Moving through the Three Phases of Organizational Change

By Gambrell, Steven W.; Stevens, Craig A. | Industrial Management, July/August 1992 | Go to article overview

Moving through the Three Phases of Organizational Change

Gambrell, Steven W., Stevens, Craig A., Industrial Management

Change, progress, innovation, continuous improvement, task alignment, reorganization, corporate renewal or programmatic change --no matter how one defines it, the fact is that organizations are changing. Change is increasing in response to corporate downsizing, the economic climate, a fluctuating marketplace and the work force. A manager must learn to understand the nature of change and take a proactive role in communication before, during and after the change. The more the human side of change is understood, the better positioned one will be to compete and provide a positive work environment. Change management is the term used to explain the processes designed to provide order to the human side of change.


Change is a natural and necessary process. In nature, picture the caterpillar. It is alive and appears to serve a purpose. However, if examined more closely, it may appear to be inefficient. The caterpillar eats too much, stays on one bush most of its life and is destructive, slow and unproductive. But, a natural transition occurs as the caterpillar weaves a cocoon.

To a child, the cocoon could appear to be "dead." It does not eat, it remains very still and it appears to be a lot worse off than the caterpillar. However, unseen by the human eye, a major transition is under way inside the cocoon. The cocoon, once the sleeping place for the caterpillar, starts to open and slowly a creature appears, wet and sluggish. But as it starts to dry off, a butterfly appears in all its glory. In addition to moving, it can also fly and now seems to serve a more noble purpose, for it is now beautiful and plays a role in the propagation of fruits and seeds by pollination.

Not unlike the world of nature, man's own physical environments go through similar positive changes. As an example, think of the renovation of a shopping center into a more modern mall. The shopping center has a purpose and provides a service; the store spaces are occupied and customers are present. But there is room for improvement. Someone has a dream of a more beautiful place and a better environment. However, to accomplish this vision or dream, things have to change. During the change, parking lots are bulldozed, outdated buildings are demolished and dust is everywhere. Minor, temporary inconveniences are created for both shoppers and merchants, stores relocate and customers temporarily stop shopping, missing the way "things used to be." Like the cocoon, the shopping center appears to be worse than before. But, gradually the mall is rebuilt, remodeled and cleaned. Soon the stores open, customers come back and the new mall looks better than ever, serves more needs and makes more money.


Like the butterfly and shopping mall transitions, organizations go through similar stages of change. The stages are inevitable, whether the change results in a negative or positive outcome. According to John Kane, director of the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are three major changes taking place in the workplace today. These include:

* Changes in organizational structure (mergers, acquisitions, rapid growth and downsizing);

* Changes in technology and work methods (a result of computerization); and

* Changes in the work force profile (aging and diverse populations).

Managers may recognize the need for change, but they often have different plans to implement it. Case studies and "lessons learned" are quickly proving that a well-planned process approach to change management is of key importance. The change process can be improved if the fundamental flaws in ineffective change programs are recognized and corrective actions are taken. Part of this action plan includes understanding motivations for resistance, differences in employee/management perceptions and the importance of ongoing communication. Once these change dynamics are understood, the process can be made easier to digest and accept by employees. …

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