Change Management 101: A Primer
© Fred Nickols 2004
I wrote the first version of this paper several years ago and I’ve tinkered with it ever since. It is, for me, an exercise in change management.
Purpose and Audience
The purpose of this paper is to provide a broad overview of the concept of “change management.” It was written primarily for people who are coming to grips with change management problems for the first time and for more experienced people who wish to reflect upon their experience in a structured way.
Change Management Defined
Three Basic Definitions
In thinking about what is meant by “change management,” at least three basic definitions come to mind:
The Task of Managing Change
The first and most obvious
definition of “change management” is that the term refers to the task of
managing change. The obvious is not necessarily unambiguous. Managing
change is itself a term that has at least two meanings.
One meaning of “managing change” refers to the making of changes in a planned and managed or systematic fashion. The aim is to more effectively implement new methods and systems in an ongoing organization. The changes to be managed lie within and are controlled by the organization. Perhaps the most familiar instance of this kind of change is the change or version control aspect of information system development projects. However, these internal changes might have been triggered by events originating outside the organization, in what is usually termed “the environment.” Hence, the second meaning of managing change, namely, the response to changes over which the organization exercises little or no control (e.g., legislation, social and political upheaval, the actions of competitors, shifting economic tides and currents, and so on). Researchers and practitioners alike typically distinguish between a knee-jerk or reactive response and an anticipative or proactive response.
An Area of Professional Practice
The second definition of
change management is "an area of professional practice."
There are dozens, if not
hundreds, of independent consultants who will quickly and proudly proclaim
that they are engaged in planned change, that they are change agents, that
they manage change for their clients, and that their practices are change
management practices. There are numerous small consulting firms whose
principals would make these same statements about their firms. And, of
course, most of the major management consulting firms have a change
management practice area.
Some of these change management experts claim to help clients manage the changes they face – the changes happening to them. Others claim to help clients make changes. Still others offer to help by taking on the task of managing changes that must be made. In almost all cases, the process of change is treated separately from the specifics of the situation. It is expertise in this task of managing the general process of change that is laid claim to by professional change agents.
A Body of Knowledge
Stemming from the view of
change management as an area of professional practice there arises yet a
third definition of change management: the content or subject matter of
change management. This consists chiefly of the models, methods and
techniques, tools, skills and other forms of knowledge that go into making
up any practice.
The content or subject
matter of change management is drawn from psychology, sociology, business
administration, economics, industrial engineering, systems engineering and
the study of human and organizational behavior. For many practitioners,
these component bodies of knowledge are linked and integrated by a set of
concepts and principles known as General Systems Theory (GST). It is not
clear whether this area of professional practice should be termed a
profession, a discipline, an art, a set of techniques or a technology. For
now, suffice it to say that there is a large, reasonably cohesive albeit
somewhat eclectic body of knowledge underlying the practice and on which
most practitioners would agree — even if their application of it does
exhibit a high degree of variance.
To recapitulate, there are at least three basic definitions of change management:
Content and Process
Organizations are highly
specialized systems and there are many different schemes for grouping and
classifying them. Some are said to be in the retail business, others are
in manufacturing, and still others confine their activities to
distribution. Some are profit-oriented and some are not for profit. Some
are in the public sector and some are in the private sector. Some are
members of the financial services industry, which encompasses banking,
insurance, and brokerage houses. Others belong to the automobile industry,
where they can be classified as original equipment manufacturers (OEM) or
after-market providers. Some belong to the health care industry, as
providers, as insureds, or as insurers. Many are regulated, some are not.
Some face stiff competition, some do not. Some are foreign-owned and some
are foreign-based. Some are corporations, some are partnerships, and some
are sole proprietorships. Some are publicly held and some are privately
held. Some have been around a long time and some are newcomers. Some have
been built up over the years while others have been pieced together
through mergers and acquisitions. No two are exactly alike.
The preceding paragraph
points out that the problems found in organizations, especially the change
problems, have both a content and a process dimension. It is one thing,
for instance, to introduce a new claims processing system in a
functionally organized health insurer. It is quite another to introduce a
similar system in a health insurer that is organized along product lines
and market segments. It is yet a different thing altogether to introduce a
system of equal size and significance in an educational establishment that
relies on a matrix structure. The languages spoken differ. The values
differ. The cultures differ. And, at a detailed level, the problems
differ. However, the overall processes of change and change management
remain pretty much the same, and it is this fundamental similarity of the
change processes across organizations, industries, and structures that
makes change management a task, a process, and an area of professional
The Change Process
The Change Process as “Unfreezing, Changing and Refreezing”
The process of change has
been characterized as having three basic stages: unfreezing, changing, and
re-freezing. This view draws heavily on Kurt Lewin’s adoption of the
systems concept of homeostasis or dynamic stability.
