Change Process Theories: A Review Outline Introduction Four types of Organizational Change Theories: Van de Ven and Poole • Dialectical: Kurt Lewin • Evolution: o Lippitt, Watson, and Wesley o Bartlett and Kayser • Teleology: o Edgar Schein o Prochaska and DiClemente • Life Cycle: Ichak Adizes Conclusion Introduction An enduring quest of management scholars is to explain how and why organizations change. The processes of change or sequences of events have been difficult to define, let alone manage. Researchers have borrowed many concepts from many fields of study, including sociology, biology, and physics.
Van de Ven and Poole (1995) proposed four categories of organizational change: dialectical, evolution, teleological and life cycle. Dialectical theory is the development of an organization through the conflict, competition, and/or collaboration of internal or external interests, wherein the status quo is changed regardless of the overall benefit or detriment to the organization. Evolutionary theory views organizational change as the cumulative change brought about through the continuous cycle of variation, selection and incorporation, and retention, caused by competition for scarce resources, environmental change or imposed conditions.
Teleology is the purposeful development of an organization towards a defined end result or in line with a predetermined collective ideology by means of repetitive sequences of goal definition, implementation, evaluation and modification. Finally, Life Cycle theory is the linear, organic development of an organization from a homogenous, undefined entity to a differentiated, structured entity through accumulated experiences arising from the pressure of external events as mediated by internal logic, rules or programs.
Within these four categories, I present six theories of organizational change to illustrate the underlying concepts within each category. Dialectical Theory Kurt Lewin is widely regarded as one of the pioneers in the study of change processes. A social scientist, Lewin postulated that human behavior is based on a relatively stationary equilibrium of two groups of forces. While driving forces facilitate change by pushing in the desired direction, counterforces known as restraining forces immediately sprout to hinder the change.
When a significant change in these forces occurs, behavior must also shift to maintain equilibrium. After equilibrium is reached, the new behaviors gradually become the standard for maintaining the status quo. Lewin described this process in his article, Frontiers in Group Dynamics: “A change toward a higher level of group performance is frequently short lived; after a “shot in the arm” group life soon returns to the previous level. This indicates that it does not suffice to define the objective of planned change in group performance as the reaching of a different level.
Permanency of the new level, or permanency for a desired period, should be included in the objective. A successful change includes, therefore, three aspects: unfreezing (if necessary) the present level, moving to the new level, and freezing group life on the new level” (p 34). The Evolutionary Theories Lippitt, Watson, and Westley expanded on Lewin’s work by introducing the idea of a relationship between the change agent and the ‘client’ or organization to be changed. Lippitt et al. ’s theory proposes seven phases. The first phase focuses on developing a need for change.
A client must not only be aware of a problematic situation, but must believe a better state of affairs is possible, and that the change agent (whether a consultant or method) is relevant and available. Phase two is the establishment of a change relationship. As with any human relationship, one of the most delicate yet absolutely crucial elements in forming the change relationship is the first impression. “Often the client system seems to be seeking assurance that the potential change agent is different enough from the client system to be a real expert and yet enough like it to be horoughly understandable and approachable” (Lippitt et al. p 134). Phases three, four, and five are an elaboration on Lewin’s moving stage, and can be grouped together under the heading: moving toward change. These straightforward phases are (3) Clarification or Diagnosis of the client’s problem (4) Examination of the Alternative Routes and Goals and Establishing Goals and Intentions of Action, and (5) Transformation of Intentions into Actual Change Efforts. Lippitt et al. return to Lewin’s Refreezing stage with phase six: The generalization and stabilization of change.
A critical factor in the stabilization of change is the spread of change to neighboring systems. A change is much more likely to be retained if reinforced by colleagues’ usage. The final phase, achieving a terminal relationship, focuses on preventing a dependency on the change agent for support and developing a form of client self-reliance for future problem-solving. Lippitt et al. issue a final caution, noting that the seven phases present are not always sequential, and the phases can overlap or repeat themselves throughout the change process.
