Change strategy: should you pre-programme change or let it branch off?

Globalisation, the explosion of technology, rapidly changing laws that keep piling up, increasing consumer demands, takeovers and mergers, periods of crisis… what all these things have in common is that processes of change are becoming increasingly frequent and intense. We have no doubt that organisations are continually subject to change. The question remains how we can best deal with change to obtain a committed change process.

Change is perceived in very different ways by the various stakeholders in an organisation, not least due to the personal and individual consequences that every change project entails. Imagine a change in a single department that means a promotion for person A and a job rotation for person B. The likelihood is real that the same change will be perceived as positive by person A and negative by person B. Irrespective of how relevant the content is, a change project will always have supporters and opponents. What is more, conflicts between individuals as well as between teams and departments are inherent to processes of change.

We can distinguish between pre-programmed changes and changes that branch off. In pre-programmed change, the direction is set in advance. The path is mapped out and imposed by third parties. The role and influence of the employees subjected to the change is reduced to the accurate (and obedient) implementation of the project. In contrast, there is change that grows from the bottom up, or in other words from the inside outwards. Employees have the autonomy to direct the change process with their actions and decisions. The role of third parties (top management or consultants) consists of coaching employees rather than imposing the way things should happen.

Both Approaches have their Pros and Cons

Pre-programming is initially easier to manage and control. This change strategy is certainly recommended when there is not enough time to come up with an approach by means of extensive discussion, for example in crisis situations. You need to prevent a battered ship from sinking. Top management or a consultant takes all the important decisions. Firm and effective action is an absolute must. Employees are briefed and do what they are told. A lot of discussion and participative decision making would only slow things down and allow the ship to sink even lower in the water.

When a totally new approach is being implemented as well (what we call a change of the second order), the expertise of third parties involved will weigh so heavily that a lot of discussion about how and what is not constructive. A final convincing reason to choose pre-programming might be when the tensions between those involved are so great that there is no other option than to act in a fairly authoritarian manner. But with pre-programming, the aim of the change project may slide into obediently following the rules set in advance instead of allowing a dynamic alteration process oriented towards the product, customer or market to unfold. The question is whether the structure imposed really will be implemented on the shop floor. This approach then gives the top managers a false sense of control. Moreover, pre-programming may shift a ‘bureaucrazy’ into top gear. The risk of ‘bureaucrazy’ is that the models introduced take on a life of their own as time passes (espoused theory), in co-existence with real life on the ground (enacted reality). This leads to what we call ‘double organisations’ where people serve the ‘system’ on the one hand to oblige top management (espoused theory) and on the other hand they carry on doing their own thing (enacted reality).

Branching off has the major advantage that the change is lived through and supported. This strategy requires more time than pre-programming to arrive atan explicit level, which means that the sense of control from above is initially less. Ultimately, however, the effect will manifest itself more quickly on the shop floor. Instead of being driven from the top down, this change is guided from the bottom up: change grows outwards from the inside. Typical of this approach is the direct involvement of employees in the change process. They determine directly what happens and how it is done, which makes this approach very close to shop-floor reality. Given that branching off is mainly aimed at continual development, a culture of learning from your mistakes is vitally important. This means that mistakes are the starting signal to get learning processes going. This benefits the growth and development of the organisation. The value that is generated in terms of anchoring the change is irrefutable.

However it can happen with this type of strategy that internal creative ideas are insufficiently fed by innovations from the outside world. On the other hand, branching off can sometimes lead to ‘ad-hoccrazy’. After all, total voluntarism, symptomatic of ‘ad-hoccrazy’, risks turning into undirected change and ending up as chaos if no form of overarching goal-orientation is present. A good change process begins with a conscious choice of which change strategy is best. Not infrequently, the extreme variants of each (bureaucrazy and ad-hoccrazy) lead to the unbridled passion of ‘change for change’s sake’. The balance between fixed processes on the one hand and continual, flexible adjustment on the other guarantees the quality of every organisation. Essentially this means finding the right balance and juggling between the chaos of continual change and obsessively neurotic bureaucracy.

Related book

Van den Broeck, H., Bouckenooghe, D. Grandmaster in Managing Change, Lannoo, 2011, 229 p.


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