In an Era of Acute Change Fatigue a New Approach to Change Management is Needed

It’s often said that people like improvement but hate change! It seems that change resistance is a widespread phenomenon – irrational to some, perhaps, but in many cases, entirely justified. I once attended a leaving party for a member of staff at a Government department. In his departing speech, he wryly stated that in his 20 years with the organisation, his job title and / or his department had changed 19 times (nineteen!), yet he had done fundamentally the same things with the same customer groups every day of his working life! He added that he had given up trying to make sense of it by the third of fourth change!

This and other examples suggest that organisations:
•    Inflict unnecessary change on people.
•    Seldom manage the process well.
•    Don’t prepare people adequately, for example by helping develop in them the resilience they need to manage the seeming constant of change.

The impacts of this can be acute and widespread: increased stress, lower productivity, worse outcomes all round – A lose-lose!

So where are we going wrong?

Existing Approaches to Change Management

If we review much of the academic and practical literature on change management, we might quickly form the conclusion that uncertain political and economic conditions make change a constant of organisational life; that the key to managing and adapting to that change is to have the right tools, frameworks in place, and the greatest barrier to successful change? People of course!

But haven’t we lost sight of something? Organisations are all about people – they are run by people and for people, so surely people should be at the heart of the process?

A myriad of models are available to help us manage change, from Lewin’s classic yet (perhaps inexplicably) popular Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze, through the ever-popular Kotter’s 8 Step model, to some of the more complex frameworks employed (one of the Big 4 Consultancies has a change model with no fewer than 23 steps! – More on that later!). But are these models really adequate to help us achieve successful, and perhaps continual, change?

Here are three commonsense challenges to these models:

  • Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze – How, exactly do we ‘unfreeze’ an organisation? Surely, many are in such a state of flux, the assumption that they are ‘frozen’ seems flawed in the extreme!
  • The N-Step models (eg Kotter) – If our organisational life is subject to the turbulence created by macro-environmental uncertainty and constantly changing industry dynamics, then is a linear, step-by-step model likely to provide an answer? It seems unlikely!
  • The Big 4 approach – Whilst these might be commendable for the high levels of structure and detail, a number of the stages appear to be overly simplistic and perhaps even naïve. For example, a stage from one of these models is headed “Align organisational culture to the new change vision” – this bothers me on so many levels! Here are just a few:
    o    In so many organisations it is extremely challenging to even identify a single, coherent view of the culture. It’s therefore (almost) preposterous to assume we can manage and control it sufficiently to ‘align it to the new change vision.’
    o    Are people really that gullible? So open to manipulation? And so willing to passively accept ‘the new vision’?

Nb. There are numerous other models that can be included and critiqued, both individually and collectively. For example, in “Beneath and Beyond Organisational Change Management” (2003), Sturdy and Grey, challenge the widespread assumption that change can and should be managed, and note a number of objections to conventional approaches, including:

  • Limited critique / presentation of alternatives.
  • Practical/theoretical difficulties or the harmful consequences of change and its management methods.
  • Change and continuity are not alternative objective states.
  • Mechanistic understanding of change is ubiquitous in OCM.
  • Pro-Change Bias.

That these models aren’t really working is suggested by a number of empirical findings. For example, in Change Management in Practice: Why Does Change Fail? Jonathan Palmer suggests that only 15% of Government Transformation Programmes fulfilled their objectives, and a further 20% failed to achieve their objectives but were regarded as satisfactory. So what of the other 65%?

Moreover, just speak to someone that’s recently been through an organisational change process!

A Better Way Forward?

So, what can be done about it? How can we improve our approach to change management in a way that brings out the best in people and organisations?

Well, let’s start by putting people firmly at the centre of the process. Kanter (1983) asserts, perhaps idealistically, that “Change is disturbing when it is done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us” – in order to achieve a position where we are all participants are positively engaged with change, three things need to happen:

  • A recognition of the centrality of leadership in change management;
  • The adoption of genuinely inclusive approaches to change;
  • A greater emphasis on the softer skills rather than the hard systems of change management.

Ultimately, we need to engender Resilience. Resilience at an organisational and individual level. But what does this look like? A good starting point is in viewing organisational change from the perspective or the employee, as well as the organisation, and understanding how these perspectives inter-relate:

Figure 1: Issues and Challenges Arising from Change

Developing Resilience for Leaders and Participants in Change
o    Recognising what we can and can’t influence (the Serenity Prayer!)
o    Handling personal stress triggers
o    Managing internal organisational stress challenges
o    Managing sources of stress external to the organisation and handling them for damage limitation.
o    Turning negative experiences into positives.

