Types of change

Understanding the nature of the change you wish to effect and the context in which you are working are important in determining an appropriate strategy. Entering uncharted change territory without some sort of route map puts you at an immediate disadvantage from the start. One of the first stages in charting the territory is to understand a little more about the type of change you wish to make (broadly where you want to get to and how you plan to travel).

There are a number of ways in which change can be categorised, most are related to the extent of the change and whether it is seen as organic (often characterised as bottom-up) or driven (top-down).

Ackerman (1997) has distinguished between three types of change:

  • Developmental - May be either planned or emergent; it is first order, or incremental. It is change that enhances or corrects existing aspects of an organisation, often focusing on the improvement of a skill or process
  • Transitional - Seeks to achieve a known desired state that is different from the existing one. It is episodic, planned and second order, or radical. Much of the organisational change literature is based on this type
  • Transformational - Is radical or second order in nature. It requires a shift in assumptions made by the organisation and its members. Transformation can result in an organisation that differs significantly in terms of structure, processes, culture and strategy. It may, therefore, result in the creation of an organisation that operates in developmental mode – one that continuously learns, adapts and improves.

Planned versus emergent change

Sometimes change is deliberate, a product of conscious reasoning and actions – planned change. In contrast, change sometimes unfolds in an apparently spontaneous and unplanned way. This type of change is known as emergent change. Change can be emergent rather than planned in two ways:

  • Managers make a number of decisions apparently unrelated to the change that emerges. The change is therefore not planned. However, these decisions may be based on unspoken, and sometimes unconscious, assumptions about the organisation, its environment and the future (Mintzberg, 1989) and are, therefore, not as unrelated as they first seem. Such implicit assumptions dictate the direction of the seemingly disparate and unrelated decisions, thereby shaping the change process by ‘drift’ rather than by design.
  • External factors (such as the economy, competitors’ behaviour, and political climate) or internal features (such as the relative power of different interest groups, distribution of knowledge, and uncertainty) influence the change in directions outside the control of managers. Even the most carefully planned and executed change programme will have some emergent impacts.

This highlights two important aspects of managing change.

  • The need to identify, explore and if necessary challenge the assumptions that underlie managerial decisions.
  • Understanding that organisational change is a process that can be facilitated by perceptive and insightful planning and analysis and well crafted, sensitive implementation phases, while acknowledging that it can never be fully isolated from the effects of serendipity, uncertainty and chance (Dawson, 1996).

An important (arguably the central) message of recent management of change literature is that organisation-level change is not fixed or linear in nature but contains an important emergent element as identified in the section on complexity theory.

Episodic versus continuous change

Another distinction is between episodic and continuous change. Episodic change, according to Weick and Quinn (1999), is ‘infrequent, discontinuous and intentional’. Sometimes termed ‘radical’ or ‘second order’ change, episodic change often involves replacement of one strategy or programme with another.

Continuous change, in contrast, is ‘ongoing, evolving and cumulative’. Also referred to as ‘first order’ or ‘incremental’ change, continuous change is characterised by people constantly adapting and editing ideas they acquire from different sources. At a collective level these continuous adjustments made simultaneously across units can create substantial change.

The distinction between episodic and continuous change helps clarify thinking about an organisation’s future development and evolution in relation to its long-term goals. Few organisations are in a position to decide unilaterally that they will adopt an exclusively continuous change approach. They can, however, capitalise upon many of the principles of continuous change by engendering the flexibility to accommodate and experiment with everyday contingencies, breakdowns, exceptions, opportunities and unintended consequences that punctuate organisational life (Orlikowski, 1996).

Using these characteristics proposed changes can be placed along two scales: radical – incremental and core – peripheral (Pennington 2003) Plotting the character of a proposed change along these scales can provide a sense of how difficult the introduction of any particular initiative might be and how much disturbance to the status quo it might generate. Radical changes to an institution’s or department’s core business will normally generate high levels of disturbance; incremental changes to peripheral activities are often considered to be unexceptional and can be accommodated as a matter of course, especially if the group involved has a successful past record of continuous improvement.

Published: 17 May 2006 | Last updated: 31 January 2014