Four basic change management frameworks

As a way to keep Change Management knowledge reasonably fresh in my brain, I’ve decided to blog some stuff that will, I hope, help me to sound clever when the need arises.

This process will help me spout fancy theory when working on Change Management projects, an important part of Looking Dead Clever, which in turn can lead directly to better rates of pay, so this is no laughing matter.

So this post looks at four basic change frameworks which are useful when thinking through how to tackle change initiatives.

Ghosts in the machine

The first framework is the “Ghosts in the machine” model. This is my name for it, not the official one. Officially it’s the “Goal-orientated model”.

This model assumes rationality: that you can accurately understand and measure the current state and the desired future state (the goal) and therefore subtract the former from the latter to leave a clearly defined gap that the change management project can fill.

I think of it as “Ghosts in the machine” because the people are absent from the model, other than their role as predictable cogs in the organisational machine.

Even though it is obvious to the point of physical pain that this model is drastically inadequate (we’re back to 19th century Taylorism), it is the most common view of change: we are here, we need to get there, let’s plug the gap with a new IT system and a few training courses, job done.

This is where most people will start and end their thinking when pulling together a change management project.



The “contingency model” is a bit better.

Rather than the simplistic certainty of “Ghosts …”, this framework recognises the complexity of organisations and the interdependence of multiple departments, and understands the uniqueness of each context. It then goes on to assume that a goal-orientated change model can be pulled together to suit the particular circumstances.

In other words, it is based on the “synchronicity” between departments that work together in order to reach the desired goal within the unique organisational context – hence I call it the “synchronicity” model.

One problem with it is that it is still filling a gap – albeit with fuzzier edges – with a defined programme of activity.

This might not sound like a problem. It might sound like a project, and therefore A Good Thing. Maybe it is, but as it’s based on rationality, and the false idea of knowing exactly where we are, being able to articulate and measure exactly where we want to go, and having the mechanisms to get there, it’s unlikely to be sufficient.

Ralph Stacey (in Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics (1996)) made the point that we assume that managers are in control of change, but the reality is not quite so simple.

He identified 8 assumptions about management that don’t cut the mustard when the rubber hits the road. They are essentially around our (in)ability to set stable, clear, measurable goals that are attached to certain future circumstances, and then deliver just the right activity to realise those lovely clear perfect goals.

So we can use this understanding of an organisation to take a more complex view of a change project:

  • An understanding this it will take time and different parts of the organisation will move at different speeds
  • We may need different approaches for different departments and teams
  • A huge amount of support for managers, with realistic interim goals


Outlandos d’amour

OK, so it’s getting much harder to crowbar The Police discography into these change management frameworks, but I think I can just about get away with this one.

This is a much fuzzier and people-orientated framework: officially called organisational development or stakeholder model.

It’s about the organisation thinking in medium- to long-term general directions of travel, and creating managed change processes that collaboratively seek to define the way forward. The process becomes more important than the goal, meaning it is much more flexible and responsive to new information, but it’s also slower and less top-downy which isn’t always what the people above stairs want.

On the plus side, it does take into account stakeholder theory. It understands the competing (and often contradictory) demands of the different stakeholders and assumes that through the right mix of processes, these differences can be overcome.

Yeah right – that always happens.

I think this model offers huge insight, helping us focus on process more than outcomes, and helping us understand that different stakeholders will have different demands and needs and this is not a threat or A Bad Thing, it’s just the terrain.


Zenyatta Mondatta

The “multiple-accountability model” (or Zenyatta Mondatta, which might mean “Top of the World” according The Police FAQ page) is less dewy-eyed on this.

It basically says that the differing demands of interested parties (stakeholders) are not always going to be reconciled, and the way forward is to be clear and open about accountabilities and demands, and manage your way through it.

Again, I love what this model adds – this über-realistik acceptance that all is not rosy, and nor will it ever be, and we need to be über-honest about it.


In conclusion

These frameworks are annoying.

They are all inadequate and – being all academicky – all lack some tangible usefulness, but they do give us four different views of “change” which can help us:

  • First, change is about moving to a desired future state
  • Second, change is about moving a complicated set of interdependent moving parts to a new goal within a unique context
  • Third, change is about people and their competing agendas and interests, where the process is as important as the goal
  • Fourth, change is political, not everyone will agree, differences are probably (at least partly) irreconcilable

Change is all of these things – depending on the change, one or more framework might be more or less important, but most change projects will need to understand these four approaches and take the best from each.


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