The Strategy of Change

by Admin 1. May 2002 15:57


I have chosen this subject because I would be very surprised if you have not already had considerable experience of change either as a “recipient” or as an “initiator”. My objective is to introduce you to some recognised strategies for change, and also introduce you to some common reasons why people resist change to help you deal with future change within your organisations .

Over recent years, markets like our own have changed dramatically. Today, competitive pressures demand both efficiency and effectiveness. Firms must adapt with increasing speed to market pre s s u res and competitors’ innovations, simultaneously controlling and even lowering product or service costs.

C o n f ronted by these demands, companies like yours and mine have been, and will continue to be, confronted by change. In consequence, a larger part of most managers’ work is and will be taken up with change. With planning and implementing change, responding to change in other departments, and perhaps most importantly, anticipating future changes. Some of these changes can be implemented within existing arrangements . Others demand new policies, systems, procedures, roles, equipment etc.

At this point, I should point out that I am certainly not an advocate of change for changes sake. Managers, future managers and business leaders do need to be on the side of change, constantly seeking better ways of doing things. However, this does not mean that every change project is worth pursuing. New and different are not always better and even if they are, the cost of that change could be too high.

Some people speak of change with great enthusiasm, others see it as a threat. Many of us are ambivalent. We may favour change in principle but become anxious about where it is all leading. Change usually involves risks, uncertainty and upheaval. Processes of change can often be messy, seldom in my experience achieving quite what was intended. Our attitudes towards change, and our understanding of change, depend to a large extent on the degree of control we have over p a rticular changes. If you are, or even perceive yourself to be, the passive recipient of change, a pawn in someone else’s game, then that person’s talk of “challenge”, “opportunity ” and “innovation” will be unconvincing. If you identify with the changes and can effect their implementation, you may feel less than charitable towards people who appear to be “stuck in their ways” or “lacking commitment”. People who usually feel in charge of their lives can tolerate change and are generally optimistic in their outlook. They tend to assume that change is a “good thing”. For them, change is an opport unity. Other people tend to be sceptical about the benefits of change and are less tolerant of uncertainty. They are more likely to see change as an imposition, as misguided or as a necessary evil. Or they may even think that they have seen it all before. O rganisations need both types of people. Enthusiasts are vital in stimulating and supporting change, and in actually making it happen. Sceptics are essential in resisting misconceived proposals, in scrutinising and improving basically sound ideas. They may appear to be conflicting positions, but each needs the other to avoid either instability or stagnation .

“Kotter & Schlesinger” suggested that there are four common reasons why people resist change.

Parochial self-interest : People that view the proposed changes in relation to their own status, pre f e rences and p rospects, rather than thinking about the interests of the organisation as a whole.
Misunderstandings and lack of trust : People are poorly informed about the developments, prospects or opportunities to which the pro p o s e d changes are a response. They h a v e misconceptions or they do not believe that what they have been told is tru e .
Different assessments: People may be more or less familiar with the reasoning behind the proposals , but remain unconvinced because they “read” the situation differently.
Low tolerance for change: P e o p l e may dislike the uncertainty associated with organisational change.

I believe that there are other reasons for resistance including; loss of control, loss of face, concerns about one’s own competence, m o re work, past resentments and real thre a t s . Given that what appear to one person to be compelling reasons for change, may not be similarly perceived by others, how do companies go about promoting the change? Here are five common strategies.

Directive Strategy

A firmly top down approach, in which managers take full and direct responsibility for implementing change, and impose it through f o rmal management channels according to a predetermined plan. A directive approach can be fast and is there f o re appropriate in crisis situations. This approach is likely to generate resistance , because of the lack of participation and involvement. Other disadvantages include the risk that the initial plan is flawed.

Expert Strategy

A common approach when the change is seen as a result of a “technical” problem. There is usually little involvement of those affected . Advantages include enabling expertise being bought to bear on the problem and, if tackled by a relatively small team of experts, the change can be implemented fairly quickly. If employees accept the change as a legitimate response to a technical problem there may be little resistance. However resistance can be considerable if the problem is not generally p e rceived as a technical pro b l e m .

Negotiating Strategy

This approach accepts that those affected by the change have some right to a say in the change, or have the power to resist change if not won over. It also accepts that adjustments and concessions may have to be made. The advantage is that those affected may be less likely to resist change. The disadvantage is that the process is likely to take longer, and the outcome could differ from that expected at the outset.

Educative or Normative Strategy

This approach is based on the assumption that behaviour stems larg e l y from values and beliefs. These values and beliefs must therefore be changed if change is to be successful. A mixture of persuasion, education, training and selection is used. If successful, this strategy results in a positive commitment to the change in question, and prepares the way for future change. To be effective, this strategy requires considerable time and involves many of the organisations staff .

I am certainly not an advocate of change for changes sake”

Action - centred or Participative Strategy

A bottom-up approach, that assumes commitment to change depends on the involvement of those affected and their capacity to influence the change. A broad c ross-section of those affected are formed into teams charged with carrying the change forward. The resulting changes are more likely to be acceptable to employees, and the active involvement of people is likely to increase their commitment to, and enthusiasm for the change process itself. This process takes longer than the first three strategies, and of the five it is likely to be the most complex to manage and require the most resources . There is of course at least one other strategy, that of manipulation and co-option. This category covers covert attempts to influence others, for example, withholding inform a t i o n , or neutralizing a potential opponent by giving him or her a role that involves support i n g change without being able to influence it.

Which factors determine the choice of strategy?

• The nature and extent of the re s i s t a n c e that is expected. The greater the resistance, the less likely it is that a “fast” strategy will be achievable.
• The power of the initiator relative to those who may re s i s t .
• The need for information and co-operation in designing and carrying through the c h a n g e s .
• The urgency of the situation.

So management teams do have some choice over how they approach and implement change projects. However, do they utilize the full range of strategies as I have briefly outlined? Or, do they have a tendency to adopt p a rticular strategies? Many believe that unfortunately manipulation and co-option are the semi-automatic choice of many managers. In fact it could be the most utilized of all the outlined strategies in this article. The reasons for this are not difficult to identify! Managers know from their own experience including management courses that they must try to involve people, to offer them choices and lead by consent. But they also know that staff and colleagues have their own agendas and they a re frightened of losing what control they have. So, at the same time as informing and involving people, as consulting, negotiating, they are also acting unilaterally to slant information available, to pre-empt choices, divide and sideline potential opposition. Why will some managers adopt this strategy? The answer is relatively easy to identify. How else can the manager bring about involvement, implement the change and still control the results ?

Is there a realistic and fair alternative? Ye s ! The best one can do is to be clear and honest as possible with those involved about what has already been decided, and what choices a restill to be made or can be influenced. Involve people and share as much control as you can, but when this is impossible, be honest about it. People prefer to know where they stand and to deal with someone whose communication is reliable. If you are a change initiator, or a change recipient I hope this a rticle has helped you understand both perspectives of the “Strategy of Change”.



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