Perspective on Managing Change
The Change Cycle is a road map that can be useful in charting your course, anticipating problems, and helping you keep track of where you are as the process unfolds. This article lays the groundwork by describing the seven stages of the model and what typically takes place during each.
Suppose you could focus an organization on a worthy change objective, sustain commitment to the change effort, overcome the inevitable resistance and practical hurdles, keep the implementation on track, and reach the point where the change itself becomes the norm and its benefits are tangible. Imagine completing one change and leveraging your organization's new confidence and capability to launch an even more ambitious change effort.
Unfortunately, most change efforts do not fare so well. Change initiatives may start with great enthusiasm, visibility, and upper management support, but often die out long before the goal is reached. Sometimes the effort gets bogged down in implementation; sometimes management attention or commitment wavers; perhaps day-to-day issues and priorities interfere. Maybe the organization doesn't buy into the need or the value of the change, or right in the middle of one effort, another gets launched. Sometimes an organization holds on to its way of doing things, regardless of the risk in doing so, even to the point of self-destruction, going out of business, losing credibility with customers.
The Change Cycle Model describes how change evolves through seven distinct stages. The utility of the Change Cycle has been extensively field tested. It has proven to be a valuable tool for clarifying what needs to be done to achieve change and for alerting managers to typical roadblocks. The Change Cycle can help you become more effective in managing change.
The Change Cycle proposes an underlying structure inherent in all change processes, whether you are designing a new manufacturing method, implementing concurrent engineering, reorganizing staff responsibilities, planning a merger, or trying to overcome a personal habit. This seven stage model can be used to explain many different types of change, as long as that change is directed by conscious will.
The model presented in this book, the Change Cycle, proposes an underlying structure inherent in all change processes, whether you are designing a new manufacturing method, preparing a bill for the legislature, reorganizing staff responsibilities, planning a merger, or trying to overcome a personal habit. This seven-stage model can be used to explain many different types of change, as long as that change is directed by conscious will. The seven stages of the Change Cycle are:
- Stage One: Choosing the Target
- Stage Two: Setting Goals
- Stage Three: Initiating Action
- Stage Four: Making Connections
- Stage Five: Rebalancing to Integrate the Change
- Stage Six: Consolidating the Learning
- Stage Seven: Moving to the Next Cycle
Each of the seven stages of change has its own purpose and characteristics. In each stage, some significant smaller change must take place to propel the cycle forward. These smaller changes build upon each other, until the cycle is complete. There needs to be sufficient motivation and sustained effort to push a change through all seven stages to completion.
Understanding the flow of organizational change through the cycle, as well as the issues characteristic of each stage, will help leaders plan and implement change more effectively. For example, a common mistake people make when managing change is to assume the change is complete before it is. Another is to assume there is adequate commitment, when the commitment is actually far too weak to withstand the challenges any important change must face. Another is the failure to measure and feed back tangible preliminary results and benefits of the change while the change is still being established. As you become acquainted with the seven stages of change, you’ll understand why organizational change is so often short-lived. More important, you’ll learn how to direct change that endures.
Most often, a change process is initiated when an individual or group feels discomfort or pressure. The source of the discomfort can be either internal or external, but frequently change seems to be stimulated by external sources. Such external sources of discomfort include changes in market or economic condition, competitive situation, technology, environment, government regulation, as well as the shifting expectations of society.
During the first stage of the Change Cycle, "Choosing the Target", your organization’s change leadership will be identifying, evaluating, and selecting among alternate change possibilities. Changes that matter are those that offer true potential for your organization to progress in areas that are important to it; for example:
- Strengthening your competitive position
- Improving service or customer relations
- Improving your product line
- Penetrating existing markets or expanding into new ones
- Becoming more cost-effective
- Increasing employee job satisfaction
Such possibilities can generate a great desire for change, especially when coupled with a painful stimulus to initiate change. When the potential for these kinds of changes is clearly recognized within your organization, if the potential generates real interest, you have reason to continue. But if the alternatives fail to generate a sufficient level of initial commitment from your leadership, your change process will likely stall.