What is useful about this
framework is that it gives rise to thinking about a staged approach to
changing things. Looking before you leap is usually sound practice.
What is not useful about
this framework is that it does not allow for change efforts that begin
with the organization in extremis (i.e., already “unfrozen”), nor does it
allow for organizations faced with the prospect of having to “hang loose”
for extended periods of time (i.e., staying “unfrozen”).
In other words, the beginning and ending point of the unfreeze-change-refreeze model is stability — which, for some people and some organizations, is a luxury. For others, internal stability spells disaster. A tortoise on the move can overtake even the fastest hare if that hare stands still.
The Change Process as Problem Solving and Problem Finding
A very useful framework
for thinking about the change process is problem solving. Managing change
is seen as a matter of moving from one state to another, specifically,
from the problem state to the solved state. Diagnosis or problem analysis
is generally acknowledged as essential. Goals are set and achieved at
various levels and in various areas or functions. Ends and means are
discussed and related to one another. Careful planning is accompanied by
efforts to obtain buy-in, support and commitment. The net effect is a
transition from one state to another in a planned, orderly fashion. This
is the planned change model.
The word “problem” carries
with it connotations that some people prefer to avoid. They choose instead
to use the word “opportunity.” For such people, a problem is seen as a bad
situation, one that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen in the first
place, and for which someone is likely to be punished — if the guilty
party (or a suitable scapegoat) can be identified. For the purposes of
this paper, we will set aside any cultural or personal preferences
regarding the use of “problem” or “opportunity.” From a rational,
analytical perspective, a problem is nothing more than a situation
requiring action but in which the required action is not known. Hence,
there is a requirement to search for a solution, a course of action that
will lead to the solved state. This search activity is known as “problem
From the preceding
discussion, it follows that “problem finding” is the search for situations
requiring action. Whether we choose to call these situations “problems”
(because they are troublesome or spell bad news), or whether we choose to
call them “opportunities” (either for reasons of political sensitivity or
because the time is ripe to exploit a situation) is immaterial. In both
cases, the practical matter is one of identifying and settling on a course
of action that will bring about some desired and predetermined change in
The Change Problem
At the heart of change
management lies the change problem, that is, some future state to be
realized, some current state to be left behind, and some structured,
organized process for getting from the one to the other. The change
problem might be large or small in scope and scale, and it might focus on
individuals or groups, on one or more divisions or departments, the entire
organization, or one or on more aspects of the organization’s
At a conceptual level, the
change problem is a matter of moving from one state (A) to another state
(A’). Moving from A to A’ is typically accomplished as a result of setting
up and achieving three types of goals: transform, reduce, and apply. Transform goals are
concerned with identifying differences between the two states. Reduce
goals are concerned with determining ways of eliminating these
differences. Apply goals are concerned with putting into play operators
that actually effect the elimination of these differences (see Newell
As the preceding goal types suggest, the analysis of a change problem will at various times focus on defining the outcomes of the change effort, on identifying the changes necessary to produce these outcomes, and on finding and implementing ways and means of making the required changes. In simpler terms, the change problem can be treated as smaller problems having to do with the how, what, and why of change.
Change as a “How” Problem
The change problem is often expressed, at least initially, in the form of a “how” question. How do we get people to be more open, to assume more responsibility, to be more creative? How do we introduce self-managed teams in Department W? How do we change over from System X to System Y in Division Z? How do we move from a mainframe-centered computing environment to one that accommodates and integrates PCs? How do we get this organization to be more innovative, competitive, or productive? How do we raise more effective barriers to market entry by our competitors? How might we more tightly bind our suppliers to us? How do we reduce cycle times? In short, the initial formulation of a change problem is means-centered, with the goal state more or less implied. There is a reason why the initial statement of a problem is so often means-centered and we will touch on it later. For now, let’s examine the other two ways in which the problem might be formulated — as “what” or as “why” questions.
Change as a “What” Problem
As was pointed out in the preceding section, to frame the change effort in the form of “how” questions is to focus the effort on means. Diagnosis is assumed or not performed at all. Consequently, the ends sought are not discussed. This might or might not be problematic. To focus on ends requires the posing of “what” questions. What are we trying to accomplish? What changes are necessary? What indicators will signal success? What standards apply? What measures of performance are we trying to affect?
