Patrick Dawson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Aberdeen, offers practised guidance for navigating the complexity of change.
Our existence in the world and our experiences in life are forever changing. We continuously engage with ongoing processes that are complex and which entangle and interconnect. The place of structures and routines is evident in the development of societies that create socio- economic political systems, institutions, laws, regulations, as is their use of coordinated universal time to synchronise clocks in the control and coordination of global markets and international activities. These organising forms provide a sense of stability that often masks the continuous nature of change.
Many popular change management frameworks take on assumptions of fixity and promote linear perspectives that offer simple sequential step models to successful change. These generally prescribe the need to follow a set sequence of events that occur along a fixed pathway that aligns with a set timeframe. There is an assumption that change is something that we can control through detailed planning and that it minimises the chance of disturbance to the achievement of a future desired state. However, these simple representational frameworks misconceive the nature of change and ignore some fundamental issues that require attention.
The fallacies of change and the inadequacies of linear step frameworks
Change management centres on the design and implementation of a change initiative that takes a company from a current position to a new desired way of operating. However, this process is not as simple as may first appear, with unforeseen events and unexpected contingencies, as well as people and the contextual dynamics of changing environments, all influencing planned change initiatives. Even with careful planning, things rarely go as expected, and compound when certain assumptions dominate simple and unrealistic plans for change.
I outline below eight inadequacies that require careful consideration before embarking on a change initiative.
Changing: Change is not something that we impose on a stable society. Rather new initiatives, when implemented, engage with ongoing dynamic processes. Our institutions are in turn not stable entities but fluid organisations that operate within these changing contextual environments. Change initiatives occur in changing not static contexts.
Implementation: The notion of a pre-set sequence of steps assumes comprehensive knowledge of all future contingencies and ignores the importance of adaptation to the unexpected. As Robert Burns wrote, even the best laid schemes go askew and leave nothing but grief and pain. Consequently, an open mind rather than a fixed stance is required in being able to revise and reconsider implementation strategies in the face of unforeseen contingencies.
Design and content: Flexibility Is not only important during implementation but also for the design and content stages of the change initiative. There is often an assumption that the material characteristics of a change programme are unchangeable, that the core elements of the initiative ought to be unassailable. However, modification and reconfiguration during uptake and use can be key components for effective change.
Power and politics: People often contest the imposition of change, questioning whether change is for the betterment of all. Conventional frameworks generally underplay political dimensions, yet power and politics come to the fore as individuals and groups position themselves in seeking to secure vested interests or minimise loss. Change is a politicised process, and change agents unable to steer these processes through this political terrain are unlikely to be successful.
Resistance: The assumption that resistance to change is a natural human response can blinker attention to problems and issues that those on the receiving end of change may identify. Those that contest change are not simply obstacles to overcome but are a potential source of knowledge and insight into issues not previously considered.
Stories and sense making: Dominant models downplay or ignore the importance of stories among individuals and groups. Such stories are particularly prevalent during the implementation of new initiatives and are critical to the processes of sense making. They enable people to make sense of and give sense to the changes they experience and act as a springboard for action as well as influencing the nature and extent of conflict or consent to change.
Inevitable progress and stories of success: Change is often associated with progress, as something good to pursue, especially in the competitive world of business. This may limit debate and criticism in the political context of organisations, where individuals are seeking to promote their own careers. The results of detrimental change are very evident in the world. However, people often ignore the insights and lessons from failure in focusing on the key ingredients of successful change. These stories of successful change often overstate elements such as charismatic leadership and wash over the difficulties and pitfalls that arise. They provide a good read and PR story but are not a good knowledge source for understanding the practice of managing change.
Time is clock time: The clock and the calendar are often assumed to be time. This objective, standardised notion of time supports coordination in the implementation of schedules in managing change, yet it ignores the subjective experience of time and the importance of temporality. Subjective time is equally important in the stories we relay in making sense of the world around us and in the different ways in which we experience time and draw on the past and the future in understanding the present (temporality). It is important not to ignore individual and group interpretations of the past as well as expectations of the future, as these all shape behavioural responses to unfolding changes in the present.