Once you’ve completed the process of selecting a target, the next step is to clarify, formulate, and refine your idea. What corporate, or departmental direction are you talking about? Will this be a major shift in organizational focus, or are you refocusing on what you’ve intended to do all along? By taking this particular direction, what other directions are you not taking? What is the target of your efforts? Once the target is reached, what will it be like in your organization and for its customers?
By the end of the first stage, a small core group (typically) will have selected and defined a target. Traditionally, this core group was composed of managers, but increasingly it is composed of employees at all levels who are intimately familiar with the functions requiring change. This work can be accomplished by a single person, but there is a real advantage to building a core leadership group early in the Change Cycle. The work of the first stage often goes further by defining a vision of the future that is based on the desired effects of the changes. When the targeted change is defined clearly enough to begin stimulating belief and commitment in others, the work of Stage One is complete.
The second stage of the Change Cycle is the time during which change leadership typically expands. Also, greater definition is given to the purpose, scope, desired outcomes, and implementation plan for the change effort. During this stage, if not before, a design, planning, or implementation team is often formed. Staffing this team cross-functionally can help give the planning effort a diversity of viewpoints and expertise, particularly from those divisions most directly affected by the change. If modifications are being made to a manufacturing system, for example, include people from operations, engineering, marketing, and information systems on the team. It is especially important to include this cross-functional expertise at this stage, because the team is still relatively insulated It is also critical to tap outside sources, such as customers and independent subject matter experts, during this stage. Failure to integrate this external perspective can lead to serious misdirection of your change effort.
In order to develop goals and implementation plans, the team will likely focus on: assessing organizational capabilities, analyzing the impact of the change on products, policies, priorities, customers, and internal systems, and anticipating where resistance to change will likely crop up. The planners must gather and analyze all the relevant information at their disposal through whatever means are available.
One of their key tasks is to try to anticipate the major stumbling blocks they will face, and to determine how the potential problems will be addressed. Outrageous objections to the change should be raised and addressed as early as possible. Analysis and intuition are jointly used to chart a course through all the known obstacles confronting the change, and a readiness to face unknown challenges is created.
In Stage Two, a closer scrutiny of the proposed change takes place. More and better information is examined. Pitfalls are exposed. Questions of how much time, effort, and expense must be weighed against the potential benefits of the change. The will of the organization is given a more severe test now, as the resources needed for the project becomes clearer. Your organization should either assure the resources required to accomplish the goals of the project, or reconsider its position with respect to those goals. The project may be redefined at this point or dropped altogether.
If your project does gain sufficient definition and commitment, it may enter Stage Three, "Initiating Action". From Stage Two throughout the rest of the Change Cycle, you’ll notice that I emphasize the need for a multi-person effort. Individual expertise and commitment in driving any project are vital to its success. However, the dominant activity during this stage is to extend and exercise the organization’s collective capability toward achieving your project goals.
This implies that the individuals involved agree on the value of the project, on its goals, and on how they’ll go about achieving those goals. Each person must go through his or her own process to reach alignment on each of these points. While your project as an organizational endeavor may have reached the third stage of the Change Cycle, individuals who are brought into the project now will need time to move through their own Stages One and Two. They will need to integrate the project within their work lives and commit enough energy and talent to the effort to move it forward.
Stage Three requires an unmistakable shift from planning to action. The organization must begin testing its ability to actually make the change happen. As your project moves through the third stage, those involved are making changes, testing and revising procedures, and reporting results. Even though some planning may take place, Stage Three is dominated by the implementation of plans essentially completed during Stage Two.
By the end of Stage Three, many if not all of those who’ll be making the change are probably involved. They likely view the change effort as a new factor in their work lives. Although the outcome may still be in question, they have no doubt that the change effort is real and will involve them for a significant period of time. As a result, there’s no avoiding the need to form some sort of opinion and a stance toward this change process. Most participants, by the end of Stage Three, will have decided to go along with your change, at least as far as they perceive is necessary. Whether or not they believe that it is the right thing to do or worth the effort, most of them will support the implementation effort to some extent.
The real work of the change process involves achieving lasting shifts in attitude and behavior. While these shifts may begin to happen in Stage Three, this becomes a critical objective in Stage Four. In order for attitudes and behavior to truly shift, people must wrestle with the change as it plays out in their daily work. They must determine precisely which of their priorities, skills, and actions must be modified. Some will be exploring just how much actual change is necessary, and how much leeway exists for a superficial show of change.
