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Types of Change



One perspective is that change is either Planned, Emergent or Opportunistic.

Planned change is what most senior managers and change leaders like to talk about (and often feel most comfortable with). It is controlled change with fairly clean boundaries - there will be a clear imperative (most likely even a good business case) with definable benefits, a vision for the future and maybe even some stages along the way. There are a lot of knowns with relatively few unknowns that can be packaged into an Risk Register and Issue Log.  Often it will be approaches in a 'top down' manner but that certainly doesn't have to be the case.

Emergent change is all a bit more chaotic and less controlled. The leaders of the organisation have a clear role to lead, direct and make business critical decisions - ultimately that are still responsible for the organisation. One great thing about emergent change is 'everyone' is usually involved and doing so certainly aids success. This is because as things 'emerge' it might be in a front line service area, in feedback from a client/stakeholder, a competitors reponse - almost anywhere. The leaders might not even know or notice. So for emergent change to work well everyone has to be involved and great communication processes need to be in place so that what is emerging is known and understood by everyone.

Obviously here at Emergent Change we think most change ends up being at leat a little bit like this. So while there are maybe a dozen other forms of change described on this page the approaches taken from an Emeregent perspective are generally the most productive and resiliant (but then we would say that wouldnt we)

Opportunistic change is a special kind of emergent change that doesnt really crop up much in the literature. Orlikowski and Hofman did describe it quite nicely in the 1997 article (listed at the bottom of this page) With opportunistic change, the change is happening in the environment external to the organisation and the organsiation chooses to respond to that change in a positive way by actively encouraging the change and seeking to benefit from it. It is the entrepreneur of change.

Another way to describe these can be Objective and Subjective change.

Objective Change is very like Complex change (below) where lots of aspects of the change are knowable and defineable. The nature of the problem(s) and suitable solution(s) can be assessed in objective, positivist terms. It brings with it a positivist philosophy of the situation

Subjective changes is very like Messy change (below) in that there is no one set of facts to work with and many different points of view will exist. This brings a subjective, post modern perspective to the situation. 

Change can be Complex (hard) or Messy (fuzzy). These are very different in how they are experienced and how they play out.

Complex change is just chat, lots of things are connected to other things and they all (probably) need to be considered. What is crucial about complex change is that the hard bits are (mostly) knowable and do-able. Things like the technical implementation of new organisation wide IT systems can be considered complex change. There may be people elements, but fundamentally the changes are not so much about people and how they view things.

Messy change is where lots of aspects of the change are subjective, different people and groups will have different points of view on all sorts of things. There may be little agreement on anything, including the nature of the problem(s) or possible solution(s). Quite a few important things will be fuzzy - like benefits, timescales, resources, risks etc. It is also the sort of change where elements of failure and elements of success are inevitable - as no single group or person can give an answer to what success actually looks like. This is the sort of change relished at Emergent Change though it is not for the faint hearted

Then you have Change and Transformation. Sometimes the differences won't matter which one you are trying to achieve and sometimes they really will.

Change is just that - something you can change and (if you really want to) change it back again. A lot of department restructures and centralising/decentralising projects can end up a but like this. In fact a lot of change seems to end up being a bit like this, something is "changed" and then a few months or years later it is "changed" gain almost back to where it was before.

Transformation, on the other hand, is what happens when there is no going back. The people involved will inevitably see the world in a different way and will always do so from now on. In many ways transformation can be easier to embed because of how it effects people, but the nature of resistance and the change processes will often be very different. There is still a lot of debate about whether transformational change can truly happen in organisations (and the likes of Senge have been quoted as saying they have never transformed any organisation). At Emergent Change we would argue that if Change isnt in some way transformational then it probably isnt worth all the effort of trying.

Then there is Change and Uncertainty. And these are quite different in how they need to be managed.

Change in this context is about knowing something will happen. It might not be clear just what but there is inevitability. You can use all the other descriptors on here and the usual approaches to "make the change happen".

Uncertainty is different and comes in two forms. The simple type of uncertainy is that which you get through a change process, it is effectively the risk landscape of the change and would be managed accordingly.

The more challenging form of uncertainty is that which you have when there is no change, only the knowledge or expectation that something will have to happen in the future. All you have is a kind of vacuum which potentially leads to a deeper emotional experience for the people involved. In terms of managing the situation this is a big ask for many individuals, managers and organisations. Everyone know something is probably going to happen but they dont know what or when or how. It is emotionally exhausting, stress levels and absenteeism can be a real problem and the performance of the orgnaisation will suffer dramatically.

Then we have Incremental Change, Step Change, Lumpy Change. This brings a more temporal perspective to things.

Incremental change is just that, the thousand 1% that make a difference. It is sometimes labelled 'continuous improvement' or 'process improvement' and is focussed on refinement, most typically of ways of working. It works brilliantly in a relatively stable setting (just look at Toyota and "The Toyota System") and can achieve amazing results in terms of cost, quality and culture change. The main risk is one of a potenital for a lack of strategic perspective, the world outside changes but the incremental change is still trying to refine the system based on old world rules.

Step change is just that, almost an opposite of incremental change. This is where one (or small number) of changes that will deliver the 1000% change. It can be framed as Transformational or radical change but doesnt need to be. It differs from Incremental change by being about relatively large changes will be made in a short period. Some organisations choose to put their step change into Projects and the incremental change into Process Improvement programmes

Lumpy change is a mixture of both. Periods of incremental change are interspersed with Step change. Or parts of the organisation operating in a stable context will do incremental change and other parts will be focussed on step change. What is useful to consider with lumpy change is to choose periods or contexts where change is going to be effective and useful. This trys to recognise 'windows of opportunity' and 'change fatigue' by creating an ebb and flow in the organisation. Some people now label this Programatic change or a Change Propgramme where a wide strategic perspective (possibly over many years) is taken.
 
Orlikowski, W.J. and Hofman, J.D. "An Improvisational Model of Change Management: The Case of Groupware Technologies,” Sloan Management Review 38:2 (Winter 1997), 11-21.