KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Organizational change as struggle

with 5 comments

The blog laptop burns had a great post last week “Development as struggle”  which talked about how the biggest force for development and for societal change is people and people’s organizations, as opposed to development aid and state institutions which are the more frequent focus of development discourse.

I’m stretching a metaphor a little here, but I’d argue that people and their networks are also the biggest force for successful change within organizations, yet many change management exercises focus on changes to formal reporting lines and structures and business process reengineering rather than in mobilizing people and informal networks within the organization.

I’ve experienced a wide range of change management exercises in my working life and observed or heard about many others. One things I’ve noticed is that organizations, and the people within them can be not only resistant to change, but are adept at seeming to go along with change, and talking the talk but over time undermining the change or getting around them and reverting to the status quo – or at best dressing up their existing projects and behaviours in the language of change while in reality changing little in what they do and why they do it. I believe a major reason for this resistance is that the people side of change is not adequately addressed.

Don’t get me wrong, having a good supporting organizational structure in place is important, as is redefining current business processes to institutionalize and operationalize the changes you want to make. BUT the change can easily become about going through the motions if your employees don’t understand the change and why its needed, don’t believe in it, don’t see what’s in it for them, and think that if they wait long enough it will go away.

Trying to engineer change by restructuring alone is often disruptive and leads to staff insecurity about their work and their positions, even fear – the last thing you need when you want them to buy into and focus on doing something new since it leaves them feeling disempowered rather than motivated. Instead if you want to get real change you need :

  • Inspiring leaders who are responsible for providing vision and direction for the change.
  • Champions for the change across the organization, especially outside those parts of the organization which are formally identified as leading the change. Real champions can be much more convincing and credible than those who are managing the initiative itself.
  • Conversation and feedback across the organization to help spread the work and explain the change.
  • Inclusivity – give people the opportunity to feel part of the change and to contribute towards it whatever their formal roles – giving their own ideas about how it should be rolled out, and let them be recognized for it. This also requires giving up absolute control of how the change will turn out.
  • Use of existing networks of people to spread the word and get them on board – including co-opting of the skeptical as your spokespersons by reaching out to them, and explaining why the change will help them and responding to their questions and concerns. It also means acknowledging and including those who have already been working for the change you are trying to promote and recognizing and capitalizing on their pas contributions -even if you want to take your future vision in a slightly different direction.
  • Being clear and honest in explaining why the change is needed, the opportunities, but also the risks, and what impact it will have on people’s current jobs.

People are your key asset as well as your key challenge in trying to get change adopted in an organization – so you need to factor this into your plans for change.


Written by Ian Thorpe

May 26, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Great post! This excerpt from The Barefoot Guide ( also explains more about why organizations matter:

    Your post also reminds me of something I read recently on the Interaction Institute for Social Change blog: “I can’t help but notice the way we beat upon our own organizations. We get so frustrated that they are not perfect – as if a perfect place really existed. We beat up our leaders for our collective failures while we ourselves fail to take responsibility. But really – we are all just inching our way along. We are doing it in our personal lives and we are doing it in our organizational lives. We’ll keep on making mistakes.The important thing is to pay attention, to be thorough and rigorous with our observations, to make necessary adjustments, to try new things. Judge a little less,and be a lot less afraid, this is just the way things work.”

    Jennifer Lentfer

    May 26, 2011 at 6:05 pm

  2. Ian thanks for you post and for linking to my blog. I think the two kinds of development can be even more closely linked.

    In change management I think that we often overlook the fact that ‘all change involves loss’ and that ‘all loss incurs resistence’.

    This is natural and should be embraced as a way of engaging skeptic in the process and giving them a stake in the process.

    The sense of insecurity and disempowerment that you refer to in your post is a natural reaction to the sense of loss people experience during change.

    Change involves a loss of certainty about, inter alia, ‘the pecking order’ and ‘how we do things around here’. Organisation change, by design, affects the status quo there is loss of the comfort, routine and security that people had in knowing where boundaries of scope and influence began and ended.

    If we interpret resistance to change as people’s response to a sense of loss and disempowerment, then we may chose to see this as an opportunity to re-empower people and therby gain their active support and participation.

    Viewed this way ‘all resistence is fertile’ because it affords us an opportunity to actively engage with resisters and give them a voice and stake in the change process. Here the techniques of inclusivity and conversation, as well as the purposeful co-option of the skeptical, which you highlight in your bullet points, are particularly appropriate.

    Whethere we are seeking to bring about change at the level of an organisation, community or nation, we must expect resistence to change. This is natural.

    Whether we are engaged in organisational development or global development we should embrace both the process of change, as well as resistence to change, as opportunities to empower people to determine the content and direction of developments.

    People empowered with a sense of their own agency (rather than OD blueprints or party manifestos) are the most powerful route to any meaningful or sustainable change.

    Tony Roberts

    May 27, 2011 at 4:57 am

  3. Your bullet list is very reminiscent of John Kotter’s change methodology, which you might enjoy:

    Also, the following saying, which to me sums up a lot: people aren’t afraid of change; they’re afraid of uncertainty. The implication is that to execute change, you have to lay out a clear map of where you’re taking them. And, of course, get their buy-in, best secured by their active involvement in the map-making.

    David Week

    May 28, 2011 at 12:01 am

  4. […] Organizational change as struggle – Five ways foreign aid could cost less while doing more – […]

  5. Very pertiment given the changes going on in our organization – and linking back to previous discussions on meetings having longer-lasting change if inclusive, but more fun if everyone in the meeting has the same world-view – change will likely only happen if it is inclusive (the famous buy-in), yet spending time and eNORmous energy to be inclusive is usually not what an ideas-entrepreneur wants to do. If someone has a “new best way of doing things”, they want to persuade everyone, but they don’t really want to spend time ensuring everyone really gets the point. So, in a bureaucracy, you change the structure, the reporting mechanisms, the incentives, to bring everyone along anyway. The result – in my case – is a whole new reporting mechanism that I have to fill out alongside my usual ones, and even if it now has “traffic light” capability, I am not very enthused.

    Mark Hereward

    June 8, 2011 at 4:13 am

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