A processual framework for understanding change
The processual framework I propose attempts to take the inadequacies of linear step models into account. It draws on over 40 years of experience in studying processes of change in organisations through longitudinal research methods involving extended periods observing and interviewing people at all levels. Examining change as it happens and unfolds in practice— rather than snapshot after-the-event studies—is central to this approach. The stories, explanations and reflections of senior managers, the accounts of ‘war stories’, achievements and tribulations of middle managers and change agents, and the views, concerns and tales of employees and their representatives, all inform the processual framework.
What is ‘processual’? ‘Processual’ is a term I use to capture the complex, non-linear, dynamic processes of change. A central assumption is that new change initiatives always arise within the context of multiple, ongoing change processes; they are never isolated or discrete events. Our starting point centres on improving our knowledge and understanding of how to steer and, when necessary, reshape change. This can inform the design of initiatives that move with, rather than against, the complex currents associated with changing organisations. From this perspective, formalised change programmes change organisations, but in unforeseen, as well as foreseen, ways. In part this is due to the ongoing contextual processes of change that interweave with and influence these processes. In short, change initiatives shape organisations, and changing organisations shape change initiatives.
The notion of non-linearity that the processual frame refers to accommodates regression as well as the multiple and competing histories that arise during processes of change. There is a non-linearity in the way people revise, modify, replace and reappraise activities and tasks in moving forward by going back. For example, in reconsidering the content and direction of change programmes, there is non-linearity in the different ways that people draw on their historical experiences and future expectations in explaining their own change encounters within the development of both collective and individual sense making. In this, the framework engages with the importance of dialogue and stories, the power-political nature of change, and the complex non-linear dynamic processes of change.
The framework highlights the need to respond to unforeseen events; identifies the potential for proactive decision-making on circumventing emerging barriers through gaining the support of significant stakeholders; and appreciates the paradox and ambiguities of steering processes towards a future that remains ultimately unknowable.
The dynamic, complex, ongoing processes of changing is what constitutes a processual approach, and comprises three main elements that are not discrete but overlap and interweave.
- Careful consideration of the change initiative in question, taking into account the type, scale and scope of the proposed change and its key defining characteristics.
- The temporal context that includes wider changes in the global economy and contextual elements that pertain to organising processes and the history and culture of organisations.
- The power-political processes that come into play before, during and after a planned programme of change.
I now explain each of these in a little more detail.
Change initiatives come in many shapes and sizes. At one end of the spectrum these include small projects such as proactive improvements through incremental adjustments and the fine- tuning of operations in response to other needs and changes. These smaller scale initiatives typically work within the domain of the known, and often form an integral part of in-house monitoring and evaluation activities. At the other end of the spectrum lie the more radical transformational change initiatives that are generally large-scale and strategic in nature. A company may radically rethink their core activities, markets and purpose. The change may be proactive and involve considerable planning and adjustment over a number of years, or it may be in response to an unexpected turn in global events or a sudden shift in business market activities. The growth, development and innovation in the creative, telecommunications and computer industries over the past two decades provide us with a number of examples of radical change.
At the outset of such initiatives, it is important to clarify the defining characteristics of a change. To monitor and evaluate modifications that arise during design and implementation is equally important. Labels can sometimes misdirect attention or lead to false assumptions about what these key characteristics are. For example, in an extensive study into the uptake and use of Total Quality Management (TQM) in Australian organisations, we found that programmes operating under the same label exhibited very different characteristics; we also found that the content of these change initiatives altered over time (Dawson and Palmer, 1995). Being aware of the defining characteristics of change and of any modifications or adaptations that occur over time is important for two main reasons. First, to ensure that there is a common awareness and agreement on the objectives and content of change. Second, to facilitate meaningful dialogue in managing the uptake and implementation of change.
