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True or False? Challenging common assumptions about organisational change

By Steve Macaulay


While working with organisations undergoing change, we have noticed several common ‘truths’, which are often taken as read. In this blog, we look at seven of these and ask ourselves whether they really are the holy grail of successful change management, or whether they might prove pitfalls that can set organisations up for trouble.

Everyone on board the change bandwagon!

In 1970, Alvin Toffler produced the book Future Shock, which describes how today’s unprecedented and accelerating change is having a growing and damaging effect on people and organisations. What is missing is that underlying this sweeping approach is a much more varied and patchy nature of such change, including what is not changing or only changing at a slow rate. In reality, some things are changing at a rapid pace but not everything, and it is a dangerous assumption to climb on the bandwagon that managers and organisations must speed up to cope with an engulfing tsunami of change.

Don’t be tempted to rush in and think: ’everything must change’. In any change initiative, there will need to be elements of continuity that ensure the continued smooth running of your business.

Forget procedure. We must be agile, fast and flexible!

With all the talk today about the need to be agile in response to our changing world, it would be easy to think that we've got to all behave in the manner of entrepreneurs and risk-takers, and not be slowed down by procedures and precedents.

But it is important to strike a balance between being responsive and nimble, and maintaining a working structure that ensures necessary continuity and stability. The latter requires explicit and implied rules of conduct and regulations, as well as the ability to set and meet expectations. In turn, these will ensure you maintain the processes and people relations that allow your business to deal smoothly and consistently with others.

Leading organisational resilience click through

Change needs a leader, not a manager

Many will argue that, for change to succeed, you need someone to take on the role of a ‘knight in shining armour’ leading their troops into battle, with middle management confined to being followers only.

It is true that leaders can bring a whole new perspective and can be instrumental in inspiring and motivating change. But they must work alongside managers, who understand their part of the organisation and know how to put change into practice. Managers are an essential component of change; they know the people, the culture and their teams, and can help to bring about real, lasting change.

Only transformation will do

Since the 1980s, when the likes of Tom Peters started to proclaim loud and long the need for transformational change, it has become enshrined in the doctrine of change that transformation is like an earthquake, and needed to shake an organisation out of its old ways.

However, in practice, much change is achieved by steady incremental progress, worked throughout the whole organisation. There are numerous examples where many small changes have added together to produce significant leaps forward.

Change should be led by the few, not the many

Since John Kotter put forward the idea of a guiding coalition, it has become a golden rule that a change leader or powerful small project team must be set up to drive a change project. It is suggested that these individuals or project teams are likely to be more successful because change is their top priority and sole focus; they have no distractions.

However, it must be remembered that ‘business-as-usual’ teams represent a wide range of people and groups within organisations who can help to seed change throughout that business. By devolving change throughout the organisation to different people who know their part of the organisation, how it works and what needs to be done to bring about any changes, you’ll be on the path to delivering difference that will last.

Follow best practice, and everything will be ok

You will hear people talk about how decisions for change are best taken using other people’s experience as a guide to help avoid pitfalls. But best practice guides will not alone lead to success. Change is much more likely to be successful if it is tailored to the individual organisation concerned.

Take time to choose the right approaches for your organisation, based on its individual priorities and ways of working. Consider your culture, the key players within your team and the most appropriate language to use when discussing change.

Don’t be tempted to rush the process – only by applying critical thinking and testing different approaches will you be able to finally adopt what will ultimately bring about success in your own context.

Resistance is futile

Many will argue that resistance from powerful figures in the internal politics of an organisation will distract from or delay the change process, and such resistance should be nipped in the bud.

But beware! Your biggest resisters may have the seeds of some good ideas which will ultimately strengthen the change process. Change that proceeds without any resistance or questioning may ultimately lead to poor ideas being implemented.

Consider identifying key influencers at the beginning of the change process, and actively listen to and look to incorporate their ideas. You’ll benefit from better engagement, commitment and loyalty, reduce the risk of alienation and ultimately strengthen your organisation in the long term.

Organisations must challenge these and other common assumptions, testing them against their own culture and context, before diving into any major change project.

In this way, organisations will be able to ensure a realistic, effective and sustainable change process that brings about real results.

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