Managing Change

An organisation can be defined as a living organism where individuals systematically participate to achieve a common goal.

Managing change enables organisations to:

  • analyse how our organisation works and the implications of change
  • demonstrate the ability to critically engage with management theories
  • to critically discuss change theories and practices. 

Lets first define a few key concepts. 


Development can be defined as actions to cause gradual evolutionary improvement and/or growth from one point to a next.  The importance is the clear movement from a previous stage to a next stage. 

Design, when we talk about organisational design, is the creative plan to make or develop into something new.

Management is the process of influencing people to achieve common goal.  Part of management will include the direction and controlling of people's actions.  A manager affect and are affected by the process and therefore, personal growth and coping mechanisms is part of the task of management.

Change can be defined as the movement from one point to another, to alter to make something different.  Change is therefore close to development.  The difference to me is that development expects that there is an inherent improvement from the previous to the next, while change doesn't assume the same.  Change can result in a worse position as the previous. change management

Lastly, the definition of a bureaucracy originated from Max Weber assists in understanding organisations and management.  Bureaucracy developed because of tasks and responsibilities within a structure that became a permanent form of administration and standardized work procedures (Churchill, C. Class Notes 2006).  Although Max Weber preferred a bureaucracy as a more efficient form of administration, the danger exists that citizens are treated as objects, a real danger to which many citizens can testify.

Looking back to the classical thoughts of modernism in "Theories of Change", one can also learn and understand the changes in human behavour.  Modernism with its positivism, rationalism, efficiency, division of work and specialisation saw an organisation as a closed, self-sufficient purposeful hierarchical organisation with a formal structure.  But as we know now, organisations are more than just technically efficient organisms.  There are actually people with personalities and social needs working for organisations and therefore influencing organisational behaviour.

This lead to the "human relations" theory of organisations, recognizing the social factors affecting organisational behaviour.  Improvement of relations and recognising values and attitudes will improve efficiency rather than the technical requirement and specialisation of the classical view.  Although this is a much improved theory, it didn't recognise the environment in which an organisation functions. 

Systems Theory

This again, leads to the systems theory which integrates the human and classical theories about organisations, but adds the organisation's external environment and its influence on organisations as a important variable.  This theory recognises that organisations are dynamic organism and that there is a reciprocal relationship between the structural and behavioural aspects of an organisation. 

The systems theory  is generally regarded as the brain child of the biologists, Ludwig von Bertalanffy in reaction to physicists who studied organisms as closed entities, "as if the rest of the universe does not exist" (Heylighen, F. 1998) .  Von Bertalanffy exerts that organism are open systems and are therefore continuously influenced by its environment.  In, for example the human body, organisms will simply die if it is extracted from its environment.  Another important fact of von Bertalanffy's argument is that the environment consists of other systems also interacting with its environment as well.  Even individuals are a system (the body as the whole) which is part of a bigger system, society at large.  "…human beings are not just individual identities, but fulfill a social role: i.e., they are a function of a social system" (McKercher, P.M. 1993: Ch 4).

Applying this to organisational behaviour means that an organisation can only be understood by looking at it holistically, that is in conjunction with its inputs, outputs and environmental influences.  Interaction with the environment is therefore an intrinsic part of this theory.

Although this was a major shift in organisational behaviour, it doesn't solve all the questions of organisational behaviour.  One of the biggest concerns were the validity to use a physiological theory (body with its organisms) superimposed on social systems like organisations.  "Recognizing that the social organization is contrived again cautions us against making an exact analogy between it and physical or biological systems" (Kast, F.E. & Rosenzwieg, J.E. 1972: 456).  This brought about the contingency theory, adding the situation as another variable to take note of. 

Other Approaches

The contingent approach adds situational variables to the systems theory and can therefore be seen as an extension of the Systems theory.  "Basically, this approach seems to be leading to the development of a 'contingency' theory of organization with the appropriate internal states and processes of the organization contingent upon external requirements and member needs" (Lorsch, J.W. & Lawrence, P.W. 1970: 1).  This approach takes cognisance of the fact that every situation might impose different variables to be used and to act upon.

Another interesting theory of change is the institutional approach with close links to post-modernism.  This approach acknowledges the use of different fields of study, for example culture, ecology etc.  This theory see change as a "process of homogenisation since organisations are perceived to be looking for legitimacy in their own particular fields" (Ngoma, W. undated: 4). The focus here is the environment which is also the critique against this approach as if the environment determine the change and not active participation and management form the organisation and its leaders.
With these definitions, I would like to briefly reflect on Managing change. 