Bartlett and Kayser (1973) propose that successful change depends on a reactive redistribution of power within the structure of an organization. This power redistribution optimally occurs through a six phase series of stimuli and reactions. Stimulus 1: Pressure on top management takes the form of both internal pressure (such as union strikes, low productivity, high costs or interdepartmental conflict) and external pressure (such as lower sales, stockholder discontent, or a competitor’s breakthrough. When these pressures offset one another, e. g. high sales despite employee grumbling, there is little incentive for top management to induce change. However, when internal and external pressures are aligned, Reaction 1: Arousal to take action senior management seeks a consultant or other diagnostic tool to discover the problem. Stimulus 2: Intervention at the top – While long-term managers tend to look for individuals and groups to blame, “outsiders” tend to see the organizational structure or processes as equally likely culprits.
The “outsider”, presumably hired and respected for his expert ability to improve organizational practices, is in an ideal position to Reaction 2: Reorient top management to internal problems. In order to Stimulus 3: Diagnose problem areas effectively, top management speaks with multiple levels of the organization. This step largely determines the success of the change. Top menagers who only consult their immediate subordainates gather little to no new data.
Managers who conduct a comprehensive hierarchy-spanning feedback search not only acquiremore information but have a positive reinforcing effect on the change to come. By consulting all hierarchy levels, managers achieve employee buy-in, drawing employees to believe that not is management itself willing to change, but actual important problems are being acknowledged and ideas from lower levels are being valued by upper levels (Bartlett and Kaser, 1973, p. 58). In contrast, manager who take a unilateral approach are making changes based on limited viewpoints with little to no employee buy-in.
Perhaps even worse is the CEO who delegates the change to a subordinate, who potentially has less information, less clout within the organization, and the lingering uncertainty that top management isn’t sincere about the change. Reaction 3: Recognition of specific problems found through the diagnosis process will cause deliberation resulting in the Stimulus 4: Invention of a new solution. Suggestions for solutions can be gathered in phase 3. Barlett and Kayser place particular importance on group collaboration for generating potential solutions.
Through this collaboration, there is greater Reaction 4: Commitment to the new courses of action. Stimulus 5: Experimentation with new solutions inevitably produces occasional setbacks and/or outright failure. During this period, the multi-level employee endorsement of change becomes critical as the organization Reaction 5: Reviews the results of the change. While non-effective ‘solutions’ are thrown out, effective solutions are propagated and expanded. Ideally, the quietly discarded solutions only briefly demoralize their advocates, while the retained superior solutions have an infectiously positive effect.
Finally, this Stimulus 6: Reinforcement from positive results ushers in a full scale Reaction 6: Acceptance of the new practices. Teleological Theories Edgar Schein further defined Lewin’s three stage theory, proposing that the Unfreezing stage can be subdivided into three steps: Disconfirmation, Induction of Guilt or “survival anxiety”, and Creation of Psychological Safety. Disconfirmation is characterized by the dissatisfaction and/or frustration with the current state of affairs. Survival anxiety occurs when the dissatisfiers are accepted as valid and linked to the nonattainment of goals.
The primary restraining force at this stage is learning anxiety – having to admit that the current behaviors are “wrong” and the additional fear that attempting a new process may result in failure and a loss of esteem. The Creation of Psychological Safety step is the addressing and overcoming of this fear. Schein further subdivided Lewin’s theory by splitting the moving process into three phases. The first phase, Cognitive Redefinition is typified by organizational members discovering that the definitions, concepts and other anchors previously relied upon are not absolutes.
While the unfreezing stages create motivation for change, the second phase, termed Imitation and Identification with a Role Model, determines whether the change is beneficial or harmful, depending on the role model chosen. However, if there are no attractive role models, the third phase, Scanning of Alternatives and Trial and Error, comes into play. Occasionally, if there is sufficient psychological safety, spontaneous insight into a solution may occur.