The second element that requires careful consideration is temporal context. This refers to the context in which changes are happening as well as the influence of these contextual dynamics on changing organisations. There are the local contextual dynamics rooted in everyday workplace activities as well as the more global concerns that would include broader economic, socio-political and environmental issues. Shifts in these contextual conditions can stimulate a business response to change. For example, a major upturn in financial markets, a significant fall in commodity prices, a pandemic, or a global act of terrorism can all generate responses for change as business leaders, entrepreneurs, and managers seek to capture new markets, remain competitive or simply ensure future survival. These changing dynamic contexts shape strategic decision-making and local processes of sense making in influencing the way people view the world, and make and give sense to their own lives.
“The processual approach highlights how business organisations are not static but dynamic entities.”
They search for strategic opportunities that service prospective ambitions and goals. Established organisations are also cultural, with a history of relations between individuals and groups that influence processes of change. These cultures evolve over time and whilst continually changing also establish a normative binding that is shared by groups often holding together potentially diverse members. Shared values and beliefs are evident in differing group identities and the various sub-cultures that comprise organisations (Dawson and Bloor, 1994). At the surface level, espoused values are often evident in the physical artefact’s and symbols of organisations, such as buildings, décor or logos associated with, for example, corporate identity design. However, below these surface representations of culture lie the deeper, more basic assumptions, which arise and influence the dynamics of group behaviour (Schein, 2017). Differing work groups establish their own set of values and norms (often linked with their identity in being, for example, a miner, dentist or pilot) that allow members to understand the types of behaviours expected of them in different situations.
Culture arises in an historical context through the sharing of values and beliefs. It draws on the temporal context, often repositioning multiple pasts, and projecting into possible futures in shaping attitudes and perceptions. In the meaning-making that occurs, especially among established sub-cultural groupings, a sense of the past often reaffirms identity-relevant beliefs and shapes collective processes of sense making. These processes of sense making are central to change and refer to the social process of making sense and giving meaning to the experiences of change.
People talk about their change encounters through gossip and stories that seek to give and make sense of what is going on and what is likely to happen in the future (Fan and Dawson, 2022). These multiple stories of change co-exist in organisations, and people continually revise and elaborate in their attempts to explain, persuade, educate, convince and shape the speed and direction of change. There is a temporal context that comprises a past (retrospective stories), a present (stories about what is happening now) and a future (prospective stories). These elements are rarely discrete but interweave stories: stories in the here-and-now; but also drawing on, and perhaps reinterpreting, the past to account for ongoing experiences; whilst also projecting forward to future possible outcomes (Dawson and McLean, 2013).
These stories help people share and co-construct collective interpretations of change. They are of great significance as they can provide platforms for resistance in blocking and derailing change. Stories may also allay fears and concerns; engage people in the change project; or simply provide some form of continuity between what is happening, what happened in the past and what is likely to happen in the future. Although there will always be different perspectives and stories around change initiatives, the efficacy of stories in being able to influence views and attitudes in shaping change should never be underestimated.
Stories are also part of the power-political processes much in evidence during times of change. Change agents with particular vested interests may seek to steer decisions through, for example, the use of socio-cultural sources of power to influence key stakeholders: through playing an active role in agenda setting, in controlling the parameters of decision-making, or in using formal authority structures to limit engagement in change decisions. The capacity to secure important strategic alliances, to gain governmental support, to shape stakeholder and competitor discussions or to use wealth and resources to sway the opinions of others, are all part of these power-political processes.
At a more visible political level, we may observe these processes in the formal discussions of change agreements, and in the negotiation and consultation processes that surround planning and implementing change. Managing and responding to conflicts or resistance among employees, between various groups or occupations, between union and management or during strategic deliberations, are all examples of processes that are affected by power and politics. There may also be external agencies that come into play, due to governmental pressure, competitor alliances or the influence of overseas divisions of large corporations. The political activity and power plays of different groups all shape and reshape processes of change: designated leaders, change agents, consultants working within the organisation, and various organisational groups, as well as between and within managerial, supervisory and operative personnel. The covert, as well as more overt, power-political processes steer decision-making and the setting of agendas at critical junctures during the process of organisational change.
