Change management is basically the science, or possibly art, of managing yourself and others during a period of change.
Since most organisations and a good many people’s lives are in a constant state of flux, you could argue that most of us are managing change on a daily basis, but how we do it, and how well we do it, varies considerably.
The pages in this section will help you get to grips with managing change in your own life, and in the lives of those around you, whether in a work context or as part of your personal life. They will help you to focus on the skills you need to manage change successfully and support others through periods of change.
What is Change?
Change chānj, v.t. to alter or make different: to put or give for another: to make to pass from one state to another: to exchange.
Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition
This simple definition masks a whole world in organisational change terms. So what is encompassed by the term ‘organisational change’?
Strong organisations will keep monitoring their environment, and make minor adjustments all the time, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by the majority of their staff. Major change within an organisation, however, is usually driven by an external force, often one that threatens the survival of the organisation, such as a merger or takeover, or a drop in sales. It also tends to be linked to ‘efficiency’, which usually means downsizing, with the implied threat of redundancy.
None of these connotations are very positive, so perhaps it’s no surprise that organisational change is often greeted with resistance and cynicism.
But does it have to be this way? Are there people who naturally embrace change, and can the rest of us learn to be more like them?
There is no doubt that uncertainty is one of the most stressful conditions to humans.
An interesting thought…
If you want to explore our natural condition, it can be instructive to watch or interact with small children, who are very much creatures of instinct. They are also very much creatures of habit, finding changes to their routine very difficult to handle, and clinging to what they know.
Consider a baby taken to a nursery for the first time. Are they thinking ‘Yay, a whole new world to explore’? No, or at least not often. They’re thinking ‘I’ve been abandoned! Help!’ even if they can’t verbalise that thought.
Change leads to uncertainty, which can lead to stress.
There are ways to manage the stress of change, and minimise the uncertainty, both for yourself and others.
Of course it is always possible that those who seem to enjoy change are simply more tolerant of uncertainty than others, but it is more likely that they have found a way to manage the uncertainty for themselves. Some, for example, may choose to ignore those issues which they cannot control as ‘not worth worrying about’, or may approach change as an adventure.
A Brief History of Change Management
Academics and practitioners have been talking about change and its management for many years, and there are some clear schools of thought that have come and gone over that time.
The earliest, from about the 1900s, was what is often characterised as the ‘Mechanical’ school, based on ideas from engineering. Those carrying out the change thought and talked in terms of ‘re-engineering’, efficiency, and closed systems.
The next school was the ‘Biological’ one, which started in the 1950s, and considered change to be evolutionary. Language used is ‘adapt’, ‘reposition’, and ‘congruent’. It’s all a bit gentler. The 1980s then brought the ‘Interpretive’ school, which leant on cognitive models and looked for systems that generated meaning. Their search was for ‘re-framing’, ‘renaming’ and cultural change. Probably the most famous models of organisational change from this period are those of Kotter.
Kotter’s Models of Change
1) Unfreeze, change, refreeze
This model works on the basis that you have to drive change by creating urgency towards it (unfreezing) before you can create a vision for change, and drive the organisation towards that through short-term quick wins. Once you have achieved your vision, you consolidate (‘refreeze’) and institutionalise your changes.
2) The Eight Step Model
This is a considerably more detailed model of change along very similar lines, which has eight steps rather than three:
- Increase urgency
- Build the guiding team
- Get the right vision
- Communicate for buy-in
- Empower action
- Create short-term wins
- Don’t let up
- Make it stick
Kotter’s models suggest a world in which change can end when a desired point is reached, which may or may not have been the case in the past, but which many would agree doesn’t really fit the current world.
At the moment, we do seem to live in a fast-changing world, which is why, in the 1990s, change management academics introduced complexity theory into the equation. They started to talk about dynamic or complex adaptive systems, and chaos thinking. The buzzwords were ‘participate’ and ‘renew’.
Complexity theory focuses less on diagnosing problems, and more on looking for opportunities. It is about finding chances to learn, including from resistance, and to generate energy which can drive change for the better. What’s important here is engaging with people, something to which we can probably all relate.
See our page, Understanding Change for more on the theories of change management.
Leading and Implementing Change
(See also: Implementing Change)
It will be clear from this that managing change is not a simple operation. On the other hand, it is a very human process, requiring human skills.
Good change managers and leaders need primarily to be very good at engaging with people, with good Empathy, and excellent Communication Skills. They need to be good at motivating others and have very strong Emotional Intelligence, in particular a good understanding of themselves, and strong resilience.
If we consider the styles of leader who are likely to be good at leading change, they are likely to be authoritative if a vision is needed in a Kotter-style change process, and affiliative or democratic to involve others in a change that is more constant-state-of-flux-type change.
The other aspect of managing change is how you personally accept and adapt to change.
See our page, Personal Change Management Skills for much more.
Those who are good at responding to change tend to be those with good strategic thinking skills, who can see how they fit into the organisation’s strategy, or how this change or that fits into their personal or organisational strategy.
See our page, Strategic Thinking for more.
Those who adapt well to change tend to have good Emotional Intelligence, and in particular be very resilient, and strong on self-motivation. They are able to accept change as an opportunity to learn and view it positively.
Those who find it hard to adapt to change may resist it. There is considerable research on understanding and overcoming resistance to change.
See our page on Resistance to Change for more.
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We do not often hear people being praised as being ‘really good at managing change’. It is only the poor management of change which is remembered.
Good change management often goes quietly unnoticed, because it creates little stress in those involved, as it engages and involves them. In a changing world, it seems that those leading change can take pride if their efforts are ‘under the radar’.