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Leading Systemic Change Published: Friday, November 18, 2011 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

On a general level, managers have grown increasingly comfortable with planned change, as organizational leaders have taken on increasingly active roles in bringing about change (Aiken & Keller, 2007). More and more managers have been involved at reacting to external forces, conceptualizing a preferred future state, and implementing the subsequent “plan” for achieving that well-defined end. In this context, however, change is largely viewed as linear and mechanistic, as a series of discrete and, at times, traumatic events that need to be controlled to enable the organization to achieve its goals.

Given the onslaught of changes that organizations now face, however, this carefully planned approach is quickly becoming inadequate as success in rapidly changing environments demands experimentation, improvisation and the ability to cope with unanticipated occurrences and unintended repercussions. In essence, companies increasingly face the challenge of sustaining continuous movement – sometimes fast, sometimes slow interspersed with brief periods of constancy toward a largely unknown, emergent future state. 

Generating organizational change capacity is about enhancing an organization’s ability to successfully navigate an array of changes in response to and in anticipation of ever shifting market conditions, customer demands, competitive pressures and societal conditions. Conceptually speaking, there are three interrelated approaches to implementing organizational change: directed change, planned change and guided changing.

Directed change is driven from the top of the organization and relies on authority, persuasion and compliance.  Leaders create and announce the change and seek to convince organizational members to accept it based on business necessity, logical arguments (rational persuasion), emotional appeals, and the leaders’ personal credibility. Directed change reflects a quick, decisive approach to introducing change in an organization.

Planned change, which has become an increasingly popular approach to change management, may arise from any level in the organization but ultimately is sponsored by the top. Change leaders and implementers seek involvement in and commitment to the change by making extensive use of specific actions, identified through research and experience, which mitigate the typical resistance and productivity losses associated with directed change.

Thus, instead of simply creating and announcing a change, planned change provides a “roadmap” that outlines a project management approach to the change process. It attempts to create the conditions for people to become more involved in the change process, identifying and encouraging key stakeholders to participate in both the form and implementation of the change. Underlying most planned change efforts is the Lewinian three-stage process of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing (Lewin, 1951; Weick & Quinn, 1999).

A very different approach to implementing change is guided changing, an emergent process that can start at any location within the organization. It is based on the commitment of organizational members and their contributions to the purpose of the organization. In the context of the over-lapping changes that are characteristic of today's hypercompetitive environment, this approach attempts to take full advantage of the expertise and creativity of organizational members, as organic changes emerge and evolve, reconfiguring existing practices and models, and testing new ideas and perspectives.

Guided changing is an iterative process of initial interpretation and design, implementation and improvisation, learning from the change effort, and then sharing that learning system- wide, leading to ongoing re-interpretation and redesign of the change as needed. The resulting spiral of learning, innovation and development contributes to both continuous improvement of existing change efforts as well as the ability to generate novel changes and solutions.

Given the reality that each of these approaches has certain advantages and disadvantages, developing true change capacity entail the ability to move back and forth among these change management approaches as dictated by the situation.  There are two key factors that influence the appropriateness of each of these approaches to change: business complexity and socio-technical uncertainty (Kerber & Buono, 2005).

The higher the degree of business complexity the more an organizational change cuts across different hierarchical levels, different work units and different geographic locations; involves reciprocal or team interdependence; affects a range of products and services; and requires the buy-in of a number of internal and external stakeholders. Thus, the focus is on the relative complexity of implementing the change solution and what it will take to successfully introduce and sustain the change overtime.

Socio-technical uncertainty refers to the amount and nature of information processing and decision-making required for the change based on the extent to which the tasks involved are determined, established, and/or exactly known. In low socio-technical uncertainty situations, the solution to the change challenge is known, while in high socio-technical uncertainty contexts the solution is not known or even fully understood. When socio-technical uncertainty is high, the problem itself is not fully described or clearly understood, meaning that the search for a solution occurs simultaneously with the search for a clear definition of the problem.

Moving from directed change to planned change to guided changing – and back and forth as needed – involves significant competence transfer from executives and managers to organizational members as the latter become, in effect, the new change leaders. It is important that organizations work to create a shared understanding through which organizational members (1) are encouraged to think dynamically and systemically so that strategies can change quickly, (2) are supported in their efforts to think about future markets, competitors, and opportunities, and (3) are prompted to factor future scenarios into today’s decisions.  In general, an underlying goal is to create and communicate a change friendly identity both internally and externally.

This effort requires focused intervention at the micro, meso and macro levels of the organization. The key is to encourage and support managers to broaden their change implementation repertoire by developing a common understanding of the dynamics of organizational change, building a change-supportive infrastructure, and creating and nurturing a change-facilitative culture.


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