Leaders and change agents are central characters in these political processes of change. Effective leadership centres on the ability to influence individuals and groups towards the achievement of objectives. It involves the use of power and political skill, an understanding of people, and an ability to inspire and engage others. Typically, leading change involves a range of people and approaches in the need to adapt and change over time, to meet the different contextual requirements and changing expectations and needs of all those involved in these processes.
There may be a ‘change champion’, but to facilitate change you need a range of staff; and in large-scale change, there is usually a dispersal of change-agency roles. Change agents need political skills, especially during highly contested radical change initiatives, where they need to win people over, deal with opponents, and build support for an initiative. Politically skilled change agents need to be able to build networks, be creative, have good diagnostic capabilities, and understand the sources and bases of power—as well as the uses of power in routine practice and how power becomes embedded in organisational structures and systems; for example, in the use of authority and reporting relationships where forms of expert, legitimate, reward and coercive power can all come into play.
However, it is important to remember that unlike hierarchical authority structures, power is multi-directional. Stories, as part of this power-political process, can bolster resistance as well as facilitating acceptance in making and giving sense to disruptions, uncertainties, threats, opportunities and ambiguities.
Practical insights on change management
There is no absence of guidelines for managing change, and yet effective management of large-scale initiatives is uncommon. One central problem with many of these approaches is the tendency to view change as a discrete phenomenon that moves through a series of linear steps. This is not the case.
“Change is messy, non-linear, political and complex, occurring in a dynamic context where other changes are also occurring.”
In managing these processes, we need to be aware of the processual and ongoing nature of change. Organisations are continually changing: they are not static entities. There is a need for contextual awareness, a deep understanding of the proposed change, political skills and astuteness as well as an open mind in being flexible and able to adapt to unforeseen problems and unexpected issues that will arise. In moving away from a universal set of prescriptions, as every change is different, we can nevertheless present six general rules of thumb that need consideration in managing change initiatives.
Accept that it will take time
There is no quick fix to managing change; it takes time, and requires planning and flexibility. Managing change involves considerable work in planning and evaluating proposed change trajectories, including being adaptable to the numerous revisions and modifications that may be necessary as change unfolds. The generation of commitment and support requires time as well as the utilisation of an array of skills and competencies in the continual adaptation to changing contextual circumstances. It is complex, demanding and difficult. There will be downsides, and as such, a line of continual improvement is unlikely.
Managing change involves orchestrating interweaving processes—that may contradict as well as compliment—towards a set of objectives, which may themselves refine and change over time. These processes have an ongoing history that is never static but open to change as the past is fluid in the context of the present and in the light of future expectations. Once again, this draws attention to the significance of temporality and the value of a processual approach in understanding the theory and practice of change.
Learn from all experiences and do not simply focus on post-hoc rationalisations
It is important to learn from all experiences (the good, the bad and the ugly) and not simply to focus attention on so-called ‘success’ stories or the views of those in dominant positions. Such stories are often post-hoc rationalised accounts constructed to convey a certain preferred message to an intended audience. As such, the experiences and views of different groups and individuals at various levels within an organisation are all potential sources of knowledge for understanding and shaping processes of change. It is also important to remember that we often learn more from failure—which may also be something that we do not want to openly talk about—than the reconstructed (selective and partisan) stories of success.
Remember that communication is more than just communication
Communication is central to managing change, promoting creativity and supporting the innovation process, but it also needs to be contextual. As supported by much of the literature, employee communication should be ongoing and consistent. It is important to be aware of competing narratives that co-exist at any given time, and these can undermine and misdirect attention and create environments of mistrust and uncertainty. When misinformation arises through gossip and rumour it is essential that countermeasures reaffirm intentions and intended outcomes. The choice of what, when, and how to communicate is vital. Communication is crucial for employees at all levels and is a central resource for those seeking to steer processes in certain preferred directions and for those wishing to resist the intentions of others.
