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Organizational change: concepts and strategies

There are only two choices in life: to accept things as they are or to take responsibility for changing them


Topic: Organizational change

Time required: Approximately 1 hour

The following materials entitled, “Organizational Change: Concepts and Strategies,” are designed to provide a theoretical basis for the follow-up sessions on action research and planning. It is suggested that you prepare a short 20-30 minute lecture based on the concepts and strategies outlined in the article and follow this by a general discussion. During the discussion, encourage the participants to talk about their own experiences in trying to bring about changes in their organizations. The more specific they can be, the more meaningful the discussion will be. Ask questions such as:

· Why was it so difficult to bring about the change?

· Was the change organization wide or confined to one department or project?

· What could have been done differently to have increased the effectiveness of the change?


The idea that organizations can “plan and manage change” has been a part of management theory and practice for many years. Management literature is infused with expressions like planned change, managing change, organizational change, change agents and, more recently, change masters. They are attempts to categorize and make available in usable forms a collection of theories, principles and practices about change and how it can be more effectively harnessed to serve the needs of organizations and their clients. The basic underlying assumption which fuels all the rhetoric and energy that goes into managing change is that, in fact, change can be managed. It is assumed that organizations, and their managers, can have more influence and control over the changes that are taking place in their midst. Organizational change, as a management strategy, assumes a pro-active stance toward events rather than mere reaction to events.

Two questions immediately come to mind regarding the possibility of planned organizational change as a potential management strategy:

a. Are the references about planned change in organizational settings merely empty rhetoric to be bandied about in classrooms and management publications, or do they, in fact, represent important ideas and strategies for managers to consider in their day-to-day operations?

b. More importantly, are these concepts and strategies of organizational change so culture bound that they have little or no relevance in developing country settings?

Regarding the first question about the legitimacy of organizational change in the work place, managers can manage the change process and, therefore, the literature about organization development and change is potentially valuable to the practising manager. Like all bodies of knowledge and experience, it should be approached with a critical mind.

As for the cultural boundedness of organizational change strategies and their potential effectiveness in diverse settings, I am less certain. Too often it is assumed that management concepts, principles and practices are generic and applicable to almost any situation, regardless of the geographic or cultural setting. Much more care needs to be taken in the adoption of new management or organization strategies in cultural settings where they have not been fully tested.

It is true that there is a tendency to dismiss new ideas because they “didn’t originate here.” Cultures do change, norms and values become altered, and management and organization practices are constantly being challenged from within the organization and from the larger environment. Because organizations and their environments are dynamic and ever changing, the manager can hardly ignore the need to manage the change process. This often means adapting (not adopting) ideas that have been successful in other settings.

Before considering specific organizational change strategies, comments will be made on the role of organizational change within the larger context of national development. As well as the genesis of organizational change and development as a major theme in management theory and practice.


The act of development has as its central theme the management of change. Unfortunately, development, as a change strategy in developing countries, is too often defined in broad policy terms (abstract statements of desired future states) or as specific projects and programmes (end-products adhering to a prescribed cycle of planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating activities often imposed by outside institutions).

Because orientations to development are largely concerned with producing a final product or a future condition, opportunities to nurture individuals and organizations as agents of change are largely ignored. In fact, the concept of a change agent, within a specific organizational setting, may be antithetical to much of development in its present context. What is required, on the part of those who control the development process in developing countries, is a greater awareness of several fundamental issues integral to planned change.

First, the process of change is as important as the outcome of change. How change comes about, at all levels of society, will determine whether change can be sustained after external resources are no longer available.

Secondly, development involves many simultaneous changes including economic, social, political, cultural and behavioural. While it is readily admitted that economic, social and political changes are integral to the national development process, there is often reluctance to acknowledge that development also requires cultural and behavioural changes. Yet, cultural and behavioural changes may be the most critical factors in development and the most difficult to manage.

Thirdly, changes that result from development will be: (1) intended and unintended; (2) planned and unplanned; and (3) managed and unmanaged - even, on occasion, unmanageable. Managing change, as a function of development, should be designed to anticipate and minimize the unintended, unplanned and unmanaged aspects of development.

Finally, organizational change must be seen as a keystone of national development. Organizations, both public and private, are the places where development happens. Those who take on the responsibility to provide leadership and management within operating organizations should recognize their role in overall national development.

To summarize, the successful management of change and development will require clear attention to the process as well as the products of development and ultimately involve changes in the organization’s culture and behaviour. Change will also involve unintended, unplanned and unmanaged events and consequences. The key to managing organizational change is to anticipate and minimize these events and their consequences to the extent possible.

Just because everything is different doesn’t mean anything has changed


Organizational change, and the broader theme of managing change, have a well documented history. The following is a brief review of the roots of planned change and how they grew.

While there have been major practitioners and writers of managing change concepts and strategies over the centuries, the focus here is on one individual who has had a major influence on much of what we know about managing change at the present time. This person is Kurt Lewin, a social scientist who emigrated to the United States of America in the early 1930s.

