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The definition and history of change management
Change Management Tutorial Series

by Jeff Hiatt, author of Employee's Survival Guide to Change and Tim Creasey, editor for the Change Management Learning Center at www.change-management.com



The field of change management can be confusing and sometimes complicated to research and study, especially for new practitioners. Change management is the application of many different ideas from the engineering, business and psychology fields.  As changes in organizations have become more frequent and a necessity for survival, the body of knowledge known as “change management” has also grown to encompass more skills and knowledge from each of these fields of study.

While this may be a good trend overall, the result for many change leaders is growing confusion about what change management really means. To bring this into focus and to make your change management work successful, this tutorial is designed to help explain the history and evolution of change management, and discuss why it is a required competency for today’s business operations.


The convergence of two fields of thought

To understand change management as we know it today, you need to consider two converging and predominant fields of thought: an engineer's approach to improving business performance and a psychologist's approach to managing the human-side of change.

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First, students of business improvement have been learning and practicing how to make changes to the operations of a business as a mechanical system since Frederick Taylor’s work in the late nineteenth century. This mechanical system perspective focuses on observable, measurable business elements that can be changed or improved, including business strategy, processes, systems, organizational structures and job roles.

From this perspective, a business is like a clock where each of the mechanical pieces can be changed or altered to produce a predictable and desirable solution. The change can be gradual as seen in continuous process improvement methods such as TQM, or radical, as advocated in business process reengineering that began with the best selling book, Reengineering the Corporation by Michael Hammer in the early 1990’s.

Historically companies embracing this mechanical approach to business improvement typically did not embrace change management concepts until their projects encountered resistance or faced serious problems during implementation. Even after this realization, many organizations' approach to change management was ad hoc and lacked a solid framework for actively managing change through the process. The tendency from an engineer's perspective was to isolate this "people" problem and then eliminate it or design a quick fix for this perceived obstacle to their improvement initiative.

The other side of the story begins with psychologists. Concerned with how humans react to their environment, the field of psychology has often focused on how an individual thinks and behaves in a particular situation. Humans are often exposed to change, hence psychologists study how humans react to change. With his 1980 publication of Transitions, William Bridges became a predominant thinker in the field of human adaptation to change and his early text is frequently cited in Organization Development books on change management. However, only once or twice in this book does Bridges relate his theory to managing change in the workplace. It was not until later that Bridges began to write a significant body of work related to his theories of change and how they relate to workplace change management.

The net result of this evolution is that two schools of thought have emerged. The table below summaries the key differences and contrasts the two approaches in terms of focus, business practice, measures of success and perspective on change.

  Engineer Psychologist
Focus Processes, systems, structure People
Business practices BPR, TQM, ISO 9000, Quality Human resources, OD
Starting point Business issues or opportunities Personal change, employee resistance (or potential for resistance)
Measure of success Business performance, financial and statistical metrics Job satisfaction, turnover, productivity loss
Perspective on change “Shoot the stragglers, carry the wounded.” “Help individuals make sense of what the change means to them.”

Observers of business changes in real life have realized that the extreme application of either of these two approaches, in isolation, will be unsuccessful. An exclusively “engineering” approach to business issues or opportunities results in effective solutions that are seldom adequately implemented, while an exclusively “psychologist” approach results in a business receptive to new things without an appreciation or understanding for what must change for the business to succeed.

Not all practitioners have traveled down these two extremes. A few thought leaders in the change management field were advocating a structured change management process early on. Jeanenne LaMarsh was actively using her organizational change model in the 1980's with companies like AT&T Bell Laboratories and later with Ford and Caterpillar. She authored the book Changing the Way We Change in 1995 and recently introduced the Managed Change process.

In the book Managing at the Speed of Change, Daryl Conner begins with a emphasis on understanding the psychology of change and then moves to a structured change process. In the recent publication by Ackerman and Anderson, change management concepts are presented in a combined process with business improvement activities. John Kotter, in Leading Change, presents an 8-step model for leading change initiatives.

Contributions from both the engineering and psychology fields are producing a convergence of thought that is crucial for successful design and implementation of business change. In other words, a business must constantly examine its performance, strategy, processes and systems to understand what changes need to be made. Increasing external and internal factors have made this strategy essential for survival. However, an organization must also understand the implications of a new business change on its employees given their culture, values, history and capacity for change. It is the front-line employees that ultimately execute on the new day-to-day activities and make the new processes and systems come to life in the business.

