unpredictable environment. The viability of this type of change depends on this premise, which may or may not be entirely relevant to a particular organisation.

Conclusion +/- 250


Comparison of Change Theories
  • Robbins, Stephen. Organizational Behavior. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
  • (lewin spiral thing)
  • more lewin
  • bullock and batten
  • Leading organizational change John W. Moran, Baird K. Brightman Journal: Journal of Workplace Learning Year: 2000 Volume: 12 Issue: 2 Page: 66 - 74
  • McTaggart, R. (1996) Issues for participatory action researchers. In O. Zuber-Skerrit (eds.) "New Direction in Action Research." London: Falmer Press.
  • sloan k 2009
  • Simmering M Page No 6 of 10

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