This spontaneous insight is highly valuable because such insights often take into account both stated and hidden unique obstacles to a change, unlike process consultants who often can only address the stated barriers. With regard to the Refreezing stage, Schein notes that the new behaviors must be at least somewhat compatible with the remaining behaviors or the cycle of disconfirmation may restart, potentially reversing the progress made, or devolving into an endless cycle of new behaviors. Prochaska et al (1992) developed a change behavior model for the health care field which has gradually been extended to other disciplines.
Much like Lewin’s model, their model defines the general process of change. Unlike Lewin, Prochaska et al. present their five stages of behavioral change as cyclical in nature rather than as a simple progression. Please see figure 1. Precontemplation (PC) is the stage at which there is no intention to change behavior in the near future. Typically, an external force such as a lawsuit or technological advancement occurs to push an organization into the next stage. Contemplation (C) is the stage where the problem or undesirable behavior is recognized, and serious consideration is given to change the behavior.
This stage is characterized by the weighing of current opportunity costs against the actual costs of modifying the problem. Preparation (PP) is a stage that combines intention and initial attempts to change behaviors. The organization intends a full transformation of the indicated ‘problem behaviors’ in the very near future. The cessation of undesirable behaviors and embrace of the new behaviors marks the advent of the Action (A) stage. The Maintenance (M) stage is often, and incorrectly, viewed as a static stage. In truth, this stage is the continuation and reinforcement of the new behaviors.
This stage becomes particularly pertinent when the initial attitude of ‘new and improved’ begins wearing thin and organizational members consciously or subconsciously attempt to return to the ‘old and trusted’ methods. This backslide can continue (precontemplation) until the problem is once again addressed (contemplation). Life Cycle Theory In his 1998 book, Adizes presents one of the clearest descriptions and in depth refinements of Life Cycle organizational development models to date. Based on ten sequential stages of development, he addresses the attitudes, issues, and threats at each stage of life.
These life stages are categorized into the growing phase, second birth and coming of age, and aging organizations. Please see figure 2 for reference. (In the interest of brevity, a few potential alternative stages have been omitted. ) The Growing Phase begins with the courtship stage where the organization is only an idea in the founder’s mind. At this time, the founder is building inspirational momentum – revving his courage so that when the time comes to make the decision to take the risk, he has the internal commitment to survive the external doubts and hardships.
During the courtship stage, this commitment determines whether the idea will result in a healthy organizational child or if it is merely an affair, a momentary infatuation with entrepreneurship. Once the risk has been undertaken, the nature of the organization mutates drastically. At this Infancy stage of the organization, there is an overriding emphasis on doing rather than thinking; thinking of new products may be useful in the future, but sale of current products ensures a future will exist.
The organization is incredibly personal, with little hierarchy. Formal procedures are non-existent except for those imposed by outside forces, i. e. laws and government regulation. Like an infant, the organization requires periodic infusion of milk (cash) and the constant tending of its creator. The period of infancy is necessarily short. The energy level required plateaus as brand loyalty builds, suppliers stabilize, and the production problems are no longer a daily crisis: the baby begins sleeping through the night.
The infant organization moves into the Go-Go stage. With the idea working, ends meeting, and sales flourishing the founder and the organization become arrogant. The struggle to survive fades to the back of the mind and every opportunity becomes a priority: after all, if one dream came true, why not other dreams as well? The toddler shoves every opportunity into its mouth, without regard for nutritional value. Whereas in the infancy stage there was no hierarchy, the Go-Go stage begins development of a structure.
At the beginning of the stage, the responsibilities are shared and many tasks overlap: the organization is organized around the people not the tasks. The CEO risks falling into the Founders Trap: failing to realize the organization has moved beyond a one-man show, that decentralization and delegation have become imperative. The signs of imminent crisis, the arrogance, uncontrolled growth, lack of structure and centralized decision making, are obfuscated by soaring sales, overconfidence from success, and the residual stubbornness of an entrepreneur fighting for his dream.
