Unraveling the mystery of change management.

This is the first in a series on change management, which is a commonly noted challenge amongst implementers.  Because I believe in the efficiency and effectiveness of thinking first and acting second, this post will focus on big picture ideas and concepts from research on organizational change.  In other posts in this series, I’ll offer practical tactics — how to’s — that you can use to bring these ideas to life in your implementation efforts.

Sadly, there is no silver bullet.

There is an enormous body of research on organizational change dating back to at least the 1940’s.  There are four phase approaches, there are ten step approaches, there are methods, enablers, factors and everything in between (Al-Haddad, 2015). Unfortunately, despite the volumes written on the topic, we are far from having a definitive, proven way to undertake effective change management (Al-Haddad, 2015; Barends, 2013).  I know, it’s exasperating!  However, in my view, it’s not hopeless. 

There is still a lot we can learn from the troves that have been written about change.  (For those interested in delving into the research, you may wish to start with the annotated reference list at the end of this post.)  We just need to remember that no matter what people may imply, it’s not guaranteed or proven.  It’s also likely that what works for some, may not work for others.  So, as a practitioner it’s important to be discerning. It’s important to use your judgement.  It’s important to being willing to experiment a bit. 

Finally, as I noted in a previous post, the high rates of change failure often quoted in academic and popular management literature are not backed by evidence.  Change is hard, but it's not impossible.

Change management is not a separate "thing" that you do. 

In order to know if you are "doing" change management, (you probably are), it is first helpful to know what it is.  I did quite a bit of research for this post and was struck by how many articles failed to define change management or organizational change.  One did.  I provide that definition below.

“Organizational change management entails interventions intended to influence the task-related behaviour and associated results of an individual, team or entire organization” (Barends, 2013).  

It’s a mouthful, but I think it's saying that change management involves doing things to influence how people act (and likely also think and feel), in order to achieve a certain result. (To view a few alternative definitions see here.)

For those readers who are familiar with implementation research, this should sound familiar.  At its simplest, implementation can be defined as:  "To make (something) active [and] effective" (Merriam-Webster). And we can define implementation science, as the study of "...which factors promote or impede the adoption, adaptation, and maintenance of specific...interventions" (USCF Clinical and Translational Institute).

Much of the literature on change management stresses that it should be a systematic and planned effort, while acknowledging it is as both an art and a science. This is similar to what we see in writing about implementation and project management.  

The point is, when you take a thoughtful, comprehensive and systematic approach to your implementation efforts, such as using a framework like that outlined in my Implementation Playbook, you are already integrating many aspects of change management in your work.  Change management isn't a separate thing that you have to do.  For example, identifying desired outcomes in implementation is similar to creating a vision for change in the language of change management; implementation teams are essentially key change agents; training and coaching are forms of change support, etc.  The words may be different, but the actions are largely the same. 

Change is not a singular thing.

When you are working to bring a large scale change to an organization, it’s helpful to recognize that change is not a thing that happens uniformly across a single entity we call “the organization”.  Rather, it plays out in different ways at different levels. What happens at each of these levels then impacts how the change takes hold in the organization as a whole. 

Karen Whelan-Berry and colleagues provide a view of change as a process that happens at the organization, group and individual levels (2003).  This is important because conceptualizing the change process as being enacted at different levels reveals a few things that can inform our practical approaches.  They include:  

  • As noted by Whelan-Berry et al, there is often a time lag between activities at each level, which has real implications for the total timeframe necessary for the change process.  For instance, an individual may first hear of a change only months after those leading the change started discussing it. For this reason, those most deeply in involved in implementing the change at the organizational level may need to make a concerted effort not to get too far ahead of other levels.  Patience is a requirement. Each level needs time to digest and work through the change.
  • Second, the vision for and communication of the change needs to be clear and powerful enough to carry across these levels (Whelan-Berry, 2003).  Key messages will likely be translated and modified at each level; simplicity and clarity can help to ensure the core message withstands this game of telephone (aka Chinese whispers.)  Feedback between levels can also help to improve the message over time, ensuring messages are relevant at all levels, not just to those who initially created them.
  • Third, we all experience the individual level of change.  As individuals, we process change in different ways, due to our personality, job type and/or current circumstances. No one expects change leaders to attend to the specific needs of each person impacted by the change.  However, at a minimum, it’s important to be aware and acknowledge that there will be a diversity of individual reactions to change. It can also be worthwhile to include in your change approach practical tools to assist individuals in coping with a change.
  • Finally, it’s tempting to view these three levels in terms of organizational hierarchy, with top management representing the organization, departments representing groups, and line staff representing individuals. However, it’s important to recognize these levels are also relevant outside of the construct of hierarchy.  For example, while top management often directs change, it is also a group affected by change. Top management is comprised of individuals who have to go through the personal process of change.  Regardless of where one sits in the organization, she will likely contribute to and be affected by the dynamics of change at each of these levels.

