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Thought Thursdays
Change management: A re-think


People don’t resist change. They resist being changed! – Peter Senge

Most of the time, scholars provide us with a ‘recipe’, in the form of sequential or interrelated steps to follow, on how to do change management. The well-known guidelines of Prof John Kotter from Harvard in his 1995 book Leading change comes to mind, where he introduced his eight-step change process: “Step 1: Create Urgency; Step 2: Form a Powerful Coalition; Step 3: Create a Vision for Change; Step 4: Communicate the Vision; Step 5: Remove Obstacles; Step 6: Create Short-Term Wins; Step 7: Build on the Change; and Step 8: Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture”. 

There is nothing wrong with these steps per se. The challenge lies in how we apply them and, even more importantly, how we think about the underlying assumptions supporting our change efforts. It is interesting to note that Jim Collins in his 2011 book Great by choice states that conventional wisdom tells us that change is hard. Collins argues that if change is so difficult, why do we see more evidence of radical change in the less successful comparison cases of his book?  His answer: Because change is not the most difficult part. Far more difficult than implementing change is (1) figuring out what works, (2) understanding why it works, (3) grasping when to change, and (4) knowing when not to. Change therefore requires a lot of thinking before we engage in it. But what do we need to think about apart from the aspects to which Collins refers?

What we need to embrace when we think about change and its associated processes is paradoxical thinking. Effective change management requires us to hone our ability to think about change as a paradox. This implies thinking about the ‘ands’ and not the ‘ors’, enabling us to hold two ‘truths’ in mind at the same time. Paradox thinking assists us in overcoming the trap of singular thinking in a complex world. In a paradox thinking stance, change needs stability to flourish. As Collins indicates above, we need to understand which aspects we have to keep stable to engage in the challenging changes required for continued success. This is true for us as individuals as well as for organisations. Stable aspects can include history, track-record, values, and core aspirational descriptions like vision and purpose statements. Paradoxically, these stable features help us to find the strengths, willpower and passion to be involved in challenging, demanding and often complex change initiatives to transform the status quo into something extraordinary. 

Below are examples of general change assumptions and a corresponding paradox view on it.

Traditional assumptions about change management


A paradox view to expand our change options

It takes a crisis to provoke change.


Change is a continuous process of adoption, improvement and re-alignment

It takes a strong leader to change a big company. Change must start at the top.


In thriving organisations, leaders and leadership behaviour are ubiquitous, widely distributed capabilities. Change leadership comes from everywhere.

To lead change, you need a very clear agenda.


Conducive change conditions come from people relating in a context around shared ideals.

People are mostly against change.


Most sustainable change is self-driven, locally owned and contextually relevant. People will resist externally induced change in which they have had no inputs.

With change there are always winners and losers


From an abundance departure point, win-win outcomes and zero-plus results are possibilities for all.

Organisations can only cope with so much change.


People have unlimited potential for development and change. Organisational structures, processes and systems have life cycles which constrain or enable change ideals.​

By expanding our change assumptions to include a wider repertoire of options, we increase the change opportunity spaces available to us. Paradoxical thinking enables us to explore our core change assumptions and hence think more inclusively, collaboratively and aspirationally.

Marius Ungerer.JPG

Professor Marius Ungerer teaches Strategic Management, Strategic Personal Leadership and Strategic Change at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He is also a regular visiting faculty member at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business in Japan and the University of Johannesburg. His research interest is strategy as a practice, strategy governance and disclosure, strategic change and strategic leadership.

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