Nature of Change

Lisa R. Arcemont

“It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.”                                        – Samuel Adams

As I mentioned in my last Blog entry, change is easily explained as a continuous process of steps individuals and organizations go through in order to transform from the current state to the future…the possible. The nature of how change occurs is a whole different story.

There are numerous theories of change that attempt to explain the nature of change. Kurt Lewin, one of the earliest and well known change theorists, defined the change process as occurring in three sequential steps as part of his change model: (1) unfreezing, (2) change, and (3) freeze or refreeze. According to Lewin, the first step in the process of changing behavior is to unfreeze the existing situation, the status quo or the existing “mind set”. Unfreezing is necessary to overcome resistance from individuals in addition to groups of individuals who are in agreement to avoid conflict. In the second stage, the change occurs, and is typically a period of confusion and transition for members of organizations. Members are aware that the old ways are being challenged but do not have a clear picture as to what to replace them with yet. The third and final stage, freeze or refreeze, is when the new mindset, or new way of thinking, is crystallized and members’ comfort level returns to previous levels. This step needs to take place after the change has been implemented in order for it to be sustained or “stick” over time. It is high likely that the change will be short lived and the employees will revert to their old equilibrium (behaviors) if this step is not taken because this step is the actual integration of the new values into the norm of community values and traditions. One action that can be used to implement Lewin’s third step is to reinforce new patterns and institutionalize them through formal and informal mechanisms including policies and procedures (Robbins, 2003).

Most of the theories follow one of three different perspectives on how change occurs: (1) Development or incremental, (2) transitional, or (3) transformational.

Organizations generally view developmental or incremental change as positive because these changes occur as improvements on the current situation despite anything done to try to control or direct it. Developmental change is generally used to describe change carried out to make a successful situation even more successful. Expanding the amount of customers served, or duplicating successful products or services are examples of developmental change. Examples of incremental change might also include implementation of new computer program to increase efficiency. Many times, organizations experience incremental change and its leaders do not recognize the change as such.

A form of incremental change, transitional change requires management of the transition process from the old way of doing things to the new way. The strategic planning process is often viewed as an example of transitional change.

Transformational change on the other hand emerges out of chaos or revolution and is unplanned by those traditionally in power. Concerned with fundamentally altering the organization and individual assumptions mentioned in last week’s post, these changes go beyond making the existing organization better or fine-tuning the status quo. Organizational transformation implies radical changes in how members perceive, think, and behave at work. An example of transformational (or radical, fundamental) change might be changing an organization’s structure and culture from the traditional top-down, hierarchical structure to a large amount of self-directing teams. Charismatic leaders often initiate transformational change.

While transformational change seems desirable for some a change, organizations are unlikely to undertake transformational change without significant reason to do so. Organizations, in most cases, must experience or anticipate a severe threat to survival before they will be motivated to undertake transformational change. Severe jolts to the organizational structure can push them to question their business strategy as well as their mission, values, structure, systems, and procedures.  

Robbins, S. (2003). Organizational Behavior (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

For more information on the nature of organizational change, view the following eBook:

  Change Management: A Guide to Effective Implementation By Rob Paton, James McCalman

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