Managing change

A few interesting ideas on managing change:

  • Burnes' (1997) questions why organisations choose inappropriate changes and what factors influence changes;
  • Rainey's (2003) discussion of Down's organizational life cycle and Quinn's organizational stages, and the characteristics of innovative managers/leaders;
  • Nickols' (2004) unfreezing - change - re-freezing change process;
  • Seel's (2002) question whether change agents can change organisations;
  • French & Delahay's (1996) 4 phased model for individual change, replacing the 2 old perspectives, gap closure and gap connection;
  • Kegan & Lahey's (2001) competing commitments why people won't change;
  • Seel's () epidemiology approach to culture and  the change agent who becomes a "virus" to the organization;
  • Kearin's () discussion of a Foucauldian perspective on power.

The Organizational Development (OD) approach has its roots in human relations and relies on external agents to facilitate change.  The critique against this approach is that the change agents or consultant is seen as a physician who comes in, diagnose and prescribe the correct "medicine", often using a "toolbox" solution.   Noting the critique of the "toolbox"-solution but also acknowledge that a practical guide does help in providing direction and might even ease the fear associated with change.  The critique against an external agent is also valid but again, an external agent does bring in an unbiased critical view to processes and relationships which can facilitate the necessary change.  I do believe however, that a combined approach (change agent and internal management) is beneficial.  As Richard Seel (2002) pointed out, change agents can not change organisations, they can only help organisations and individuals to discover new goals.  As Seel (2000) so eloquently puts it, the change agent becomes a virus to the organisation, causing the internal participants to become their own agents of change.

Nichols (2004) does add the importance of the different skill set of the consultant as a change agent.  Kegan & Lahey (2001) even adds another dimension to the skill set, that of a "psychologist".  To help individuals overcome their "competing commitments" (Kegan, R. & Lahey, L.L. 2001: 38), they provide a set of questions to help the change agent uncovering the real reasons why people won't change.  Although this is a useful guide for change agents to help individuals, and although the authors do admit that it's a "challenging and painful" (2001: 54) process, I'm not sure if this process of uncovering competing commitments will be as easy as the article make it to be, especially in a big organisation.

I prefer French & Delahay's (1996) new approach, the 4-phased model for changing individuals.  They challenge the assumptions of the old approach of gap closure and gap connection which assumes that change is a linear and finite process and that individuals will resist change because its seen as an external force on them.  Their cyclical model moves from a position of security to anxiety to discovery to integration.  In a nut shell: security creates a sense of boredom, but individuals' creativity moves them to the next stage; anxiety.  The loss of the familiar patterns created anxiety but a need to learn, which offer development moves individuals to the next stage; discovery.  Newly discovered information and skills, and creating new strategies leads individuals to make choices which leads them to the next stage; integration.  In this stage, individuals accept the new way of doing things and create a new form of security.  To me, this new stage of security caries the seeds of a new cycle. 


Looking at all the different authors, one can almost say there is so many ideas on change as there are authors, which, by the way, is typical of our post-modernistic paradigm we live in.  But if I were asked to comment on the factors that do play a major role in changing organisations, the following strike me as important:

  • Create a need for change, even if it needs to be "orchestrated" by bad financial reports or a crisis in the organisation
  • Strong leadership and commitment of the leaders to a new vision (see also Kotter's  8 steps)
  • Get everybody involved. It shouldn't only be a "management" objective. 


References and Notes:

Heylighen (1997) drew a useful comparison between the analytic approach and the systems approach but warns that its only purpose is to provide a simple comparison.

Analytic Approach Systemic Approach
isolates, then concentrates on the elements unifies and concentrates on the interaction between elements
studies the nature of interaction  
emphasizes the precision of details emphasizes global perception
modifies one variable at a time modifies groups of variables simultaneously
remains independent of duration of time; the phenomena considered are reversible integrates duration of time and irreversibility
validates facts by means of experimental proof within the body of a theory validates facts through comparison of the behavior of the 
model with reality
uses precise and detailed models that are less useful in actual operation (example: econometric models) uses models that are insufficiently rigorous to be used as 
bases of knowledge but are useful in decision and action (example: models of the  Club of Rome)
has an efficient approach when interactions are linear and weak has an efficient approach when interactions are nonlinear and strong
leads to discipline-oriented (juxtadisciplinary) education leads to multidisciplinary education
leads to action programmed in detail leads to action through objectives
possesses knowledge of details poorly defined goals possesses knowledge of goals, fuzzy details

John P Kotter provides reasons why change often fails and conclude with these 8 steps to transforming an organisation (Kotter, J.P. 1995: 7):

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Create a vision
  4. Communicate the vision
  5. Empower others to act on the vision
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins
  7. Consolidate improvements, producing more wins
  8. Institutionalise new approaches

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