Change Context: Why it matters and how to use it to tailor your change management approach.

No two change implementations are the same and context is often the reason why.  All kinds of internal factors can impact the change effort. For example, whether or not other organizational changes are being implemented concurrently, shifts in executive leadership, failure of past change efforts, or the current performance level of the organization. External factors can also play a role — e.g., the regulatory or economic climate, actions taken by competitors or partners, or even popular opinion about what you are implementing.  

For this reason, at the start of any change effort (and even periodically throughout) it’s a good idea to take stock of the environment in which you are operating and incorporate your assessment of contextual risks and opportunities into your change planning and management strategies.

How should you analyze your context?

Although research on implementation consistently calls out the importance of context in general, many implementations are studied and documented without explicitly noting contextual factors. So, unfortunately, there is no list of specific contextual factors that are likely to make a difference in all implementations.

One aspect of context that many practitioners and researchers focus on is the concept of change readiness. There is no universally accepted definition of change readiness, however, you might think about it as the degree to which the organization and individuals are willing and able to undertake the change. How can you tell?

A 2008 review found that “most currently available instruments for measuring organizational readiness for change display limited evidence of validity and reliability.” Valid assessments that do exist often focus on a particular level of change (individual) or type of change (technology).

The bottom line is there likely isn’t a single, out-of-the-box method for analyzing context that will work for all change implementations. However, there are some ways of thinking about context that can help you to get started. 

Let the change guide you

The change you are implementing can help put some boundaries on the context you investigate and help you identify what might be most relevant. As a rule of thumb, the broader the scope and scale of the change, the more complex the context that you’ll need to consider.

For example, you may want to think about: 

  • Type — What kind of change are you implementing (e.g., process, program, technology, strategy)?

  • Scope — How radical a departure from the current state does the change represent?  How many aspects of people’s current jobs or work experiences will be altered — how much skill development will be required? Are there any knock-on effects to related policies, processes, or structures that need to be considered?   

  • Scale — Who in the organization will be impacted? Is it a single team, in a single location or many teams and divisions across the organization, or in locations across the world? 

 
 

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Consider the current environment

You implement change in the organization you have, not the one you wish you had. So, it’s important to identify assets and trouble-spots in the current organizational environment that are likely to influence the change effort.

Some things to consider include:

  • Organizational Climate — This can include things like trust in leadership, organizational commitment, employee satisfaction, etc.  Low levels of trust, satisfaction and commitment can be a real impediment to change — when such issues are uncovered they should be taken seriously. Even the best change management practices can’t overcome long-standing and wide-spread organizational challenges.

  • History with change — The organization’s history with change can inform change communications, as well as the overall change approach.  A long history of failed changes will not soon be forgotten.  In such situations, it can be a good idea to demonstrate specific ways in which this change is different than past efforts. There is often a lack of appreciation for past change successes, so highlighting how past changes have created tangible benefits may be beneficial.

  • Priorities/Concurrent change — How many other change initiatives are planned for the same timeframe? How big a priority is your change? If it’s a crowded change space, phasing and sequencing may be required. There is such a thing as “too much change.”

  • Available resources/infrastructure — High hopes and good intentions only go so far.  It’s important to objectively evaluate if your organization can access the skills, money, time and attention required to effectively implement the change being implemented. Also, do existing change and project processes, procedures and platforms exist — or are you building everything from scratch?

  • Capability to lead the change — We often assume that leaders — including executive and middle managers — have the relevant competencies necessary to drive change. They may; they may not. Change requires leaders to set a clear vision and goals, explain the need for change, mobilize people for action, support themselves and others through change, communicate, align structures to support the change, and evaluate the change — all while keeping the day-to-day business running.

  • Individual change disposition:  People can have varying levels of adaptability, resilience, and openness to change.  Supervisors can be particularly adept at identifying those who may be good candidates to be more deeply involved in the change effort and those who may need more support to navigate it.

Gather diverse perspectives

When analyzing your context, be sure you are gathering perspectives from a diverse group of people.  What an executive considers important may be entirely different from a staff member. What someone in Finance sees as a roadblock may be different from someone in IT or Marketing. But all these views are likely to be relevant to the change effort.

Assembling a diverse group to discuss contextual asset and risks — or interviewing a representative slice of the organization — is often time well spent.  You may also want to consider tapping into external experts, who may have gained relevant wisdom through implementing the change in a variety of contexts.

Have the courage to act on what you find

When you analyze your context at the start of the change, everything may come up roses. If you find hidden assets, think hard about how you can actively leverage them as part of your change. It’s also possible that you may not like what you find. Ignoring bad news only works for so long. You may be able to adjust your approach or timing to fill some gaps. However, if you find major obstacles — such as low levels of trust, high levels of concurrent change, or lack of required resources —  delaying the start of a change until foundational work is undertaken may be the best course of action.


References

Battilana, J., Gilmartin, M., Sengul, M., Pache, A. C., & Alexander, J. A. (2010). Leadership competencies for implementing planned organizational changeThe Leadership Quarterly21(3), 422-438.

Holt, D. T., Armenakis, A. A., Feild, H. S., & Harris, S. G. (2007). Readiness for organizational change: The systematic development of a scale. The Journal of applied behavioral science43(2), 232-255.

Krein, S. L., Damschroder, L. J., Kowalski, C. P., Forman, J., Hofer, T. P., & Saint, S. (2010). The influence of organizational context on quality improvement and patient safety efforts in infection prevention: a multi-center qualitative study. Social science & medicine71(9), 1692-1701.

Rafferty, A. E., & Restubog, S. L. D. (2010). The impact of change process and context on change reactions and turnover during a merger. Journal of Management36(5), 1309-1338.

 Stouten, J., Rousseau, D. M., & De Cremer, D. (2018). Successful organizational change: Integrating the management practice and scholarly literaturesAcademy of Management Annals12(2), 752-788.

 Tomoaia-Cotisel, A., Scammon, D. L., Waitzman, N. J., Cronholm, P. F., Halladay, J. R., Driscoll, D. L., ... & Shih, S. C. (2013). Context matters: the experience of 14 research teams in systematically reporting contextual factors important for practice changeThe Annals of Family Medicine11(Suppl 1), S115-S123.

 Weiner, B. J., Amick, H., & Lee, S. Y. D. (2008). Conceptualization and measurement of organizational readiness for change: a review of the literature in health services research and other fieldsMedical Care Research and Review65(4), 379-436.