At the core of Lewin’s concerns was the challenge of bringing about attitudinal and behavioural change without the usual manipulation that underlies many of these effects.

At least five of Lewin’s research interests and contributions have found their way into contemporary organizations and form the basis for much of modern management theory and practice. These include:

a. The role of democratic leadership in non-political settings including the sharing of power, authority, responsibility and decision-making at all appropriate levels of organizations and societies;

b. Group dynamics (human relations) and their impact upon the effectiveness of individuals and teams in task-oriented settings;

c. Experiential learning (learning by doing) as an approach to developing skills and changing attitudes and behaviours;

d. Action research, as a practical decision-making and problem-solving process;

e. The analysis of forces at work within and among social systems - an important contribution to the concept of organizations as open systems. Open systems are those that are influenced by, and in turn influence, their external environment.

These five major themes in the management of complex socio-economic/political systems (usually known as organizations or institutions) did not always fall on fertile ground in the years following Lewin’s initial research and writings. In fact, it has taken decades for the combination of Lewin’s efforts and contributions to make their mark on a significant number of operating organizations.

The period from 1950 to the present has been fertile with the blossoming of new ideas and approaches to management Those who have followed and, on occasion, immersed themselves in the latest management fad have witnessed the rise and fall, or at least, the faltering, of such movements as sensitivity training, the managerial grid, organization development, systems analysis, team building, matrix management, operations research, sociotechnical systems, management by objectives (MBO), worker democracy, The One Minute Manager, and many more. Management theorists have experienced their own “green revolution” when it comes to planting new approaches to effective management and organizations. The problem arises at harvest time when it is often difficult to tell the maize from the weeds.


While it is easy and sometimes appropriate to administer a dose of healthy cynicism to the probing and flailing that has characterized management/organization theory and practice in recent years, one must also applaud the tenacious manner in which managers and theoreticians have struggled to find “a better way.”

Those who come from harder disciplines (science, engineering, economics) often scoff at the “softness” of management techniques and strategies. However, their attempts to rationalize and quantify the workings of complex organizations often demonstrate a naivete about management and have at times resulted in disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately, the management of complex organizations is a messy business. It is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. It is also constrained by outmoded theories and practices which were devised in a previous century. Most of the world’s formal organizations cling to Weber’s bureaucratic model. It is characterized by the hierarchical pyramid, the definition and assignment of specific work tasks, sharp distinctions between workers and managers, and formalized and rigid patterns of organizational behaviour and practices.

When it is realised that these managerial and organizational systems are undergirded, and often undermined, by a rich tradition of local culture or cultures, it is little wonder that there are many questions and few answers about how one should go about managing organizations, projects, programmes and services in societies and multi-societal settings that are rapidly changing.

For those who are charged with the task of “managing,” this rich contextual stew of concepts and techniques can be of little comfort. The real challenge of management is learning to live temporarily with the inherited “system” while beginning to change it so it works for the manager, and not against him, in carrying out the responsibilities of the position.


Before bringing this discussion to a close it would be well to include a brief look at: (a) an academic categorization of planned change strategies that has been generally accepted over the years; and (b) a more practical set of change techniques designed for the manager.

One widely accepted academic taxonomy of planned change strategies is by Robert Chin and Kenneth Benne. It includes three broad categories: (a) empirical-rational; (b) normative-re-educative; and (c) power-coercive.

Empirical-rational. This approach assumes that individuals are rational and follow their rational self-interests once these are revealed to them. It further assumes that decisions can be made from a data base which adheres to rational arguments and provides a strong semblance of predictability. This approach includes basic and applied research and the dissemination of knowledge through general education, administrative decisions based on merit or recognized standards, systems analyses and operations research as management tools for decision-making, and the installation and use of quantitative informational systems to guide management actions.

Normative-re-educative. This category of change strategies assumes that patterns of action and practice are supported by socio-cultural norms and by commitments on the part of individuals to these norms. These strategies do not deny rational thought but go beyond rationality in determining what influences commitments and behaviour. It assumes the capacity to unlearn old norms, values, attitudes and behaviours and to learn new ones. It further assumes a transactional relationship between the individual and his or her environment. This approach includes many of Lewin’s early efforts, such as experiential training and action research, individual development approaches such as psychotherapy, counselling and coaching, and organizational activities designed to foster growth of individuals and the problem-solving capabilities of the system, through such activities as team-building and organization development.

Power-coercive. This approach to change assumes the application of power in some form, political or otherwise. The influence process involved is one of compliance by those with less power to the plans, direction and leadership of those with greater power. This category of change strategies includes: the use of political institutions; the composition and manipulation of power tes; non-violent confrontation as employed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King; conflict management; economic sanctions; and the making of power coalitions.

