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Part One: What is going on?
"Change management used to be taught separately from 'regular management'.  Those were the days when you could look at organisations and distinguish between periods of relative calm and shorter bursts of rapid change.  This is no longer true.  It is now a cliché to say that the only constant is change itself"
...Jean-François Manzoni in The Financial Times, 15 October 2001.

In this article we want to look at three factors that are fundamentally shaping the management of change in our time.  They are: 1.-The age-old human response to change; 2.-The environment in which we are trying to manage change; 3.-Institutional responses to this environment.  If we are going to manage change we need to begin by acknowledging these factors and the implications they hold for change management.

The age-old human response to change

On an individual level managing change is challenging because a person’s relationship to change has a deep psychological or, what some would call, spiritual dimension.  Most of us find this area difficult, if for no other reason than it is considered to be a private matter and not an appropriate topic for discussion in the “work” area of our life.  However, precisely because of the strength of people’s reaction to change this area must be considered when managing change.

 Whether it is summarized in the ancient lament “Vanities of vanities, all is vanity” or Bob Dylan’s anthem of the sixties, “The times they are a changin’” human beings have always known that change is built into the very nature of life.  None of us are strangers to change and yet we more often than not find it painful.  Briefly, it has to do with our own contingency. What is the meaning of the fact that time passing means change and that change means the coming into being and the going out of being of all things?  We all seek security in our life and in doing so to somehow ensure the final meaning of our life—to escape from the passing away of our existence.  Change is always a threat to these efforts since it reminds us that neither our work nor our life is eternal.  Arthur Miller’s play, The Death of a Salesman, is a dramatic portrayal of what happens to a man when a series of profound changes hit his life and destroy that which gave meaning to his life and that which he thought ensured his eternality.  Given this reality it should come as no surprise that no one likes change and that we are all threatened to a greater or lesser degree by change in our life, work and world.

The environment in which we are trying to manage change

In the second place we find dealing with change difficult because in the last 200 years we have experienced a change in the nature of change.  The space-time continuum in which we experience change has shifted.  The spacial frame of change was once local or at most regional.  Alexander the Great marched from Greece to India but unless you were in his path his activity had little impact on you and your community.  Today, we interact on a global basis—economically, politically and culturally.  There seems to be nowhere that does not, sooner or later, show up on our global television screens.  The time frame of change, once slow and intermittent, today is rapid and constant.  Today, our lives are lived in “real time,” 24 hours a day.  There is no “down time” and very little time for reflection, interpretation and decision-making. As a local manager we do not have to wait six months to receive instructions (hand written and delivered by sailing ship) from head office in London or Amsterdam. After thousands of years, when the fastest change could show up on our doorstep was at the speed of a horse, we are still learning how to cope with change arriving at the speed of light.  As Dee Hock (Founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA International) writes, “Only a few generations ago, the present stretched relatively unaltered from a distant past into a dim future.  Today the past is ever less predictive, the future is ever less predictable, and the present scarcely exists at all.  Everything is accelerating change…”

Institutional responses to this environment

Finally we must look at our institutions and what is happening within them.  We have to recognize that, while we tinker with the form and change the labels, all of our institutional constructs emerged several centuries ago and remain virtually unchanged.  These institutions were designed to provide stability, continuity and order in a world where today was sure to be much like yesterday and tomorrow was sure to be much like today.  However, as we saw in the previous paragraph, this physical and social environment is in a state of global, rapid and constant flux.  Again Dee Hock helps us understand what is taking place, “An institution is a manifestation of and inseparable from the social environment from which it emerged, and on which its health and existence depend.” When the nature of that social environment is undergoing increasingly profound and rapid evolution then the organisation’s evolution must also become rapid and profound.  Thus, our experience more and more indicates that tinkering with the forms and changing the labels is just not going to secure a healthy institution with a long-term future. 

As the quote at the beginning implies there is only one managerial task today—managing change.  In future issues we will look more closely at the implications of this for institutions, individuals in those institutions and those who would be real change leaders.

Back to Articles overview

  1. Handy, Charles, The Empty Raincoat, Hutchinson, London, 1994.
  2. Hock, Dee, Birth of the Chaordic Age, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Franciso, 1999.
  3. Katzenbach, Jon R. and the RCL Team, Real Change Leaders, Random House, 1995.
  4. Manzoni, Jean-François, “How to Avoid the Seven Deadly Sins” (an article in the series Mastering People Management in The Financial Times, 15 October 2001).
  5. Senge, Peter, et.al. The Dance of Change, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, 1999.  

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