How To Choose The Right Approach To Change Management

Mind the gap! Choosing the right approach to change…

What do you do when the world changes? When everything seems unpredictable? Your cost structure, employee base, competitors, and legislation are all changing. Facing uncertainty and ambiguity seems to be the new normal – we must accept the inevitability of organisational change.

However, there are lots of different organisational change management (OCM) models to choose from – at least 50! But how do you know which is the right one for you?

Brief history

Kurt Lewin (1947) is often credited with suggesting that change could be broken down into three phases – unfreeze, change, refreeze. But Lewin only mentioned these phases in passing at the end of a paper published four months after his death. There was no book, no article and no empirical research (something Lewin was a big advocate of). Ronald Lippitt, Lewin’s PhD student, morphed Lewin’s three phase model into a seven phases. Since then, an OCM arms race has ensued with five (ADKAR, 2006), six (Beer, 1990), and eight (Kotter, 2012) stage OCM models. But does this evolution of OCM models offer anything new, or does it mean we end up knowing more about less?

Mind the Gap!

Our analysis shows that when you aggregate all the stages in the most popular OCM change models into a 10-stage process, none of them really cover all the bases. In fact, the analysis shows that it you choose one of these models you are likely to miss around 40 per cent of the steps suggested by other models. The analysis also shows that the biggest gap in popular change models is in ‘Assessing the Opportunity or Problem Motivating the Change’ – arguably the most critical step in OCM.

Alex Boulting

There’s more…

There are potentially more fundamental problems with popular OCM models. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Poor quality evidence – Arguably two of the most widely practiced OCM models are Kotter’s eight step model (or Eight Accelerators) and PROSCI’s ADKAR model. Only Kotter’s model has been empirically tested but found its popularity was based on its ‘direct and usable format than from any scientific consensus on the results’.  Evidence for both models relies on stories of personal experiences, single company examples and case studies. This type of evidence comes way down the evidence hierarchy and is subject to all sorts of cognitive bias. From an evidence based management perspective, the question is not whether Kotter’s or the ADKAR models are right or wrong, but whether their claims are supported by the “conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources.” Kotter and ADKAR’s evidence misses out on more than 60 years of robust evidence from psychology, sociology and more recently neuroscience.
  • Unquestionable claims – When theories are based on poor quality evidence, the claims they make cannot be verified – they become unfalsifiable. We need to know whether their claims can be trusted. Kotter’s claim that OCM should start with a sense of urgency feels right, but what exactly does this mean? Kotter himself doesn’t seem sure. He states organisations must ‘create a crisis’ but also takes a softer approach of urgency being ‘business-as-usual not being acceptable’ – two completely different things. If we don’t know how Kotter tested for this claim, we don’t know which end of the urgency spectrum we should aim for. High quality evidence tells us that a perceived threat is only effective if people feel they can do something about it. Kotter’s claim is based on his belief that humans don’t like change – a myth that is still a perpetual theme amongst popular OCM practitioners and part of ADKAR’s 2010 curricula which states that ‘the natural reaction to change is resistance’.
  • Extraordinary Extrapolations – A claim that is currently ‘en vogue’ is that ‘our brains hate change’. Rock & Schwartz seem to be the culprits here. Unlike Kotter, they use quality evidence, but they overstretch their claim. They equate the stress of physical pain (thermal shocks) with the stress people experience during OCM programmes, which is a big leap. Not only does it assume that OCM is extremely stressful but that psychological and physiological stress follow the same neural circuitry – they do not. Physical stressors such as pain are mainly processed by the primal part of our brain, whereas psychological stressors elicit both physical and cognitive stress responses. These higher order responses to stress have an interesting effect on our ability to learn and maintain our curiosity. Our ‘higher brain’ loves surprises and novelty, and increases its repertoire of strategies to deal with change. So, by perpetuating this deficit focussed ‘hate change’ myth, we risk brushing over the nuances of how our people really learn and change.
  • Delusion of rigours research – Prosci (proponents of the ADKAR model) do use some empirical tests to support their claims. They claim that ‘effective OCM drives results and outcomes’ and can increase the likelihood of meeting objectives by as much as 6 times. We are assured by Prosci that they have collected 2000 data points over 10 years of research, but the data and analysis doesn’t control for other factors. Companies that adopt effective change management processes may already have trust in leadership, good supervisory support, and a clear vision, which may explain more of the variation in project success than PROSCI’s factors. The data does not support the claim. PROSCI’s research suffers from the ‘delusion of correlation & causality’ Rosenzweig (2007) – no matter how big the data set is, you can’t prove causality using a cross sectional questionnaire.

Back to the future: rebuilding the foundations of OCM

So where do we turn when there is no real evidence to support popular change management models? Lewin did build an evidence base on a different approach to OCM. Rather than a planned approach to change, Lewin argues for a more emergent approach. He suggests that that groups or organisations are in a continual process of adaptation – there is no freezing or unfreezing. So, what are the critical success factors for creating an organisational culture that can purposefully adapt to changing environments whilst maintaining current operations?

Our research, gathered from 275 change management practitioners and the best available evidence from academics, shows that there are four axioms change:

Axiom 1 – Creating a clear vision – A vision should be ambitious, concrete, action-orientated and inspiring – a ‘vaccine against fuzzy thinking’. It should be thought of as an overarching goal that connects individual employee actions. Not only will a clear vision increase collaboration but it will invite meaning and sense-making into an organisation.

Axiom 2 – Trust in leadership – Trust is about making ourselves vulnerable – putting your fate in someone else’s hands. This is potentially critical for change management as employees are led into the unknown by their organisation.  Employees put their trust in leaders who they feel have the ability, benevolence and integrity to create a positive outcome. Reactions to a change process are likely to be favourable if the process is perceived to be fair. This procedural justice is highly correlated to attitudes about work and behaviour. Specifically, procedural justice leads to high levels of change acceptance, particularly after an organisational downsizing.

Axiom 3 – Supervisory support – It seems that the monitoring of performance against a goal rather than setting the goal itself is the key to motivation and transformation. Holding employees to account through public progress-monitoring has a moderate to strong effect on performance. Supervisors who demonstrate that they value an employee’s contribution and that they care about their well-being can create psychologically safe environment for feedback . Supervisors also need to help employees feel they have control over their work. This will reduce the chance of employee burnout and increase their satisfaction.

Axiom 4 – Setting clear goals – In an environment where change is constant, organisations should focus on setting challenging and specific development goals rather than performance goals  or ability demonstration. Employees with learning goals have a higher need for achievement. They will seize opportunities to change because they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, task interested, agreeable and conscientiousness.

Making change ‘business-as-usual’

Supervisory support is the tipping point between the success and failure of a change initiative. It is the difference between change being a burden or an opportunity to develop. Employees are more positive towards change when they can see how their small isolated change fits within the context of an overall strategic narrative.

If you can build an atmosphere of trust and fairness in your organisation it not only builds change capability and performance, but creates a psychologically safe environment where employees can be themselves and can experiment.

So, sustaining and embedding change needs an atmosphere of supervisory support and trust in leadership. But this must be underpinned by organisational processes and structures. The most critical is Employee Performance Management (EPM). In this process, psychological contracts are made (and broken). It is where goals are set, behaviours are aligned, and development is determined.

The Employee Performance Management process should be a meaning maker, culture monitor and value deliverer – a singularity of change. So maybe the first step in understanding our readiness to change is to look at EPM.  Because if the goals, behaviours and learning opportunities of a change initiative are embedded in the day-to-day conversations between managers and their people, then change simply becomes business as usual.

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