What does this mean for the definition and field of change management? First, that it is important to recognize that both the engineering and psychological aspects must be considered for successful change. Second, that business improvement methodologies must integrate these two disciplines into a comprehensive model for change. Finally, that when you read or study change management literature, be sure to identify how the term change management is used so that you can effectively apply that work to your current body of knowledge.

Today, the term “change management” takes on a variety of meanings. The most practical and useful definition is:

Change management is the process, tools and techniques to manage the people-side of business change to achieve the required business outcome, and to realize that business change effectively within the social infrastructure of the workplace.

This definition allows practitioners to separate change management as a practice area from business improvement techniques. So whether you are doing Six Sigma, BPR, TQM or some other technique to improve business performance, change management can be viewed as an essential competency to overlay and integrate with these methods.


Why is change management a required competency for business today?

In his best selling book Stewardship, Peter Block describes the traditional values that have been the center piece of traditional, patriarchal organizations: control, consistency and predictability. These values dictate that decision-making is at the top, leaving the execution and implementation to the middle and bottom layers of an organization.

Twenty-five years ago, if you wanted something changed as the CEO of a traditional company, you simply spoke the words. The culture and belief system of the organization was more akin to a military structure. The predictable behavior in that situation was compliance to the new business direction. As a leader in that organization, your control was typically not questioned and employees understood what was expected of them. The values of control, consistency and predictability created an environment where change was simply a plan to implement or an adjustment to a mechanical system. Although helpful, change management was not a required competency in this environment.

A quarter of a century has passed. Business improvement initiatives – including Edward Deming’s teachings post World-War II, the earliest quality circles from Toyota, Six Sigma from Motorola, Total Quality Management (TQM) from AT&T and Ford, empowered teams, and many others initiatives – came to the forefront. Business leaders embraced, if at least for some period of time, one or more of these business initiatives.

Over the course of these 25 years and these improvement strategies, we have impressed new values and belief systems on employees. The new values include empowerment (make the right decision for the customer), accountability (take ownership and pride in your work), and continuous improvement (look for ways to improve everything you do, everyday). A new culture has evolved in many of today’s businesses where a new generation of employees:

  • take ownership and responsibility for their work
  • have pride in workmanship and look to improve their work processes
  • feel empowered to make decisions that improve their product and the level of customer service

So what is the problem? The evolution from the traditional values of control, predictability and consistency – values that made change relatively simple to implement – to the new values focused on accountability, ownership and empowerment have made the implementation of business change more difficult. In many ways Peter Block’s advocacy for this shift has come true. Employees have been taught to question and analyze their day-to-day activities and are rewarded for doing so. Then why would we expect them not to question and resist new change initiatives?

The new values of business today require a different approach to the way businesses change. The response of the employee has shifted from “yes, sir” to “why are we doing that” – and the change leader must adapt.

In some cases of large-scale business process change in the early 1990’s, the result was outright failure because business leaders had not shifted their actions to accommodate the new values. A CEO in the old value structure only had to issue the decree for change and it happened. But when a CEO tries this same approach today, employees shout back “Why?” “How does it impact me?” “If it isn’t broken, why are you trying to fix it?”

Research with more than 320 projects showed the primary reason for failure in major change initiatives was lack of change management. In other words, the inability to manage the people side of a business change in the presence of a new culture and new values is a major contributor to failed business changes. Failing to manage the human side of change results in inefficient and unsuccessful change projects and an inability to realize new business strategies and objectives.



Recognize that both the engineering and psychological aspects must be considered for successful business change. While many techniques can be employed to design the solution to a business problem or opportunity (i.e., the business change), change management is the process, tools and techniques to manage the people-side of that business change to achieve the most successful business outcome, and to realize that change effectively within the social infrastructure of the workplace.

Change management is a required competency in business today. The shift in the core values of employees to empowerment, ownership, and accountability has created a work force that will embrace change as long as they are part of the process. With the introduction of today’s new business values, employee resistance should be expected. In the absence of change management, this resistance can cripple a business change.


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Related Resources:

Change Management Toolkit: a comprehensive change management process, including templates,  worksheets, assessments, checklists and guidelines - a must have for change management team members and consultants.

Best Practices in Change Management: 426 companies share experiences in managing change and lesson on how to build great executive sponsorship. Includes success factors, methodology, role of top management, communications, team structure and more. The report makes it easy to learn change management best practices and discover the mistakes to avoid when creating executive sponsorship.

An Introduction to Change Management: a solid foundation in change management perspectives, theories, activities and practices - available July 2003 - email a Prosci analyst for more information



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