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Incremental vs radical change

The magnitude of a given change will impact how employees react - and how the change should be managed. Employees will react one way to a change that does not cause them to move too far from what they know and are comfortable with - incremental change. They will react very differently to a change that introduces dramatic change to what they know - radical change. The right approach and amount of change management required by a given project or initiative is unique and specific to that change.


Using the states of change as a measuring stick

One approach to thinking about the disruptive nature of a change can be found in the three states of change. Prosci uses the terms current state (what we do today), transition state (the process of change) and future state (how we will look after the change). The notion of three states of change can be found throughout many works on change management. Arnold Van Gennep first introduced the notion while studying rites of passage in cultures around the globe in the early 20th century. Kurt Lewin offered us the phraseology of unfreezing, moving and freezing (or refreezing) in the 1940s. William Bridges described this phenomenon of change as the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning in the 1970s. The concept of change happening in three distinct phases - on both an individual and an organizational level - has been used by countless other change management thinkers to help understand and more effectively manage change.

In the context of "incremental vs radical change" - we can ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How big is the gap between the future state and the current state?
  • How different is the future state from the current state?
  • How much of a departure from the current state is the future state?

These may seem like simple questions, but they are often overlooked or not asked by the teams building solutions. Project teams tend to focus on the solution - the transition state they are designing. When we add a change management perspective to a project or initiative, it becomes important to understand just how much change or disruption is taking place - because it impacts how we will manage that change. Answering the questions above provides an invaluable data point when developing the right change management approach.

So think about a change you are working on right now - how would you describe the gap between the current state and the future state? Is it radical, or is it incremental?


One size does not fit all - customizing your approach

The nature and size of the change - or the gap between the current state and the future state - impacts how much change management you need. Changes that are incremental in nature typically require less change management, because you are asking your employees to make a smaller leap from what they know and are comfortable with. Radical changes, on the other hand, require more change management. The future state is more unknown than in incremental change, and the comfort of the status quo is left farther behind when we ultimately make the change.

Think about a particular change - introducing Six Sigma - in the two scenarios below:

  • Scenario 1 - you are introducing Six Sigma into a manufacturing environment with a rich and long history of quality improvement efforts that focus on quality and systems already in place for measuring the amount of defective outputs. The quantity of outputs is right in line with what is required by Six Sigma analysis.

  • Scenario 2 - you are introducing Six Sigma into a service environment, perhaps a bank, where the notion of "quality" has taken on a very different definition and there are no tracking systems for measuring defects. The quantity of transactions processed is either extremely large (a bank, for example) or very small (a law firm, for example) so the notion of defects per million doesn't even make sense.

For the manufacturing firm, Six Sigma is an incremental change to how they interpret and measure quality. For the services firm, Six Sigma is a radical change requiring new approaches to thinking about quality and measuring outputs. These two scenarios require significantly different amounts of change management. The amount of sponsorship required will be different. Communication plans will be different. The level of support and personal coaching required by managers and supervisors will be different. The amount of training required will be different. And how resistance occurs, where it comes from and how it should be managed will be different.

Change management is most effective when it is flexible and scaled to fit the particular change at hand. No two changes will require exactly the same process or same level of change management. Even the activities and roles will change. Applying a "one-size-fits-all" approach is simply not appropriate. Change management must be scaled based on, among other things, whether the change is incremental or radical.

So think about a change you are working on right now - are you customizing and scaling your change management approach and activities based on the size of change? Whether it is radical or incremental?


Incremental vs radical - at the individual level

It is important to also remember that a given project or initiative will impact different groups in your organization very differently. Change is not homogonous. For some in the organization, the project may only have a small impact on their day-to-day work and processes. For others in the organization, however, the same project may cause tremendous disruption. Each individual has their own current state and their own future state required by the change - thus they have their own gap to bridge.

Think about the following example. An organization is redesigning its expense reporting system, moving to a new, fully web-based and automated system. Now think about these four employees and how the change impacts them, either incrementally or radically. The pie charts are an illustration of how much disruption this change has on that person's work.

