Types of Change Initiatives – Early Conversations to have with Stakeholders

A common complaint that I hear from org change professionals is, “we aren’t brought in early enough on a project.”   However, what I see in practice is that these folks are at the table early enough, the real problem is failure to engage sponsors in the right conversations early enough.  Being consistently invited to the very first kick-off meeting will not change anything.  Focusing sponsors on the issues that will frame the org change effort will!

The goal for any org change leader is to get the impacted population through the transition/neutral zone as quickly and painlessly as possible, to get to the desired productivity improvement.  In other words, minimize the depth and duration of the “performance dip” and sustain the productivity gains.  To clarify these points, please follow this link to read “Why Do We Need Change Management?”

I have seen many varieties of Change Readiness surveys, and Organizational Impact Assessments.  I hate to say it, but I believe that virtually every one I am familiar with is of little or no value.  That’s another blog topic.  

It is essential that early in a project, the sponsor(s) and project leadership understand the type of change being presented by their initiative. 

Three factors to consider

Not all changes are created equal.  I think we all understand that.  Some are the, “just get over it” type, and some need a serious adoption strategy.  I plan on exploring this in depth in the next few months.  There are three big considerations that I see right now:

1.  What is changing?  Culture, Process/Technology, or Strategy/Org Structure

2.  The scope of the change.  Is it Developmental, Transitional or Transformational?

3.  Availability of alternatives to the change.   Is the change optional or is there a workaround?

1.      What is Changing?

What you need to change will have an enormous impact on your change strategy.  Generally, changes to Process and/or Technology are relatively straightforward.  Changes to Strategy and/or Organization Structure (including favorites like downsizing!) are tougher.  Changes to culture…  Well, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” as the saying goes.   I plan on expanding on this section later.  This is a book by itself.

2.      Scope of the Change

The scope of change can be loosely categorized into three buckets; Developmental, Transitional, and Transformational.


After Developmental changes, the impacted population will be doing the same things, only better.  In other words, there will be very little behavior change required.  For example, upgrading Internet Explorer from a well-known version to a new release, or physically moving your workspace from one cubicle to a similar one on a different floor.  Most people will make these types of transition with little or no help.   There is little or no value in dedicating Org Change resources to these kinds of changes.  There is very little “behavior change” necessary and there is no alternative available to go back to.  Everyone will eventually reach the “committed” phase.


After Transitional changes, the impacted population will shift from current state to a known, defined alternate state.  For example, upgrading an Applicant Tracking System for your HR Recruiters.  Many will not make it through transitional changes smoothly without help, and there is risk of a long drop-off in productivity without timely communications, training and support.  

There is significant risk with transitional changes that must be noted.  Frequently, what seems to be a straightforward transitional change can turn out to be a transformational change, and not adequately addressed and resourced.  For that reason alone, applying organizational change resources early will add value.  Pilots or proof-of-concept studies with the impacted population should be considered and encouraged.  They will surface the true nature of your change initiative, as well as help gain buy-in, help with training development, etc.


Transformational change begins with a known current state, but an unknown, or poorly defined end state.   Examples would be integration of an acquired business, or a major business unit reorganization.  During transformational change, there is a high risk of failure to achieve the intended outcomes without a serious organizational change management effort including a robust organizational change strategy, communications, and training and support.  The OC strategy must include visible, committed leadership able to articulate a compelling “heart & head” vision (i.e., we can’t tell you exactly what the final state is, but we can paint a picture for you of what we are trying to achieve).

3.     Availability of Alternatives to the Change

The second thing to zero in on is whether or not there will be any alternatives to the new process in the future state.   In other words, if the impacted population can go back to the old way when they encounter obstacles, they probably will

No Alternatives

Frequently a change will allow for no alternatives, such as a business network administrator upgrading your MS-Office applications.  With no training or communications at all, most users will eventually become comfortable and proficient with the new version.  There may be resistance and frustration initially, but it will eventually subside without any intervention – the adoption rate will be 100%.  Timely communications and training could decrease the depth of, and shorten the performance dip, but the business would not be in jeopardy if it didn’t happen.

 When given the option, it is a good idea to apply the burn-the-boats strategy, a.k.a. the “Cortez” method.  While this may seem harsh at first glance, it is not.  There is compelling evidence that when people do not have an option, they will rationalize the only remaining option and find happiness with it.  If they retain the option to return to the old way they never make the rationalization and remain mired in-transition and unhappy.  See the work of Dan Gilbert on “Synthetic Happiness” on TED.

 In July 1519, his men took over Veracruz:  In order to eliminate any ideas of retreat, Cortés scuttled his ships. [Wikipedia]

Alternative Options Remain Available

Sometimes you must leave a legacy process/system in place while work-in-process runs off, or a manual paper-based process always remains as an alternative to a new automated system.  This is the challenge that most people think of when they think about the purpose of org change management – increasing the adoption rate of a new process.  Adoption rate is a common org change metric.

 Unless there is some overwhelming motivation for adoption when alternatives will remain available, you probably need to apply a robust org change strategy.  E.g., if users are permitted to continue to use legacy system there is high probability that they will return to it when they encounter “resistance” with the new system. 

 When alternatives will be available, your org change strategy must include pilots or proof-of-concept studies with the impacted population to drive “exploration” to identify and mitigate factors that will drive users back to the legacy process.  Mitigation might include providing feedback to the system developers for system modification, or to develop training and communications for deployment.  Measurement and incentive systems are necessary as well.

 More on all of this soon.

2 responses to “Types of Change Initiatives – Early Conversations to have with Stakeholders

  1. Hi Bob,

    I like your post on change initiatives in project management. I would like to repost it on PM Hut under the change management category (which you can find here: http://www.pmhut.com/category/change-management ) – please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

  2. Pingback: Managing Transitions: Real-Life Examples – Part 2 | Bob Von Der Linn's HPT Blog

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