Align training, education, and staff development with the practical needs of new operating philosophies and working procedures
It is important to train employees in new techniques and procedures and for that training to be delivered when needed and as required. Change agents must ensure that there is no misalignment of training programmes with initiatives that seek to develop new skills as this can be a major source of employee scepticism and frustration.
Exercise political skills
Political sensitivity and astuteness in an ability to manoeuvre through shifting terrains is a critical skill for change agents. They need to communicate well in enabling continual engagement with employees and the different concerns of groups and influential stakeholders. Individual and group experience will vary in context and over time and alas there are no silver bullets that exist to guarantee success.
Do not expect a universal prescription
“Simple solutions to complex problems do not exist. There are no simple recipes to competitive success.”
This is a central point yet one that people commonly ignore. In dealing with difficult and complex issues, people naturally look for the easy way out. Given this tendency to simplify, we should at a minimum challenge—where possible and practicable—the assumptions behind linear sequential packages and simple recipes for company success.
Significant change takes time, is complex and requires politically astute and knowledgeable change agents to steer change processes and engage with those on the receiving end of change. It is about the content of the change initiative, the context within which change is taking place, the responses of employees and the stories and sense making that occurs. All these are central to the capacity and skills of change agents to achieve effective change outcomes.
Change management is central to organisations and never more so than in the world that we currently live in. With issues of climate change, the need for sustainable business practices, ethical considerations, advances in technology, the dynamics of global competition, world pandemics and political turbulence, there is a need to be creative in adapting to new and shifting environments in markets and the workplace. Whilst there remains a tendency to view change as a linear series of events that runs through a number of identifiable and predictable stages, in practice, change is a complex dynamic process that often occurs within a multiple- change rather than a single-change environment.
The need to adapt and reconfigure ways of working and to be creative and innovative in the face of new challenges and emerging opportunities, all highlight the need for skill, competence and understanding in managing these complex processes. Managing change is as much about navigating uncharted seas in dealing with the unexpected as it is about managing planned initiatives. Planning is essential but it is only the beginning. The plan acts as a potential pathway that needs close monitoring as organisations will need to adapt and be flexible in the face of unforeseen issues and problems.
As I consistently stress, even with the best-laid plans things will go awry. As such, managing change is difficult, complex and messy. In tackling these complex issues, I promote the processual perspective I describe in this article that goes beyond a simple recipe approach in accommodating the broader temporal and contextual dynamics of changing. It broadens awareness of the issues and problems that are likely to arise and, although it does not offer any universal solutions, it draws attention to the need to continually monitor, evaluate, and adjust to the dynamic processes of changing. It also identifies key areas of concern for change agents and offers insight into the potential pitfalls of linear approaches.
Dr Patrick Dawson is a Professor of Change, Innovation and Creativity at the University of Adelaide and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Aberdeen. He has examined change and innovation in a number of organisations including: Pirelli Cables, BHP Billiton, Royal Dutch Shell, British Rail, British Aerospace, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, TNT and the CSIRO.
- Bloor, G., & Dawson, P. (1994). Understanding professional culture in organisational context. Organisation Studies, 15(2), 275-295.
- Dawson, P. (2019). Reshaping Change: A Processual Perspective (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Dawson, P. (1994). Organisational Change: A Processual Approach. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
- Dawson, P., & Andriopoulos, C. (2021). Managing Change, Creativity and Innovation (4th ed.). London: Sage.
- Dawson, P., & McLean, P. (2013). Miner’s tales: Stories and the storying process for understanding the collective sensemaking of employees during contested change. Group & Organisation Management: An International Journal, 38(2), 198-229.
- Dawson, P., & Palmer, G. (1995). Quality Management: The Theory and Practice of Implementing Change. Melbourne: Longman.
- Dawson, P., & Sykes, C. (2018). Organisational Change and Temporality: Bending the Arrow of Time (Paperback ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Fan, Z., & Dawson, P. (2022). Gossip as evaluative sensemaking and the concealment of confidential gossip in the everyday life of organisations. Management Learning, 53(2), 146-166.
- Schein, E. H. (2017). Organisational Culture and Leadership (5th ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.