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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
“I only file about one expense report a quarter.”
“I’m a sales person and file weekly expense reports.”
“I administered an old website and will administer the new
“I am in accounting and manage the backend of all expense
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
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
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
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