Change is Personal.

As noted above, regardless of our position in an organization, we experience change as an individual, and many factors can impact how individuals process change. There are some obvious research findings about these factors e.g., those with low risk tolerance tend to have more difficulty with change.  However, others may be less obvious and are worth pointing out. 

  • Individual reactions to change are multi-faceted. Some researchers think of individual reactions to change as falling into three categories:  Behavioral — what people do; Cognitive — what they think; and Affective — what they feel.  Recognizing there are different dimensions to individuals’ reactions to change can help you to ensure your efforts are comprehensive (Erwin, 2010).  For example, if leaders "stick to the facts" and logical arguments about the change and do not acknowledge the emotions that often go along with change, they could be accused of "not getting it" .  Similarly, an inability to provide clear facts about or a plan for the change can undermine confidence. 
  • Individuals' reactions to change can be influenced by their belief in “whether or not they [have] the skills and competencies to be effective in new roles” brought about by the change (Erwin, 2010). Other research has indicated the importance of providing support to those impacted by the change (Oreg, 2011). Similarly, findings from implementation science emphasize the critical role that ongoing coaching plays to achieving intended outcomes (Bertram, 2014).  All of these findings point to the effectiveness of proactively helping people learn the new skills they will need as a result of the change.  
  • Some studies have found that, individuals' perceptions of the benefit/harm they will experience due to a change have a greater impact on their reactions than other factors such as personal characteristics (e.g., a positive outlook) or an effective change process (Oreg, 2011).  Therefore, it can be worthwhile to anticipate how groups of individuals will assess the potential benefit or harm of the change. Being prepared to openly discuss with those impacted how perceived threats may be mitigated can be particularly useful.
  • A lot of confusion can be avoided by talking to people.  Research findings on what influences people’s reactions to change are sometimes contradictory.  [For example, one literature review noted that studies have found employees' degree of commitment to the organization is both directly and inversely related to support for change (Oreg, 2011)].  People's reactions can be quite complex.  Those leading change efforts are advised against making assumptions.  As noted by Jean Bartunek and colleagues (2005):  “Change agents will be well served to actively solicit and then work to understand and address understandings of a change initiative held by its recipients as the initiative progresses. These sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and sometimes contradictory perceptions may contain valuable information that can allow change agents and change recipients to work together in devising midcourse corrections."

Context matters.  

While some have created approaches to change management that they imply are universally applicable, it’s likely that context impacts the effectiveness of different change methods for different organizations (Al-Haddad, 2015).  We certainly know context matters from research on implementation (Bertram, 2014).

For this reason, the selection of practices and approaches for your change and implementation efforts should be informed by a clear assessment of your organizational culture, the current circumstances of the organization and the type of change you are implementing.

Some approaches rely heavily on the idea of top-down change management.  At its core, this approach relies on a dynamic and visionary leader, and her chosen agents, to drive change through the organization.  This does not preclude participation from across the organization, but broad participation, outside of adoption, is not the essence of the approach. We might think of this as a 'straight line' view of change.


An alternative approach is more participatory and iterative, involving cycles of involvement, feedback and adjustments, across organizational levels.  We might think of this as the 'wave' view of change. This view places as much focus on the reaction of leaders and management to feedback or input from throughout the organization, as it does to managing the reactions and behaviors (i.e., resistance) of those impacted by the change.

Outlining just two options is of course an over simplification.  In reality, we use a combination of various approaches.  Having said that, the context in which you are implementing the change likely suggests one approach more than another.

The take-away is that those leading implementation and change efforts need to be aware of how different practices create different dynamics in the change process and choose those most appropriate for their situation.  For example, if you undertake a broad effort to gather input at various points in the change process, but don’t acknowledge or actively use input received because leadership takes a "straight-line" view of change, the result may be eroded trust and increased cynicism about the change.  In the words of a former colleague of mine, “Only ask for what you intend to use.”   

Some things do seem to make a difference.  

Shaul Oreg and colleagues did an extensive review of 79 quantitative studies on reactions to change (2011). The findings outlined in the review are not definitive and relate to individuals' reactions to, not the outcomes of, change efforts. Keeping that in mind, the review does suggest that some factors and practices make a difference in change efforts.  I share below only a few of those outlined in the paper.