Change as a “Why” Problem
Ends and means are
relative notions, not absolutes; that is, something is an end or a means
only in relation to something else. Thus, chains and networks of
ends-means relationships often have to be traced out before one finds the
“true” ends of a change effort. In this regard, “why” questions prove
Consider the following
hypothetical dialogue with yourself as an illustration of tracing out
To ask “why” questions is to get at the ultimate purposes of functions and to open the door to finding new and better ways of performing them. Why do we do what we do? Why do we do it the way we do it? Asking “why” questions also gets at the ultimate purposes of people, but that’s a different matter altogether, a “political” matter, and one we’ll not go into in this paper.
The Approach taken to Change Management Mirrors Management's Mindset
The emphasis placed on the
three types of questions just mentioned reflects the management mindset,
that is, the tendency to think along certain lines depending on where one
is situated in the organization. A person’s placement in the organization
typically defines the scope and scale of the kinds of changes with which
he or she will become involved, and the nature of the changes with which
he or she will be concerned. Thus, the systems people tend to be concerned
with technology and technological developments, the marketing people with
customer needs and competitive activity, the legal people with legislative
and other regulatory actions, and so on. Also, the higher up a person is
in the hierarchy, the longer the time perspective and the wider the range
of issues with which he or she must be concerned.
For the most part, changes
and the change problems they present are problems of adaptation, that is,
they require of the organization only that it adjust to an ever-changing
set of circumstances. But, either as a result of continued, cumulative
compounding of adaptive maneuvers that were nothing more than band-aids,
or as the result of sudden changes so significant as to call for a
redefinition of the organization, there are times when the changes that
must be made are deep and far-reaching. At such times, the design of the
organization itself is called into question.
survive the people who establish them. AT&T and IBM are two ready
examples. At some point it becomes the case that such organizations have
been designed by one group of people but are being operated or run by
another. (It has been said of the United States Navy, for instance, that
“It was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.”) Successful
organizations resolve early on the issue of structure, that is, the
definition, placement and coordination of functions and people. Other
people then have to live with this design and, because the ends have
already been established, these other people are chiefly concerned with
means. This is why so many
problem-solving efforts start out focused on means.
Some organizations are
designed to buffer their core operations from turbulence in the
environment. In such organizations all units fit into one of three
categories: core, buffer, and perimeter.
In core units (e.g.,
systems and operations), coordination is achieved through standardization,
that is, adherence to routine. In buffer units (e.g., upper management and
staff or support functions), coordination is achieved through planning. In
perimeter units (e.g., sales, marketing, and customer service),
coordination is achieved through mutual adjustment (see Thompson).
People in core units,
buffered as they are from environmental turbulence and with a history of
relying on adherence to standardized procedures, typically focus on “how”
questions. People in buffer units, responsible for performance through
planning, often ask “what” questions. People in the perimeter units are as
accountable as anyone else for performance and frequently for performance
of a financial nature. They can be heard asking “what” and “how”
questions. “Why” questions are generally asked by people with no direct
responsibility for day-to-day operations or results. The group most able
to take this long-term or strategic view is that cadre of senior
executives responsible for the continued well being of the firm: top
management. If the design of the firm is to be called into question or,
more significantly, if it is actually to be altered, these are the people
who must make the decision to do so.
organizational redefinition and redesign prove necessary, all people in
all units must concern themselves with all three sets of questions or the
changes made will not stand the test of time.
To summarize: Problems may be formulated in terms of “how,” “what” and “why” questions. Which formulation is used depends on where in the organization the person posing the question or formulating the problem is situated, and where the organization is situated in its own life cycle.
In turbulent times, everyone must be concerned with everything.
Skills & Strategies
Managing the kinds of
changes encountered by and instituted within organizations requires an
unusually broad and finely honed set of skills, chief among which are the
Organizations are first
and foremost social systems. Without people there can be no organization.
Lose sight of this fact and any would-be change agent will likely lose his
or her head. Organizations are hotly and intensely political. And, as one
wag pointed out, the lower the stakes, the more intense the politics.
Change agents dare not join in this game but they had better understand
it. This is one area where you must make your own judgments and keep your
own counsel; no one can do it for you.
Make no mistake about it,
those who would be change agents had better be very good at something, and
that something better be analysis. Guessing won’t do. Insight is nice,
even useful, and sometimes shines with brilliance, but it is darned
difficult to sell and almost impossible to defend. A lucid, rational,
well-argued analysis can be ignored and even suppressed, but not
successfully contested and, in most cases, will carry the day. If not,
then the political issues haven’t been adequately addressed.
Two particular sets of
skills are very important here: (1) workflow operations or systems
analysis, and (2) financial analysis. Change agents must learn to take
apart and reassemble operations and systems in novel ways, and then
determine the financial and political impacts of what they have done.
