Navigating the river of change

ADLT 625 Change Strategies – Final Synthesis Post – What I have learned about Organizational Change

A peak through the window of history

When I look back at this semester of study and experience of organizational change strategies, the biggest thing that stands out is how all life is in a state of flux. Everything is really changing all the time! It’s like being in a boat in the middle of the flowing river subject to the sun, wind, and rain, as well as the lay of the river bed with its deep and shallow parts, rocks and rapids, swirling eddies, and all the other life in the water. And couple that with and anyone else who may be plying the river for trade, pleasure, or simply as means to get to their next stop. Now, if I look at that from my point of view as one person in a boat I can see that’s a living system. But then, if I consider the multiple views of any other living beings there is indeed a complex system.

Venice – 1. Idyllic or equilibrium? 2. Entering the turbulent zone, be ready to adapt!!

When I think if the paradigm shift of moving from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and friends to a view of an organization as an organism and living system I wonder how the mechanistic view can still hold. I imagine that it prevails in a large part due to simply habit and perhaps that with the pressure of the constant change that’s occurred in the last fifty years there has been little time for reflection.

I can see that a key step in recognizing the changed nature of organizations came with the analysis of Emery and Tryst in 1965 that distinguished the ‘casual texture of the environment.’ They suggest the idea that the environment of an organization could vary from a relatively stable, somewhat predictable state to a complex and dynamic set of circumstances with many interdependent variables. The later state, called turbulent fields, describes today’s dynamic organizational climate considering globalization, technology, the economy, and many other factors. A key point is that in order to stay effective, organizations need to scan the environment, looking for indications of change both internally and externally and then adapting.

Turbulent flows,

In 1966 Bennis really gazed into the future with his predictions of what organizations would need to survive the coming times. Instead of the bureaucratic stagnation of early industrial revolution organizations, he saw an environment where interdependence was more prominent than competition, turbulence over steadiness, and large-scale activity prevailed over small-scale activity. In this environment there would be an increased knowledge of human needs, a collaborative concept of power instead of coercion and fear, and organizational values based on humanistic-democratic ideals. Organizations would be rapidly changing, adaptive, temporary systems made up of diverse strangers with professional skills.

Seeing an organization as an open, living system seems to make sense for me at this point in time considering the evolution of technology and globalization that’s occurred during my lifetime. But I can also appreciate the evolution of such a perspective. It seems like much of the world still operates in the mechanistic worldview. And yet technology, globalization, the economy, the environment, and the mixing of cultures bring the issue into more prominent awareness.

It’s also been interesting to have a glimpse into the science of complexity as it may relate to organizations. A few of the key points of this science that strike me are that ‘equilibrium is a precursor to death.’ Wow, that’s really quite a thought.  Another is a threat or a compelling opportunity moves living things towards chaos which evokes experimentation and mutation where new solutions may be found. So, challenges and opportunities are fertile ground for innovation, if I can be ready and aware. Another interesting point is that living systems cannot be directed along a given path because of the many unpredictable influences. So, the challenge is to disturb the system that approximates a hoped for outcome (Pascale, Millemann, & Gioji, 2000). This makes sense to me – you’ll never get the perfect fix to a situation because the situation will be different from the snapshot in time from which you plan that fix. You can do something that moves the system in the direction you’d like to go and then observe the reaction and make another adjustment.

A key idea for me from the history or organizational change was the idea that corporations are built on the assumption of continuity and the marketplace is built on the assumption of discontinuity. Over time, corporations have rarely kept pace with the growth of the market. Rather, there has a great turnover in leading companies in the market and of the few survivors most have trailed the marketplace in earnings by 20%. The marketplace works according to the principles of creation and destruction. New corporations are created and those who cannot adapt are either absorb by others or dissolved. The market does not support an organization that cannot adapt.

The idea of creative destruction is fascinating to me. I can see that if an organization is failing or a certain aspect is not working, it would be great step to recognize it and before things go too far, begin the process of dissolution. It seems so healthy, but I can also see that it would really be quite difficult to do. Someone would really have to be on the ball, regularly observing data and other factors to be able to say, ‘OK, that’s it with this idea, operation, it’s not working anymore. We’re closing it down.” The idea of creation and innovation is pretty easy to grasp as important component of a successful organization, even though I can see that it is often difficult to move from the status quo into a risky new venture where failure is a possibility. This takes a certain kind of readiness which is different than the maintenance of an efficient operation (Foster & Kaplan, 2001). And yet the to move towards creative destruction seems to take courage, insight, and decisiveness of a rare mix. What a balance is needed to survive in turbulent times!

Creative destruction


The challenge with bureaucratic corporations is the inability to change corporate culture despite threats from the market. This is caused by ‘cultural lock-in’ which derives from the rigidifying of different elements of organizational systems, primarily mental models. Mental models manifest in control systems which often evolve into defensive routines which defend the status quo and resist change which can also ultimately lead to failure. One of the biggest challenges in an organization is to change mental models and as a result I see one of the important goals of organizational change efforts is to address this need.

Theories and Models and Diagnosing the Current State

Considering various theories and models of organizational change has helped me gain a deeper perspective for ways to view an organization. The idea of the organization as an organism moved thinking from a mechanistic/bureaucratic view to that of open, systems thinking. The contingency theory helped me to see that there may be no one ‘best’ way of organizing, and that the form of an organization depends on the environment and the task. It was interesting to consider that different forms of management may be needed within the same organization, for example R&D and accounting would be run quite differently in order to be most effective. Another interesting point of the contingency theory is that different types of organizations are needed in different environments (Morgan, 1997). Other theories such as population ecology, shared futures, and the idea that organizations grow through stages of evolution and revolution offer valuable perspectives to consider when exploring how to create and maintain and effective organization.

