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The three stages of Change Management

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

We live in the age of change. The implication of this statement, is not that changes only happen in our time, but, is that changes in the recent few decades have been comparatively more frequent and exert relatively major influences on every aspect of human life. In fact, changes command so much attention that, in recent years, the spotlight has been on how to manage change: Change Management.

Change management, according to definition from BNET Business Dictionary (n.d.) is ‘the coordination of a structured period of transition from situation A to situation B in order to achieve lasting change within an organization’. Change management in the organizational context is the study of change, how to exercise change, how to cope with change and the necessity of change to ensure sustainability. Management of change is a complex subject of study; attention has to be paid in regards to the continuity of change, i.e. there are 2 types of change namely incremental change (minor change, adaptation, modification) and discontinuous change (revolutionary change, transformational change). Organizations experience consistent cycles of change in which periods of incremental change are punctuated by intervals of discontinuous change (Nadler and Tushman 1995, cited in Hayes 2002, p. 5). This cycle is referred to as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ by Romanelli and Tushman in 1994 (cited in Hayes 2002, p. 5).

Academics and scholars have, throughout time, developed various theories on change management. One of the famous thinker in the field of change management, Lewin (1951, cited in Campbell and Craig 2008, p. 512) introduced the ‘force-field model’ which describes the state of change in an organization as the equilibrium between the force that push for change and the restraining force that struggles to keep the status quo unchanged.

Additionally, Kotter (1995, cited in Huczynski and Buchanan 2007, p. 604) proposes 8 steps to organizational transformation:

Establish a sense of urgency

Form a guiding coalition

Create a vision

Communicate the vision

Empower people to act on the vision

Create ‘short-term wins’

Consolidate improvements to produce further change

Institutionalize new approaches

Kurt Lewin in 1951 (cited in Kinicki and Kreitner 2008, p. 402) also introduced a 3-stage model for change. What are the 3 stages?

Unfreezing: In a nutshell it means that to change, an organization first need to have the desire for change. Organization needs to be ‘unhappy’ with the old behaviour.

Changing: Moving to the desired state of change.

Refreezing: Stabilize and normalize the changed state.

Mentioned above are few of the theories that students studying Organizational Behaviour will find familiar. Kurt Lewin’s models for change remain largely applicable even in the 21st century as successful change always depends on striking a balance between change implementation and managing resistance to change. Besides, the 3-stage model correctly illustrated the process of change; the difference now being the increasing speed of the change cycle as organizational environment becomes more volatile. In my humble opinion however, Kotter’s 8-step model is an over-simplified interpretation of the process of change. The fundamental assumption that change happens in logical sequence and that managers are all rational beings are in themselves impractical as changes often involve unpredictable irregularities and managers do not always ‘follow the book’. Realistically, decisions made by managers are seldom rational.

When organizations try to put into action change plans, it is almost always certain that the effort will be met with resistance. Resistance to change comes in one form or another. To borrow the words of Fronda and Moriceau (2008), there are 3 forms of resistance: revolt, withdrawal (alienation from work) and discreet resistance (low morale, low productivity and high absenteeism).

On resistance towards change, we started off with a rather negative perception in the last paragraph. However, this is not necessarily so, resistance is detrimental only when it is not delicately handled, downplayed or ignored. Waddell and Sohal (1998) in their journal article titled ‘Resistance: a constructive tool for change management’ states that resistance to change shows that it is nonsensical to assume right away that all change is beneficial; that it is human nature to doubt the outcome of change. Furthermore they argued that resistance to change ensures a balance between organization’s desire for change and its practical need of ‘stability and constancy’ (Waddell and Sohal 1998).

The crucial question remained: How can management adopt the ‘right’ strategy so as to be successful in change initiation?

Many people have this huge misconception about the existence of the mythical ‘best strategy for change’. In my opinion, it is downright absurd to conclude that there is one best strategy to be used for all change initiatives; each organization is affected by its distinct external and internal factors when implementing change. After a routine of extensive reading, I found the contingency approach to change advocated by Dunphy and Stace (2001, cited in Huczynski and Buchanan, p. 603) most viable.

The Dunphy-Stace contingency approach to change implementation

The table content outlines the different strategies that managers can employ under different circumstances to implementing changes. Participative change management, despite being touted by a number of academics in the field of change management as the best solutions to change, does not always work. This is because participation and involvement in change process, from formulation to implementation, is extremely time-consuming, even more so when consensus fails to be reached. Thus when organizations are put under situations where the need for change is so critical that it is ‘change or die’, managers will be better off exercising decisiveness and dictatorial decision-making.

Ideally, however, it is always best to involve employees in planning and carrying out change to minimize resistance and ensure cooperation. My view is echoed in the journal article by Stanleigh (2008) titled ‘Effecting successful change management initiatives’, in which he states 6 reasons why change initiatives fail:

Not engaging all employees

Managing change only at the executive level

Telling people they have to change, we’re in a crisis

Sending staffs on a change program and expecting change to occur

Not honouring the past

Not giving time for staffs to vent first and then change

Not to be forgotten is the role of constructive conversation. Efforts to bring about change often fail because the change agent failed to listen. Jabri, Adrian and Boje (2008) in their article comment on change agents:

[c]hange agents want to change the organization; indeed, they have been trained to change it. Change agents may even know what the organization needs. Many change agents have been trained to think about how to communicate the change in ways that people will accept it. That training reflects a caring for the audience, even as it limits the audience’s participation. The audience is mere spectator to the change, rather than witness to it.

In order to change successfully, an effective, two-way communication between managers and employees must be in place. Managers must learn to listen to the voices of the employees because the employees possess hands-on knowledge which might not be readily available to someone in managerial position. Conversation enables the contribution of every employee to be fully appreciated and integrated into the ‘grand plan’ of change.

Summing up my argument in the previous paragraphs, to be able to adopt a clearly defined strategy for the successful initiation of change, management needs to evaluate current situation, the necessity for change, and the urgency for the change. Management then needs to decide on a suitable approach based on the model proposed by Dexter Dunphy and Doug Stace (2001). Whenever possible, managers should maximize stakeholders’ participation in the change process. Moreover, from planning to implementation of change, managers should never overlook the importance of conversation. The management as the change agent needs to learn to listen.

Throughout history we can see a large number of organizations that have made attempts to change. Some of these organizations succeeded; some, unfortunately, failed. By adopting the right strategies, we observe that organizations can manage their change successfully. One recent example is the effort by Dell Inc. to reduce the power consumption of its approximately 50000 computers during non-operational hours. In light of the increasing cost of energy, or more specifically, electricity, Dell Inc. has decided to put into action an overhaul of its power management. To formulate a company-wide power management plan, Jay Taylor, the senior engineer global strategist at Dell, brought together several departments at Dell, including product, facilities management, CTO and IT groups. These stakeholders all contributed their expertise in their respective fields to assist in the planning. By coordinating the skills of its employees in different fields, and pairing this effort with the latest technology, Dell managed to come up with a very efficient power management plan which resulted in 40% reduction in computer-related energy cost, translating to US$ 1.8 million savings annually. The inspiring part of the whole initiative is that Dell managed to implement the power management plan and achieve cost-saving without hampering its day-to-day operation, thanks to its skillful handling of available expertise and effective co-ordinations between stakeholders from different fields.

As a conclusion, change management plays an essential role in ensuring organizations’ survival. To achieve competitive advantage and sustainability in this turbulent period of economy, organization needs to be able to adapt to the external environment rapidly and routinely by constantly learning. It is therefore imperative for leaders and managers alike to have a thorough understanding of the nature, theories and practice of change management.


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