Employee 1: "I only file about one expense report a quarter."

Employee 2: "I'm a sales person and file weekly expense reports."

Employee 3: "I administered an old website and will administer the new website."

Employee 4: "I am in accounting and manage the backend of all expense reporting."

The same project - a new expense reporting system - has a very different impact on these four sample employees. The projects occurring in your organization have the same quality. They impact different groups very differently. To be an effective change manager, you must segment the different groups in your organization, understand the magnitude of impact on those groups and build your change management plans accordingly.

So think about a change you are working on right now - can you segment out the impacted groups and estimate how disruptive the change will be on them? From an individual perspective, is the change incremental or radical to their day-to-day work and processes?



Key lessons for change managers:

The biggest take away for change managers is that a "one-size-fits-all" approach is not appropriate or effective for change management. You must understand the magnitude, disruption, gap and size of change to build the right approach to change management.

  • Conduct sizing assessments - In Prosci's 3-Phase Methodology, a change characteristics assessment is completed during Phase 1 - Preparing for changeTM to help you understand the nature of the change, including how disruptive it is going to be. An understanding of the size and type of change is a necessary input for customized change management plans.

  • Customize your approach - Your change management strategy and plans should reflect whether the change is incremental or radical. The size of the disruption of the change should impact your communications plan, sponsor roadmap, coaching plans, training plans and resistance management plans. Customize and scale your approach based on the unique impact and qualities of the change.

  • Segment groups and address them specifically and appropriately - This is the step of looking at the individual impacts that may be either radical or incremental depending on the change and the groups that are being impacted. Do not treat every group the same; adjust your approach based on how the change uniquely impacts that group. By focusing on the individual change impacts, you will build a more complete view of the change and better engage each of the groups.


In this tutorial series:

  • Module 1: The psychology of change - understanding the guiding principles of effective change management
  • Module 2: Senders and Receivers - understanding why some communications work and others don't
  • Module 3: Resistance - understanding a phenomena that is natural to all of us
  • Module 4: Authority for change - the role of leadership during change
  • Module 5: How do the values of an organization impact the approach to managing change?
  • Module 6: Incremental vs radical change
  • Module 7: The right answer is not enough
  • Module 8: Change is a process




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Offerings for applying Prosci's change management methodologies:


  • Change management certification ($2800)- 3-day program where you bring a project you are working on and apply all of the assessments and tools as you learn them - taught by former fortune 500 executives at locations across the US - includes over $1000 in products, including the Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report, the Change Management Toolkit and the Change Management Pilot Pro 2012
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Methodology tools:

  • Change Management Toolkit ($389) - hardcopy 3-ring binder presenting Prosci's change management methodology, includes templates, checklists and assessments for managing the people side of change (includes USB drive)
  • Change Management Pilot Pro 2012 ($489) - online tool including Prosci's change management methodology, eLearning modules and downloadable templates, assessments, presentations and checklists
  • Change Management Guide for Managers and Supervisors ($189) - tools to help supervisors engage and coach their direct reports through change (includes 4 copies of the Employee's Survival Guide)
  • PCT Analyzer ($149/$349) - web-based tool for collecting PCT Assessment data, analyzing results, identifying risks and developing action steps

References and books:

  • Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report ($289 / quantity discounts available) - journal-style report with lessons learned and best practices from 650 participants, presented in an easy-to-use format - reads as a checklist of what to do and what not to do
  • Change Management: the people side of change ($18.95 / quantity discounts available) - a primer for anyone involved in organizational change that addresses why manage change, individual change management and organizational change management
  • ADKAR: a model for change ($18.95 / quantity discounts available) - the definitive work on Prosci's ADKAR® Model
  • Employee's Survival Guide to Change ($14.95 / quantity discounts available) - a handbook to help employees survive and thrive during change, answers frequently asked questions and empowers employees to take charge of change



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