The Burke and Litwin (1992) Model of Organization Performance and Change really helped me, first of all, get picture of the different processes, factors, and systems in an organization and to see how they are interrelated. The distinction of transformational and transactional factors was important to me when considering change. The idea that effective transformation or revolution primarily comes from leadership was helpful in that I now know how important it is to have leadership on board for any transformational or transactional change efforts. This model also introduced me to the distinction between organizational development (OD) and organizational transformation (OT).

Understanding resistance

While I was introduced to the concept of various forms of resistance in my Consulting Skills class last fall, the readings this semester helped to give me a deeper perspective on the topic. First of all I found it very helpful to consider the stages of transition that illuminated by Bridges (1986) occur with change – letting go of the old situation and identity, passing through a neutral zone, and moving into new beginning. I could see each of these stages connected with certain events in my own personal life and it’s helped me acknowledge that there is a natural process involved in most any change. I can see that it would be important to recognize these natural processes when attempting to implement change in an organization. In an organizational context Bridges call these steps disorientation, disintegration and discovery. I can see these steps when I look at an organization for which I volunteer. A few years ago it underwent a change in leadership after many years after the former leader passed on. There was a real transition process that occurred with this change. I recognize the 3 stages Bridges refers to on a personal level as well as organizational.

Jick’s (1990) consideration of recipients of change gives important insight into how change agents can facilitate the process of change by becoming aware of and sensitive to the natural process. Jick’s suggestion to rethink the idea of resistance as an obstacle to be overcome to more of a natural process to be understood and supported can go a long way to enable change. An important consideration in enabling change is the importance of involving people in decision making throughout the process rather than imposing change from the top down. By being aware of the natural processes involved in change and transitions, leadership can better enable the capability for change.

Overcoming resistance


Org Change Interventions – OD & OT

While we explored some of the processes that are involved in organizational development (OD) interventions such as team building, coaching, and personal skill development, the real focus of the second half of the semester was on organizational transformation (OT) interventions. I was more or less familiar with many OD processes, at least in concept, and have been involve with quite a few myself to differing degrees both as a participant and facilitator. The concept of using large group interventions (LGIs) as an approach to OT was new and exciting. Bringing the ‘whole system’ into the room is an exciting concept.

Each of the LGIs for which we had a mini conference – Open Space, Future Search, and Appreciative Inquiry – was unique and yet each brought a palatable energy and sense of exciting potential. One of the most valuable things created with a LGI is the diverse participation and basic structure that encourages participants to contribute in an open and equitable way. This builds on the discovery that resistance can be mitigated through participation. Bringing the whole system into the room additionally creates the opportunity for diverse perspectives to receive valuable air time. Along with the opportunity for participants to gain new perspectives from the diverse gathering, it is also interesting to see how a significant component of LGIs is the building of a sense of community and common purpose. This is referred to by various approaches as ‘common ground’ (Future Search) or ‘higher ground’ (Appreciative Inquiry).

Open Space

The differences between the three LGIs we studied are both in structure and approach. Open Space is very unstructured and while there is a potential to reach action steps, there also is the possibility that it can be used for a large group looking for information exchange only. One interesting aspect of Open Space is the simplicity in that it encourages responsibility and freedom of choice. One fascinating aspect of Open Search is the potential to hold a conference for up to 2000 or perhaps more people. An event this size would really be quite amazing to see unfold and participate in.

Future Search

Future Search (FS) seemed to be the most structured of the three LGIs studied. One of the key points that FS does is to look into the past and present to create a shared experience and common awareness of what is. This experience and awareness of the past and present then creates a discrepancy for what is hoped for the future.  The vision for the future is then created and enacted followed by concrete action plans. One of the interesting things for me about FS is how each component is created out of a proven group process or method and organized in a specific sequence that choreographs an unfolding of a common vision and plan for the future.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was the last AGI we studied and in which I participated a mini conference or summit for class. I found participating in the guided interview and sharing with another team a very powerful process. One of the things that most struck me about AI is the positive and hopeful energy created. I could see much thought was put into the developing the questions so they elicited positive responses. It was helpful to gain insight into the process of designing an appreciate interview – looking backward, inward, forward, and then in transition. The Four D cycle is also quite structured and yet one interesting point about AI is the variety of forms one can use. There is a great potential for flexibility. While AI can be used for large scale interventions, I can see many uses for one-on-one or small group settings too.

The importance of large group dialogue

I think the most significant learning for me from the mini experiences of LGIs is the understanding how powerful dialogue is when opportunities are created to bring large groups of people together. LGIs create the opportunity for participants to gain a rich diversity of perspectives and through critical reflection and discussion move towards transforming mental models that are caused by cultural lock-in. In this regard LGIs hold promise of actual transformation occurring within an organization in a shorter time frame than many of the traditional OD practices.

How I will use my learning about Org Change

I think there are many things I have gleaned from my study this semester of organizational change. I have mentioned many throughout this synthesis. It’s clear to me that the field of organizational change is deep and rich and we have perhaps just been introduced to some of the basic principles. However, I think that my awareness of the diverse factors and dynamics involved in org change has evolved over the semester. I believe many of the things I’ve learned about org change will enable me to be more effective in the work I do with organizations and better navigate the ocean of change.


I recently read an article of a study that suggests children have an innate urge to help others even if it is people they don’t know. While the study did not deny existence of self-sustaining interests in children, the idea that human beings have an urge to help something other than their selves is reassuring. While we may think that helping another is perhaps somehow not helping ourselves, maybe the untainted vision of a 2 year old can see part of herself in another. This idea seems to parallel the positive experiences I’ve had with Org Change this semester, especially with the large group interventions.]


Burke, W., Lake, D.  & Paine, J. (Eds.), (2009). Organization change, A comprehensive reader. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.


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