When the crisis hits, the company falters and a second birth occurs. The Second Birth and Coming of Age Phase begins with Adolescence: an awkward period that is more painful and prolonged than infancy. Like a teenager trying to establish independence from his family, the adolescent organization’s characteristic behaviors include conflict and inconsistency. In delegating, the founder must content himself with offering advice instead of taking control: he must allow his organizational child to make mistakes in order to learn from them.
Gradually, the organization establishes its sovereignty, with the occasional clash with ‘old management’. This can precipitate a divorce, especially if the founder decides that the organization’s goals have become incompatible with his own. The adolescent organization experiences a shift from merely generating more sales, to generating better sales with less overhead and more profit. When the overall structure of the administration stabilizes and leadership roles become institutionalized, the organization moves to the next stage of development: Prime.
Prime is the optimum point on the life cycle curve, combining the vision and aggressiveness of a Go-Go with the structure solidified in Adolescence to back it up. This is not to say that a company in its prime has stopped growing, but that growth has become planned and controlled. The challenge of Prime is to continue the momentum, and not become complacent and ride the inertial growth from previous stages. If a Prime organization does not refuel this momentum, organizational vitality will level off, and will enter the stage called Stable, the end of growth and the beginning of decline.
The Stable stage is first in the Aging Phase in the organizational life cycle. The organization slowly loses flexibility; the persistent sense of urgency departs and is replaced with a feeling of security in the relatively stable market share acquired over the years. Several changes slip in: the developmental spending budget grows while the product and market research budgets decline, management training is substituted for management development, and there is a power shift to the finance department from engineering, marketing, or research and development. Despite these changes, there is markedly less conflict in the Stable stage.
There are no major transitional events in the Aging phase as there were in the Growing phase. Instead, there is a slow process of deterioration. As the organization draws back from personalized attention to each client, it slides into Aristocracy. The organization is often cash rich, leading organizational members to misclassify themselves as in the prime stage. “Don’t make waves” becomes the company motto, and uniformity of thought, dress, and address becomes the norm. While Bob and Mary may be on a first name basis outside of the office, or behind closed doors, during meetings it is inevitably Mr.
Smith and Ms. Jones. Another notable communication change is that focus is placed on how something was said, rather than what is said. Because of the organizational taboo against sparking conflict, consultants are brought in to give voice to the deadly trend of expecting external forces to increase market share without the executives having to admit anything. The consultant reports are often read, but ignored until the advent of Early Bureaucracy. With revenues and profits plummeting and a high turnover of good people, the Early Bureaucracy witch hunt begins.
Internal conflict, back stabbing and paranoia obliterate any remaining customer focus. The organization focuses on who caused a problem rather than on what to do about it. The remaining creative individuals jump ship or are fired as though they were the source of the problems. The organization has two options remaining: Bureaucracy or Death. If a company is subsidized or nationalized, it has attached itself to life support: autonomic (administrative) functions are kept moving, but the vital spark from the infancy stage has been extinguished.
The organization has become a Bureaucracy; its only purpose is to perpetuate its existence. Eventually, through internal decision making or government reallocation of funds, the organization quietly dies. Conclusion As theories develop, they become more specific and therefore more limited in scope. Scholars examining these theories develop a form of tunnel vision, and can become stymied by unexplainable behavior outside their specialty. Van de Ven and Poole’s taxonomy of change theory types helps to reacquaint researchers with the wide variety of possibilities.
Further research on the meta-analysis of change theories is indicated. References Adizes, Ichak. (1988). Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to do About It. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs: New Jersey. Armenakis, Achilles and Bedeian, Arthur. (1999). Organizational Change: A Review of Theory and Research in the 1990s. Journal of Management. 25. 293 – 315. Bartlett, Alton and Kayser, Thomas. (1973). Changing Organizational Behavior. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs: New Jersey Lewin, Kurt. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics.
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