Before they can be expected to make lasting changes, people need to discuss it thoroughly and repeatedly. People also need to experience how it feels to do things in the new way. They’re often comparing old and new ways of working, trying to figure out just how the new ways can fit. They’re talking with others who share their situation, formulating and reformulating their ideas, looking for support, guidance, solutions to usage problems, and practical suggestions from any credible source. All of this constitutes the work of Stage Four.
Be prepared that this interaction usually doesn’t occur as quickly or surely as we’d like. We’re often surprised just how long it takes for people, including ourselves, to make even simple behavioral change, much less to make changes requiring the acquisition of new skills and techniques. Changes that require a shift in values, attitudes, or basic orientation require even more complex implementation processes, and these usually take much longer to accomplish. What appears straightforward in the planning stages may be much harder to implement than anyone expects.
By the end of Stage Four, your changes have become operational. New patterns of action are apparent, and you probably have some measurable results. You can expect that the results will continue to improve, at least through Stage Five. But the change isn’t yet irreversible. The entire work system needs rebalancing before the change is a part of the natural, ongoing flow of activity.
As mentioned above, significant change is likely to have an impact on parts of your organization that aren’t directly involved in the change effort. Adjustments will be needed throughout the system. Until that happens, an inner tension will be present in the organization as a by-product of the core change. The process of making these adjustments wherever needed is the central activity of the fifth stage, "Rebalancing". Rebalancing may be needed in functional systems, relationship patterns, and organizational structures. Rebalancing may be needed on a personal level, as well.
The work of managers during Stage Five is to bring the entire work system to a new state of internal balance, where all the pieces function together as an integrated whole. More attention may be needed to help people complete shifts in thinking, attitudes, or behaviors before a new balance can be achieved. If problems are ignored or aren’t resolved during Stage Five, it won’t take much of a disruptive force to overturn the fragile change. The old way of doing things is likely to be more comfortable for people than the new way, until the rebalancing is complete.
By the end of Stage Five, the change has become the norm. People are not only comfortable with the change, but would resist going back to old patterns. If an outsider took a fresh look at the organization, it would be difficult to recognize that a change had actually occurred, because it is so much a part of the way people think about and do their work. Traces of the old ways of doing things would be hard to discover, unless you knew just where to look. The change has now stabilized, and will tend to stay in place unless disrupted by strong forces.
Once the new balance has been achieved within the groups most affected by the change, the process enters its sixth stage. Now it is time to examine the change effort from a slightly different perspective. You now stand on higher ground: you can look backward on past accomplishments and forward to future possibilities. This is a time for integration and reflection on the project as a whole and on the change itself.
- Were your initial goals achieved?
- If not, how much progress did you make?
- What have you learned about directing change that you can apply to other initiatives?
- What worked and what didn’t in your change effort?
- What should your organization do differently the next time?
- What new capabilities does your organization now have as a result of the change process it has just gone through?
- How can your organization use those new capabilities to make further improvements?
- What possibilities now exist to take advantage of what has been learned?
Stage Six is important because it is the natural place to simultaneously consider both past and future. It is an especially powerful moment because past accomplishments are still fresh, and the future is still open to shape as you choose. Stage Six can be viewed as a balancing point between past and future. If you emphasize only the past, you are less likely to seize upon new possibilities and move into a new cycle of change. If you jump into the future without thoroughly understanding the learning’s of the past, you will likely miss the chance to leverage what you have already gained.
Once integration is complete, the Change Cycle enters and quickly moves through the seventh stage, "Moving to the Next Cycle". This stage marks the point in time when one cycle reaches completion and a new cycle may begin. It is hard to imagine the successful completion of one significant change, without seeds being present for another. In order to move to a new cycle, there must be a simultaneous emphasis on what has just been completed, and what comes next.
The momentum created during Stage Seven propels the organization forward into the new cycle of change. There needs to be a clear recognition of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. The best possibilities for future change should already be identified and discussed to build interest and excitement. Otherwise, the transition to a new cycle may be delayed indefinitely, or may never occur. Accomplishments of the current cycle become crystallized in people’s minds and attention shifts to future possibilities.