This is not proposed as a complete solution, but rather an effective starting point in better managing organisational change… Only if we get the people bit right, can successful organisational change follow.

Career Profile / Change Management Experience

Change Management forms an integral part of my work with the Open University and private consultancy. I have developed and delivered change management courses for Devro PLC, Fife Council and other private clients, and deliver training modules incorporating Change Management for PwC Consulting (as part of the Core Consulting Skills programme)

  • May 2009 – Present: Associate Lecturer delivering the Dynamics of Strategy (BB835), Management Perspectives and Practice (B716 – single presentation contracts), B628 Managing People and Organisations.
  • November 2007 – Present: Founding Director of Eriskay Associates – a consultancy and training company based in Glasgow. Delivering over 100 engagements for SMEs, Local Authorities, PLCs and one of the Big 4 Consultancies.

More details are on my website and Linked In Profile:

Mar 03, 2017
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Porter Still Dominates our Thinking… But There Are Better Ways to Devise Strategy!

So, what are the most popular tools used by companies in conducting a strategic review or creating a new strategy? After the ubiquitous (and often ineffectual) SWOT analysis, Porter’s name seems destined to appear. Porter’s Five Forces, Porter’s Value Chain, Porter’s Generic Strategies…

But why? Let me suggest that we use Porter because we’ve always used Porter (well, since around 1980, anyway). Not because his models provide the best possible basis for understanding our industries and how we can compete to best effect. Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in all of these models, and if a tool really works for you, then use it. But, I would argue, there are better ways to create effective strategies.

Let’s start with understanding our industry. We conduct a Five Forces analysis, integrate research and analysis on industry concentration, competitive dynamics and soon, we have a decent handle on what’s really going on. But what do we do with it? The answer in most cases, I suspect, is very little. It’s a nice to have, but do we really put it to good use? Rarely.

Firstly, there seem to be so many other industry-level forces relevant to understanding what’s going on:
•    Complements (the natural partner of Substitutes in economic analysis)
•    Government (as an industry-level force in banking, financial services and any other highly regulated industry)
•    Liquidity – Still a major enabler or constraint, even in the post Credit Crunch era.

There are more, but let’s get to a more important point…

Perhaps the most significant limitation of Porter’s Five Forces is that it doesn’t quite address what is surely one of the most fundamental questions we can ask in strategy:

What does it take to be successful in this industry?

Grant’s model of Industry Key Success Factors focuses on precisely that question, and builds on two fundamental tenets of strategic analysis:
What the Customer Wants (Which can be largely informed by a PEST/PESTLE/STEEPLE analysis)
How to Survive the Competition (Which can be largely informed by Porter’s Five Forces with whatever additions we find useful)

Once we have a clear understanding of Industry Key Success Factors, we can start exploring what mix of Resources and Capabilities we need to compete successfully. Here we may find a natural tendency to gravitate towards the Value Chain Analysis.
This model can, of course, be very useful in helping us understand the mix of support and primary activities that can contribute to margin – in other words, how the company creates and destroys value. However, does this linear, static model really capture the reality of how firms compete successfully?



In practice, it can lead to an overly simplistic representation, and we need to understand the resources and capabilities that a firm possesses in order to see how they compete. These might include some of the more everyday tangible elements of the business, but also the intangible and human resources. Porter’s model (at least, in its generic form) doesn’t appear to handle these explicitly. It’s hard to imagine a strategic appraisal of Starbucks, for example, without an understanding of the brand and other intangibles.

There’s a lot to be said for using tried and tested models and at least something to be said for keeping it simple (well, maybe)… but, at the end of the day, we need to get results – a business model that works! Is Porter the key to achieving this? I suspect not. So what is?

To start with, we must understand and accept that a firm’s ability to sustain competitive advantage in a given industry is inevitably based on a complex mix of resources and capabilities, articulated by the right strategies to address what the customer really wants and needs.

There are a number of tools for achieving this and I commend the following approaches for their rigorous approaches, and the ability to assimilate and manage complex realities:

•Kaplan and Norton’s Strategic Mapping Process
•Eden and Ackermann’s Visual Strategy

If your firm is not quite ready for this approach, then Grant’s model for Linking Resources and Capabilities to Industry KSFs might be a good starting point – a logical structure is a great place to start:


Mar 03, 2017
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