Think of the term ‘change management’. What framework is implicitly related to that term? Obviously, it’s the management framework. Accordingly, change management is one type of management. ‘Management’ is the broad framework and ‘change management’ is a subset of that framework.
But when we talk of management or change management, what we mean is a framework shaped by research. Research into management didn’t really get going until the late 1800’s. Before that time, organisations still needed to manage change (think of the Industrial Revolution), but instead of basing management on a scientific understanding of social systems, it was based on the military model. In other words, civilian organisations were very hierarchical and the military framework of ‘command and control’ was the normal way they functioned. Even the formal business suit was adapted from uniforms worn by military officers.
What we know from research
But towards the end of the 19th century, management studies began appearing in academic institutions like the Wharton School in the US. Later, in the early to mid-20th century, management gurus like Peter Drucker and Alfred Sloan were instrumental in bringing evidence-based practice to the forefront.
So, what does research say about frameworks and leading change? In the 1930s and 1940s, an early researcher into change management theory, Kurt Lewin, showed the power of a simple 3-step process – unfreeze, change, refreeze. That means something like this: change is easier to bring about if you begin by disrupting the old way of doing things, introduce a new way of doing things, and then make the new way the normal way of doing things.
How is this different from the ‘command and control’ approach of the military framework? It’s mostly different in the in terms of power. In the military framework, power is centralised in the leaders – they give the orders and the rank-and-file carry out the orders. But Lewin sees more complexity of the civilian organisational system, where power is distributed more widely throughout the system. ‘Unfreezing’ involves taking power away from practices that are normal and ‘feel right’ to employees. Or, to put it another way, it’s helping employees to release the power they have over familiar ways of working. And ‘refreezing’ is about strengthening the power of new practices, so employees become attached to them (or, to rephrase, helping employees increase the power of attachment they feel towards new ways of working).
The management framework recognises that power is distributed around the organisation. John Kotter is arguably the leading exponent of the change management framework in the world today. His 8-step process highlights that leading change is about recognising where power is distributed in the organisation and performing certain tasks that utilise that power to effect change. Consider his 8 steps:
- Create a sense of urgency
- Build a guiding coalition
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives
- Enlist a volunteer army
- Enable action by removing barriers
- Generate short-term wins
- Sustain acceleration
- Institute change
Here change leaders have power, but they are not like a military general who gives orders and expects them to be followed. They are more like facilitators who enlist the support of other power brokers, facilitate an urgency, focus, and strategy, and clear the pathway so successful outcomes can be achieved.
This management framework is the dominant framework in the world today. And it is a clear improvement on the military framework – at least in civilian organisations. But is this framework the last word in how to lead change? Is it the best we can do?
I want to suggest another framework. A more expansive framework.
I call it the ‘readiness framework’.
The readiness framework
The readiness framework is also concerned with power, but with a different kind of power. In fact, I want to draw your attention away from the concept of power and onto the concept of capacity.
Readiness for change is primarily about two things – the psychological capacity to succeed at the change process, and the will-ingness to engage in the change project. Let’s unpack that. What does ‘psychological capacity’ mean? First, it doesn’t mean technical know-how. You certainly might need some training to succeed at change – there may be skills you need to develop, or new information you must acquire. But that’s not psychological capacity. The psychological capacity that’s needed is the capacity to succeed at every step of the change process. Even when it gets unbearably frustrating. Especially when you keep failing. It’s the grit that keeps you in the saddle, but it’s much more than grit. We have a term for this psychological capacity – it’s called ‘change fitness’. To succeed at change, people need enough change fitness to meet the persistent and challenging demands of the change process.
And then we come to the ‘change process’. Every time an organisation makes a change, it participates in the change process. For every change project an organisation embarks on, success means one thing – it means successfully completing every step of the change process. There is no other way to succeed. So, change readiness is not about being ready to begin a change project; it’s about being ready to succeed at every step of the change process. If you’re not ready to do that, you’re not ready for change and you’re not likely to succeed.
It is important to highlight this point; the readiness framework relates to the readiness to succeed at the change process. We’re talking about the deep, underlying structure of change. If an organisation doesn’t have the readiness to succeed at the deep structure of change, it isn’t ready for change. There is much more to be said about this, and this article is not the place to explore this at any depth. However, understand that readiness is always readiness for something, and change readiness is readiness for each and every step of the change process.
So, effective change leadership isn’t so much about utilising power or facilitating certain tasks. It’s more about helping stakeholders develop or exercise their capacity to succeed at every step of the change process, and managing the risks posed by the limitations of their capacity.
The third issue is ‘will-ingness’ to engage in the change process. Even if a group of employees have the change fitness capacity to succeed at a change project, they also need to engage their will and offer their support and participation. So, change leadership is also about helping employees make the choice to support the change process, recognising they also have the power to resist. Therefore, the right kind of communication is important.
In the military framework, power is centralised. Change happens because employees are told to change. In the management framework, power is distributed. The change leader draws upon distributed power and facilitates a strategic pathway towards success. In the readiness framework, the focus is less on power and more on capacity, commitment, and the deep structure of the change process. This is shown in Table 1.
Table 1: The Three Frameworks
Power is centralised
Power is distributed
Power is distributed
Successful organisational change means engaging successfully in every step of the change process. It depends upon employees’ capacity to succeed at each step of the change process, change leaders’ capacity to lead them towards success at each step of the change process, employees’ willingness to engage and remain committed to each step of the change process, and change leaders’ capacity to communicate in ways that engage that commitment.
The real power of the change leader in the readiness framework is the power to create readiness for change. Creating readiness for change means creating readiness for all employees to succeed at each step of the change process. And successful change is only likely when readiness for change is maximised.
What you can do
You might be wondering how to achieve this readiness. We provide a structured pathway to help you do this, and this pathway begins with information. Before you can work a readiness framework, you first need to understand what you’re trying to do.
We offer two, one-day online training programs to help you understand what you need to know and what you need to do. You can learn more about the first of these programs here.
In conclusion, I propose that the readiness framework offers a developmental improvement on the management framework. It recognises that power is distributed throughout the organisational system and that change leaders should facilitate certain tasks. In this way, it includes the management framework. But it also extends beyond it, recognising that organisational change is deeply rooted in the change process and people must be ready to engage in and succeed at every step of that process. And that changes what change leaders do. They should facilitate the emergence of change readiness, strategically deploy that readiness, and scaffold weaknesses presented by limitations in that readiness. We believe the readiness framework has much to offer organisations in this age of continual change.
Written by Dr Steve Barlow