Conversely, they must be able to start with some financial measure or
indicator or goal, and make their way quickly to those operations and
systems that, if reconfigured a certain way, would have the desired
financial impact. Those who master these two techniques have learned a
trade that will be in demand for the foreseeable future. (This trade, by
the way, has a name. It is called “Solution Engineering.”)
As stated earlier, people
are the sine qua non of organization. Moreover, they come characterized by
all manner of sizes, shapes, colors, intelligence and ability levels,
gender, sexual preferences, national origins, first and second languages,
religious beliefs, attitudes toward life and work, personalities, and
priorities — and these are just a few of the dimensions along which people
vary. We have to deal with them all.
The skills most needed in
this area are those that typically fall under the heading of communication
or interpersonal skills. To be effective, we must be able to listen and
listen actively, to restate, to reflect, to clarify without interrogating,
to draw out the speaker, to lead or channel a discussion, to plant ideas,
and to develop them. All these and more are needed. Not all of us will
have to learn Russian, French, or Spanish, but most of us will have to
learn to speak Systems, Marketing, Manufacturing, Finance, Personnel,
Legal, and a host of other organizational dialects. More important, we
have to learn to see things through the eyes of these other inhabitants of
the organizational world. A situation viewed from a marketing frame of
reference is an entirely different situation when seen through the eyes of
a systems person. Part of the job of a change agent is to reconcile and
resolve the conflict between and among disparate (and sometimes desperate)
points of view. Charm is great if you have it. Courtesy is even better. A
well-paid compliment can buy gratitude. A sincere “Thank you” can earn
There’s much more to this
than learning about computers, although most people employed in today’s
world of work do need to learn about computer-based information systems.
For now, let’s just say that a system is an arrangement of resources and
routines intended to produce specified results. To organize is to arrange.
A system reflects organization and, by the same token, an organization is
A word processing operator
and the word processing equipment operated form a system. So do computers
and the larger, information processing systems in which computers are so
often embedded. These are generally known as “hard” systems. There are
“soft” systems as well: compensation systems, appraisal systems, promotion
systems, and reward and incentive systems.
There are two sets of
systems skills to be mastered.
Many people associate the first set with computers and it is
exemplified by “systems analysis.” This set of skills, by the way,
actually predates the digital computer and is known elsewhere
(particularly in the United States Air Force and the aerospace industry)
as “systems engineering.” For the most part, the kind of system with which
this skill set concerns itself is a “closed” system which, for now, we can
say is simply a mechanistic or contrived system with no purpose of its own
and incapable of altering its own structure. In other words, it cannot
learn and it cannot change of its own volition. The second set of system
skills associated with a body of knowledge generally referred to as
General Systems Theory (GST) and it deals with people, organizations,
industries, economies, and even nations as socio-technical systems — as
“open,” purposive systems, carrying out transactions with other systems
and bent on survival, continuance, prosperity, dominance, plus a host of
other goals and objectives.
Simply put, you’d better understand
how a business works. In particular, you’d better understand how the
business in which and on which you’re working works. This entails an
understanding of money — where it comes from, where it goes, how to get
it, and how to keep it. It also calls into play knowledge of markets and
marketing, products and product development, customers, sales, selling,
buying, hiring, firing, EEO, AAP, and just about anything else you might
Four Basic Change Management
(See the Bennis, Benne & Chin reference)
Note: The fourth and
last strategy in the table below is not one of those presented by Bennis,
Benne and Chin. It is instead the product of the author’s own experiences
during some 30 years of making and adapting to changes in, to, and on
behalf of organizations. An excellent example of this strategy in action,
albeit on an accelerated basis, is provided by the way in which Rupert
Murdoch handled the printers of Fleet Street. He quietly set about
building an entirely new operation in Wapping, some distance away.
When it was ready to be occupied and made operational, he informed the
employees in the old operation that he had some bad news and some good
news. The bad news was that the existing operation was being shut down.
Everyone was being fired. The good news was that the new operation had
jobs for all of them—but on very different terms That there are also
elements of the Empircal-Rational and power-coercive strategies at play
here serves to make the point that successful change efforts inevitably
involve some mix of these basic change strategies, a point that is
elaborated on below.
Factors in Selecting A Change Strategy
Generally speaking, there
is no single change strategy. You can adopt a general or what is
called a "grand strategy" but, for any given initiative, you are best
served by some mix of strategies.
Which of the preceding
strategies to use in your mix of strategies is a decision affected by a
number of factors. Some of the more important ones
One More Time: How do you manage change?
The honest answer is that
you manage it pretty much the same way you’d manage anything else of a
turbulent, messy, chaotic nature, that is, you don’t really manage it, you
grapple with it. It’s more a matter of leadership ability than management
Remember, the task of change management is to bring order to a messy situation, not pretend that it’s already well organized and disciplined.
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