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I use the word “change” a lot but never really stopped to think about my understanding of the concept.  Just had a few minutes fun looking up “change” on (the trial version).  It has loads of connections so it is obviously quite a rich word.

So what are the foundations of my understanding of “change” and how has that changed (!) as I have got more into systems practice.

On this page

Change as strategy

Change as innovation

Change as problem solving

Change as learning

Change as development

Change as ‘transformation process

Change as dynamic and adaptive

Change as flux

Change as strategy

This is back to my mechanistic roots.  At the time I was learning management (e.g. B820) my paradigm told me that the world or an organisation are ‘static’, until the change agent (usually a manager) decided to do something.  Doing was mechanistic and deterministic.

In the resources and capabilities model of strategy (see Grant (2005) “Contemporary Strategy Analysis” page 139 fig 5.4), resources are the building blocks – there are tangible things like money and buildings but also intangible like culture and workforce.  I thought of them at the time as things that remained static unless a manager intervened to change them.

Looking back now I realise how odd that sounds and I am not sure if it reflects where I was or what course materials and books were actually saying to me.  Of course I knew that buildings would become more dilapidated if left untouched; humans would find things out and learn of their own accord; and organisational culture would change as its members make their own decisions.  I just kind of filtered that out at the time.

The other aspect of change I learned about in strategy is Mintzberg’s distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy – deliberate is intended (what you planned) whereas emergent is change that occurs anyway and you can only really see with hindsight.  I knew the model at the time but I don’t think I saw beyond those words – I never thought about the emergent change as normal – more of a nuisance that got in the way.

I suppose now I think of the managers’ role more like a gardener – nurturing, cultivating, weeding the different mix of resources.  I think Mintzberg wrote about it like that.  I did read that at the time but obviously was not enough of a systems thinker to take it in and frame the world like that.

Change as innovation

Innovation (such as I learned in B822) is the introduction of something new.  Innovation can be incremental (small shifts over time) or radical (a big sudden leap).  Here I began to understand that everyone is creative and everyone innovates.  It is not just the domain of the ‘manager’ but something that needs to be fostered in every part of an organisation.  In fact management’s primary role is to create the conditions for everyone to be creative.

Change as problem solving

There seem to be loads of different models for what essentially boils down to a sequence of

  • understand the situation/problem
  • develop options and evaluate
  • choose options
  • implement preferred option.

Sometimes they are represented in a linear way, sometimes cyclical, sometimes overlapping Venn Diagrams.  In ‘implementing’ you are making a change.

Change as learning

I remember hearing or reading that if you find yourself in a situation you don’t like you have three options:

  • change the situation
  • change yourself
  • get out

Mostly there is a concentration on changing the situation.  It is only when you think of change as learning that you think of changing yourself.  There seem to be different aspects to this.

  • There is the formal learning – finding out about something – associated with words like studying; researching; investigating
  • There is skills learning – how to do something – associated with words like practicing; skilling-up
  • Then there is the ‘deeper’ kind of personal change – how to think about something – associated with words like re-framing; paradigm shift

Learning happens individually (domain of psychology) but the individual is embedded in communities of practice; organisations; institutions and society that influence meaning and the learning that may take place.

Change as development

Development management and institutional development management formally introduced me to different notions of change.  Here a distinction is made between:

  • Development as history – the fact that the world is changing anyway and leaves a pattern of change that you see as history.
  • Development as intervention – reflects efforts of the person interested in change to nudge the ‘naturally occurring change’ in a particular direction judged as desirable e.g. empowering women; reducing poverty.

This is the beginning of my shift to systemic thinking.  The world is changing anyway.  All you are doing is steering, facilitating, catalysing that change – hoping that what you do creates the right sort of ripples.  I guess I also started to understand the notion of unintended consequences – where those ripples could accidentally end up with something undesirable such as when the quest for economic growth can create greater disparity between rich and poor in a society.

Change as ‘transformation process’

Now I am getting into systems land.

The idea of input-transformation process-output seems a simple one and can be interpreted with a mechanistic mindset (flour, yeast, water in – bread out).  But using the concept of transformation process to help define the purpose of human, complex adaptive systems helped me to understand two things.  First of all it led me to understand that different people will perceive the purpose of the system in different ways – and therefore expect a different type of change within it.  And secondly I understood that a lot can go on in the box labeled transformation process – anything from a single activity by one individual up to a complex range of deliberate and unintended activities by a range of people who may not even realise they are part of the definer’s system of interest.

Change as dynamic and adaptive

Systems Dynamics helped me to understand that change is dynamic and self-reinforcing.  There are multiple interacting chains and loops of cause and effect within our society – even the simplest modelling helps identify reinforcing and balancing loops.  To influence change here you have to work out how to ‘cut-into’ and interupt the chains and loops that you see as causing the ‘problem’.

Change as flux

This is the way Checkland describes it “we all live in the midst of a complex interupting flux of changing events and ideas which unrolls through time”*.  So I am in the midst of the change and part of it – not an external observer of something happening ‘out there’.   Checkland explains that any situation is full of people acting purposefully to change that situation – what they hope to achieve will depend on the way they see the world and what they want it to be like – I am just one of those people and I have no way of knowing whether my purposeful activity is ‘righter’ that anyone else’s.

* cited in Ramage and Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers page 154

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The nature of change