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Organisational change for the professions: a planned approach – part 1


This feature article written by Malcolm Finney of Management Dynamics looks at the difficulties of implementing change in professional organisations.

The market place, whether of accountancy, law, architect or other professions, or indeed any other profit-making organisation, is in a continual state of change. This means that firms/organisations in that market place must also change and adapt if they are to survive and prosper in the long term. However, implementing any successful change programme can be one of the most difficult of exercises for any organisation. In professional firms, populated by a relatively highly-educated and qualified group of individuals who are relatively free to move from one firm to another, implementing a successful change programme may be even more difficult.

So why is change so difficult to implement? And are there any general guidelines that an organisation can follow?

This article will outline one model which has been used to understand the change process.

First, why is change so difficult to implement?

There can be any number of reasons. At the individual level, aversion to risk-taking and an intolerance of ambiguity may cause an individual to be averse to change (so called “fear of the unknown”); or, an inability to see problems from more than one perspective may mean an inability to recognise the need for change. At the individual or group level a major cause of resistance to change may lie in the organisation’s power structure; thus, where a perceived consequence of any change is a weakening of a particular individual’s or group’s power or “political clout” strong resistance to change will be inevitable. In the light of these and many other reasons, it's hardly surprising that many attempts to implement change within an organisation fail.

However, these factors must not be allowed to prevent change to occur. Irrespective of whether change is a decision taken voluntarily within the organisation (eg to change the organisation’s reward structure) or imposed upon it from outside (eg the need to offer certain services free via the internet) it is important for an organisation to understand the change process.

Whilst there are various models which can be drawn upon to help understand the change process one of the first and most enduring is that of Kurt Lewin. At its simplest the model comprises three stages, namely:
1. unfreezing the status quo;
2. changing from the old to the new state; and
3. refreezing the new state.

Many failures of organisational change occur because of a failure to recognise the crucial importance of the first stage, ie the unfreezing of the status quo, and a tendency to proceed almost immediately (at any rate far too quickly) to the second stage. This article will therefore concentrate on this first stage.

Unfreezing the status quo refers to the need to create, in individuals subject to the change, the motivation to unlearn (or unfreeze) existing and established behaviours and/or attitudes. Unless this can be successfully achieved then progressing onto stages two and three is pointless as long lasting change becomes impossible.

So how can this motivation to unlearn existing beliefs, behaviours and/or attitudes be triggered?

Three mechanisms must operate within the first level of the model. First, the individual’s existing beliefs and attitudes must be disconfirmed. In other words, the individual must recognise that the existing position is unsatisfactory because, for example, various desired objectives or goals (be they individual, group or corporate) are not being attained. If, however, the individual believes that all is well then there will be no serious motivation to change by abandoning existing beliefs.

Take, for example, the situation where a law firm is structured according to classic legal disciplines eg litigation, company, property and tax. Assume that it has decided that to compete in today’s markets the firm should be restructured along industry specialisms eg telecommunications, entertainment, banking, etc. A change of this magnitude, if it is to occur and prosper, will need much serious discussion and explanation to both partners and fee earners alike as it quite clearly challenges long held beliefs.

To assume that one or two group presentations about the change will be sufficient to unfreeze existing held beliefs etc is to court disaster and risk an all too quick move to stage two (of the above model). What this is likely to mean in practice is that, superficially, change may appear to have occurred, but in fact no true disconfirmation of the long held beliefs will have occurred and the pre-change situation will still pervade below the surface, only to resurface in due course.

Even if the individual can be made to feel discomfort, this, of itself, will not create the required motivation to change. A second mechanism must also operate. The level of discomfort must be at a level which precipitates anxiety/guilt and not merely be such that the individual can simply ignore any negative information or explain it away in some internally satisfactory manner. If, in the above example, partner profit shares were not in decline, only growing more slowly than historically, then even though evidence could be presented showing that other similar firms were changing their structures and so some partners felt a little discomfort, they might still justify retaining the status quo as profit levels were satisfactory.

Unfortunately, in such a case, by the time the levels of discomfort became such as to create anxiety and a willingness to change (eg severe decline in profits) it may well be too late for the firm to effect any meaningful change. This situation would threaten its very survival.

Assuming, however, that the individual experiences a level of discomfort sufficient to induce appropriate levels of anxiety, thus creating the motivation to change, one further mechanism must operate. This third mechanism requires the creation for the individual of psychological safety. By this is meant the need for the individual to accept that it is safe to let go of the existing belief structures and learn something new. Clearly, even if the individual perceives the need to give up existing beliefs and learn new ones but feels tha doing so is unsafe, with only uncertainty on offer, then a barrier to change remains.

Referring again to the above example, if the head of one of the old divisions (eg litigation) recognises that a change to the new structure is appropriate but to go along with it is likely to mean a loss of political power and/or monetary reward then for such individual there is no offer of psychological safety. For this individual, opposition to change is likely to be the order of the day unless some form of psychological safety net can be proffered.

Even when all three mechanisms are operating and thus new learning can in principle take place this is still merely stage one of a broader three-stage change process; the remaining two stages involving the new learning itself and then the reinforcement of it.

The important point to note, however, is that to move too quickly to stages two and three will not produce the requisite long term changes desired. To rush the first stage is very much the same as not ensuring that the foundations of a house are secure before building the ground and first floors. The house may look perfectly safe from the outside but in reality it isn’t, and time will reveal the hidden defects.

In short, what is important is the need to recognise the time commitment not only to get the agreement of all relevant parties on the need for change, but to ensure that appropriate safety nets are in place to induce to the actual changes to be implemented.

Malcolm Finney is founder of Management Dynamics which specialises in consultancy and training for the professions and financial sector.


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