  • Trust: It’s not surprising that the level of trust in the organization was found to have “perhaps the most consistent and strongest relationship with change reactions.”   Most of the research reviewed looked at trust in management and leadership, but some studies also found an effect related to trust between colleagues. Relatedly, when those impacted by the change perceived management to be committed to the change and to be competently implementing it, they were more likely to support the change.  
  • Communication: In general, “realistic, supportive and effective” communication has been found to positively impact the acceptance of change, with lack of communication leading to an increased sense of uncertainty.  However, quantity of communication may not be what's most important. Communication that does not answer key questions of those affected by the change, or which makes them more aware of aspects of the change they dislike, may be associated with greater resistance.  In sum, meaningful content is necessary and communication alone is not enough.
  • Participation: Those who feel a sense of control related to a change tend to have more positive reactions to it.  Six studies included in the literature review by Oreg and colleagues found positive outcomes (e.g., greater readiness and acceptance of change, less stress) when those impacted by the change were provided opportunities to participate in change planning and implementation.  Participation may not only give people a sense of control, but also increase their perceptions of fairness in the process.  A sense of procedural justice or fairness has also been found to be associated with more positive reactions to change. 

Maybe it’s not such a mystery, after all?

Although the research on change has not yielded a definitive way forward, the keys to effective change management may not be that mysterious after all.   A lot of what we know about effective change seems like common sense.  If we are willing to put ourselves in the shoes of those impacted by change, we are unlikely to be surprised by the factors that have been found to affect support or resistance. The trouble is that common sense and empathy can easily get lost amongst the powerful forces of ambition and time pressure that often exist in change efforts.  We can kid ourselves into thinking that there is a fast track, a short-cut, or an easier way, when in reality thoughtful approaches, awareness and attention to the human-element of change and persistent effort may be what’s required. 

If there are other concepts and ideas from change management that you have found useful in your efforts, please share them in the comments section below.  We will all benefit from your additions!

Annotated References

"Access CTSI Services to Enable Research." Training in Implementation Science. UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). Web.

Al-Haddad, Serina, and Timothy Kotnour. "Integrating the Organizational Change Literature: A Model for Successful Change." Journal of Organizational Change Management 28.2 (2015): 234-62. Web. See here.   Note:  This article is a good read for those who want a quick survey on change literature.  It includes several tables summarizing a wide-variety of approaches and methods; however, it does not assess the efficacy of different methods.   

Barends, E., B. Janssen, W. Ten Have, and S. Ten Have. "Effects of Change Interventions: What Kind of Evidence Do We Really Have?" The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 50.1 (2013): 5-27. Web. See here  Note: This literature review suggests that: “….scholars and practitioners should be skeptical regarding the body of research results in the field of organizational change management published to date."  

Bartunek, J. M., Rousseau, D. M., Rudolph, J. W., & DePalma, J. A. (2006). On the receiving end: Sensemaking, emotion, and assessments of an organizational change initiated by others. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 42(2), 182-206.  See here  Note:  The findings in this article are based on research related to the perceptions and experiences of nurses involved in the implementation of a shared governance structure in a large American hospital. 

Bertram, R. M., K. A. Blase, and D. L. Fixsen. "Improving Programs and Outcomes: Implementation Frameworks and Organization Change." Research on Social Work Practice 25.4 (2014): 477-87. Web.  See here. 

Erwin, Dennis G., and Andrew N. Garman. "Resistance to Organizational Change: Linking Research and Practice." Leadership & Organization Development Journal Leadership & Org Development J 31.1 (2010): 39-56. Web.  See here.  Note:  This article includes a summary table that provides suggested actions for change leaders and managers, based on specific findings from research. 

Holten, Ann-Louise, and Sten Olof Brenner. "Leadership Style and the Process of Organizational Change." Leadership & Organization Development Journal Leadership & Org Development J 36.1 (2015): 2-16. Web. See here.   Note: This article investigates the impact of leadership style (transformational vs. transactional) on change recipients’ assessment of the change based on experiences in two Danish organizations.  It does find some differences in impact based on style; however, also finds that leaders' active engagement in change, regardless of style, is important.

Levasseur, Robert E. "People Skills: Ensuring Project Success—A Change Management Perspective." Interfaces 40.2 (2010): 159-62. Web.  See here.  Note:  This is an easy read offering a variety of practical ideas about change.  The article is largely based on research related to IT projects. 

Oreg, S., M. Vakola, and A. Armenakis. "Change Recipients' Reactions to Organizational Change: A 60-Year Review of Quantitative Studies." The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 47.4 (2011): 461-524. Web. See here.  Note:  This is a dense article that summarizes a wide variety of findings related to people’s reactions to change. The review only includes quantitative studies, and some argue that  quantitative studies (vs qualitative) cannot fully investigate the dynamics of change.  Also, the studies on which the summary is based have limitations.  

Whelan-Berry, K. S. "Strengthening Organizational Change Processes: Recommendations and Implications from a Multilevel Analysis." The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 39.2 (2003): 186-207. Web. See here.  Note:  The authors outline a theoretical process of change that involves three levels: organization, group and individual.