To these three categories of change strategies, proposed by Chin and Benne, a fourth might be added - that of technological-structural change. While Chin and Benne would, no doubt, argue that their three categories encompass changes of a technological and structural nature, these are too important in today’s managerial environment to risk being lost under the trilogy of approaches listed above.

Technological-structural. These changes assume the infusion of new technology into systems and their environment and the alteration or re-ordering of social systems to achieve certain goals. Included under this category are such activities as: the installation of computers; the deployment of new equipment and materials; and the structural alteration of organizational relationships.


French and Bell, in their book Organization Development, provide a succinct look at the major families of types of organizational change interventions. These are strategies designed to help managers put into practice many of the concepts associated with planned change:

a. Diagnostic activities: fact -finding activities designed to ascertain the state of the system, the status of a problem, the “way things are.” Available methods range from projective devices like “build a collage that represents for you your place in this organization” to the more traditional data collection methods of interviews, questionnaires, surveys, and meetings.

b. Team-building activities: activities designed to enhance the effective operation of system teams. They may relate to task issues, such as the way things are done, the needed skills to accomplish tasks, the resource allocations necessary for task accomplishment; or they may relate to the nature and quality of the relationships between the team members or between members and the leader. Again, a wide range of activities is possible. In addition, consideration is given to the different kinds of teams that may exist in the organization, such as formal work teams, temporary task force teams, and newly constituted teams.

c. Intergroup activities: activities designed to improve effectiveness of interdependent groups. They focus on joint activities and the output of the groups considered as a single system rather than two subsystems. When two groups are involved, the activities are generally designated intergroup or interface activities; when more than two groups are involved, the activities are often called organizational mirroring.

d. Survey-feedback activities: related to and similar to the diagnostic activities mentioned above in that they are a large component of those activities. However, they are important enough in their own right to be considered separately. These activities center on actively working the data produced by a survey and designing action plans based on the survey data.

e. Education and training activities: activities designed to improve the skills, abilities, and knowledge of individuals. There are several activities available and several approaches possible. For example, the individual can be educated in isolation from his or her own work group (in a T-group comprised of strangers), or one can be educated in relation to the work group (when a work team learns how better to manage interpersonal conflict). The activities may be directed toward technical skills required for effective task performance or may be directed toward improving interpersonal competence. The activities may be directed toward leadership issues, responsibilities and functions of group members, decision making, problem solving, goal setting and planning, etc.

f. Techno-structural or structural activities: activities designed to improve the effectiveness of technical or structural inputs and constraints affecting individuals or groups. The activities may take the form of: (i) experimenting with new organization structures and evaluating their effectiveness in terms of specific goals; or (ii) devising new ways to bring technical resources to bear on problems. Included in these activities are certain forms of job enrichment, management by objectives, socio-technical systems, collateral organizations, and physical settings interventions.

g. Process consultation activities: activities on the part of the consultant “which help the client perceive, understand, and act upon process events which occur in the client’s environment.” These activities perhaps more accurately describe an approach, a consulting mode in which the client is given insight into the human processes in organizations and taught skills in diagnosing and managing them. Primary emphasis is on processes such as communications, leader and member roles in groups, problem-solving and decision-making, group norms and group growth, leadership and authority, and intergroup co-operation and competition. Emphasis is also placed upon learning how to diagnose and develop the necessary skills to be effective in dealing with these processes.

h. Third party peacemaking activities: activities conducted by a skilled consultant (the third party), which are designed to “help two members of an organization manage their interpersonal conflict”. They are based on confrontation tactics and an understanding of the processes involved in conflict and conflict resolution.

i. Coaching and counselling activities: activities that entail the consultant or other organization members working with individuals to help them; (i) define learning goals; (ii) learn how others see their behaviour; (iii) learn new modes of behaviour to see if these help them to achieve their goals better. A central feature of this activity is the non-evaluative feedback given by others to an individual. A second feature is the joint exploration of alternative behaviours.

j. Planning and goal-setting activities: activities that include theory and experience in planning and goal-setting, utilizing problem-solving models, planning paradigms, ideal-organization versus real-organization “discrepancy” models, and the like. The goal of all of them is to improve these skills at the levels of the individual, group and total organization.

Within each of these broad categories of organizational interventions is a wide range of activities and exercises that managers and consultants can use to address organizational problems and concerns.


The potential for organizational change should be at the core of every manager’s thinking and strategy. With the necessity to work within a dynamic environment, where uncertainty and rapid changes are everyday events, the manager cannot afford to maintain the status quo.

Once the manager has decided to enter into an organizational change effort, it is important to ensure that it is compatible with the organization’s current cultural norms and values. This does not mean that those norms and values will not change through development. If they do not, then one can assume the change effort has not been successful. It is important, however, to have an initial success when entering into a long-term investment in organizational development. This, more often than not, requires the manager to start the change process at the point where the organization and its members are at the time. Effective change agents do not work uphill anymore than they have to.

Few managers realize how much little will do