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4 min read

A Change Management Primer

Jack Welch was a believer in the importance of a company’s ability to change. To the extent he asserted that when the rate of change inside a company is slower than the rate of change outside it, the end is in sight. Conditions before, during and after change are best illustrated in Lewin’s Force Field Analysis Model. On one side is the driving forces and on the other are restraining forces. Only if the driving force can be increased to overpower, or the restraining force reduced allow, is change able to be brought about. Perhaps the most crucial element in understanding this process is to apprehend why people are resistant to change.

Case studies of organisational resistance to management change abound, with some surveys reporting over 40% of management in the United States find resistance to change as the main barrier to improved workplace productivity. This resistance can take many forms from direct stoppages, such as strikes, to more subtle resistance techniques of continuing to use old work practices. Of these methods to change resistance, I think the most difficult to combat, and as a result destructive to the change process, are those which involve the more subtle forms of resistance as they invariably don’t directly block, but create enough drag on the process to ensure nothing is really getting done.

Resistance to Change

There are several reasons for resistance to change which range from direct costs, where employees think the pains hardly outweigh the gains, to the need to protect organisational integrity. The latter has added complications as employees can sometimes think a new process is a slap in the face to their professionalism, because if it isn’t broken why change it? Alternatively, if it is thought the process is broken then clearly ‘they’ are not doing a good job. Fear of the unknown can also cause resistance to change as employees can dread redundancy if they can’t adapt to the new environment. Finally, breaking a routine can create resistance to change as employees may get into a comfortable rut: it isn’t great but it also doesn’t make taxing demands on their work day allowing them to clock on, clock off and not endure too much stress in-between.

In the 1970s, John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger identified six keys to minimising resistance to change. These were communication, learning, employee involvement, stress management, negotiation and coercion. While each brings levers to the process for a manager to implement change, they each suffer from one key failing: they are all time consuming. Coercion could be argued to be the most direct, and therefore time efficient, but coercion tends to lead to an increase in the subtle forms of resistance which create the already mentioned drag on change management and, in the long run, can take even more time than the other five strategies. In this context, the most assured method for surmounting resistance and achieving meaningful and long term change is to create urgency.

The Burning Platform

An example of change management through urgency is the ‘burning platform’ method. But such an approach carries risks.  Employees may see the strategy as manipulative – ultimately leading to the boy who cried wolf syndrome, which undermines a managers ability to lead. Yet if implemented well, the ‘burning platform’ technique can be used to great effect as it can create buy in from employees who become autonomous in their attempts to bring about change, doing a managers job for them. This is because employees come to see the post-change environment as preferable to their current situation.

Yet even in the case of a successful ‘burning platform’ scenario, change management can become mired by cultural issues. Business thinkers often see cultural differences as an east / west divide, or perhaps an east / west / US divide. But the nature of globalisation, the notion that thinking is not constrained by national borders, or even national boarders, brings some very interesting and challenging problems to the table. In Buddhism there exists Bhavacakra, more commonly known in the west as the ‘wheel of life.’ In corporate circles this concept of continual rebirth on the wheel which is ever turning has morphed, in the minds of more cynical employees, into the wheel of management. In this sense all notions of deep spirituality are stripped away and replaced with an almost game show style idea of new manager, new idea, tried it before, didn’t work, but let’s go through the motions again. In this scenario, change isn’t met with conflict, but rather passive acquiescence. In some ways this can be as destructive, given the all important buy in from employees isn’t gained. Instead a highly mechanical reaction of going through the motions until something fails sets in, in the hope this will confound management, with the sure knowledge things will then return to the status quo.

However, in certain circumstances urgency itself can be a problem. Jack Welch observed this when he noted that corporations experience problems when the rate of change is too slow or when change management begins too late. In other words, when change management falls into the ‘have to’ scenario.

So, How Do Organisations Successfully Change?

At the risk of ending with a trite truism, organisational change is a complicated process, best accomplished from the bottom up and the inside out. Successful change management is hard because it requires time, an understanding of human psychology, social and industrial awareness and business practise. But knowing this only shifts the problem from 'how' to 'when'. Or in other words, at what speed should the change management take place? In the organisational behaviour debate the jury still seems to be out on this big question, but in fifty-two words I will attempt my solution:

Pull the bandage off fast enough to avoid unnecessary pain, but not so quickly that it risks reopening the old wound. Only the patient, in this case the organisation and its stakeholders, can know what this golden mean rate is, and they will only know after change is done and new practices are fully bedded down.

Or perhaps even this is too complex, and the solution can be boiled down to a Nike slogan: ‘Just Do It.’

What have been your experiences with organisational change management?

Good night and good luck.


This post is day 064 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. If you want to get involved, you can get more info from 100daystooffload.com.

Posted in: 100DaysToOffload, Org Behaviour, Leadership