Friday, 4 July 2014

A Window for Change: Making systemic changes in organisations that are successful

Window [metaphor]
On Wednesday morning I chatted with two friends at the Judge Business School; Philip Stiles and Stefan Scholtes. The topic of our conversation was: change in large organisations and whether this can happen if the organisation is NOT faced with a major crisis. Our conversation led me to think about this issue and to attempt to produce a strategy which organisations could follow.

But before we even think about a strategy for change the first question you may well ask is: If all is apparently going well, profits are up, share price is up and there are new products and services out in the market place, why is any major change needed? The answer, as most large organisations understand only too well, is that we live in a world of enormously accelerating change and to remain ‘unmoved’ by this world is to loose commercial edge and market share.  

You might also ask, if an organisation at least on the surface appears healthy, isn’t any change going to meet considerable resistance from the people who make up the organisation, won’t they ask, why should we change? And even if the change is led from the top and good arguments are made for the change won’t there always be those naysayers who will question the rationale and stand in its way? Yes!

So the major question becomes:

How can a large organisation make significant changes that will equip it for the future, when the perception of its people is that it is successful?

I will argue in this article that identifying a ‘widow for change’ is the answer.


Firstly it is worth identifying why there is inertia [resistance to change] in organisations. Organisational culture plays a very large role in this.

In his 1990 paper, 'Organizational Culture', Edgar H. Schein says, "Culture can now be defined as a pattern of basic assumptions, invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore is to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems".

In some of our older firms their culture is very deeply embedded in the psyche of all of the people and as Schein says some of these basic assumptions, which underpin the culture, have been invented in response to external forces and as a result of having to deal with major problems, so are felt, by the people, to be core to the future of the organisation. These are never going to be easy to change, even if the leaders of the organisation perceive that there are critical elements that are dysfunctional. 

However if we look at how changes in societies have happened historically, there are examples that can give us insight. Here we need to turn to our friends in Social Anthropology as they can provide a view on this.

A colleague at Cambridge, Barbara Bodenhorn, explains that one of the key researchers examining change in social groups was Arnold van Gennep, whose most famous work is Les rites de passage (The Rites of Passage -1909) which includes his vision that "rites of passage" rituals can be divided into three phases: separation, liminality and reintegration.
  • Separation - the group’s movement away from an existing social structure to something new.
  • The liminal phase - where the group is in transition
  • Reintegration - where the group return as new persons. 

This three phase model of changes in societies of people is supported by the later work of  Kurt Lewin (1947), who came up with the idea that change had Three Steps: The Unfreezing, Moving, and Freezing of Group Standards.

Lewin assumes that an organisation is a complex system with forces and outcomes, a view that has more recently become far more widely accepted. He says in his paper:

The idea of a "social habit"[custom] seems to imply that in spite of the application of a force,[..] the level of the social process will change less than the delta [expected as a result of the change force] because of some type of "inner resistance" to change. To over come this inner resistance an additional force sufficient to "break the habit", to "unfreeze" the custom [is required].

This line of thought explains a phenomenon that is seen in organisations that have been able to implement systemic change without the driver of a catastrophic failure.  The additional force, discussed by Lewin can be a relatively small planned change, such as that experienced by an organisation when there is a change in leadership, perhaps as a result of someone moving on, or it can be through an outstanding and well publicised success. It is at these points in time that a window opens up and major change can happen, because attitudes in the organisation are in flux and a degree of “unfreezing” has already taken place.

The key to overcoming the internal resistance of an organisation to change is to spot the opportunity when there is to be this “unfreezing” and to be prepared when it comes along. It should be seen as a window of opportunity or “window for change”, which will not remain open for long before normality or “freezing” returns.

In essence - while an organisation is experiencing change, in Lewin’s second stage, it is open to change. Spot the “Window for Change” and act.

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