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Understanding What Really Drives Change

September 03, 2010

I read an interesting paper looking at the question of whether or not
organizational culture can over-ride leadership in the change game.
Actually I thought the question was a straw man, as it seems all to
obvious that leaders have a tough time trying to get organizations
to change.

By-the-way, the article I’m referring to does a nice job of looking at
models for framing change (emergent or ad-hoc vs planned) and
Kurt Lewin’s model of managing change: 1. Unfreeze, 2. Moving, and
3. Re-freezing.

After reading all this, and just reflecting this past week on the different
environments I have worked in and how relatively responsive vs.
non-responsive to change, I realized cataloguing the origin of change
or the processes it supposedly goes through is all a bit overly conceptual
on a day-to-day basis for me.  I’m more interested in tools that I can
use, so here’s my model, and how I use it.

What Drives Change1. Change comes about from 3 origins and is defined by the relative
tension or differences in power between the three, with the winner
always being the one exercising the most power as reflected by
kicking individuals out of the game.

1. Individuals,
2. Cultures or Systems and
3. Environment or Market.

2. The individuals facing a change process or challenge always fall into
one of four buckets:

1. Early adopters, ready, and usually well motivated, at least at the start,
but with a track record of getting distracted
2. Wait and see, tentatively motivated, accommodating, but not
working too hard at either the change or resisting it.
3.  The fully resistant, either actively or passively pushing back at the
4.  The adopters that see it through, usually made up of groups 1
and 2, who find their way to a point of buy-in and have the emotional
resources and discipline to see their way to the end.

3.  I use both models in roughly this format:
1. Find out who/what is exerting the most power on the outcome.  Either
adapt (change) or raise the level of power I or the group I’m working
for so that it is the strongest driver in the 3 ringed circus.

2. If driving change, be very careful about who is on the bus.
– Monitor regularly as momentum and motivation are both subject to
fade-outs and reversals.
– Garner enough power for the people on the bus, so that they can sustain
the effort long enough to be successful with the early adopters and the
“wait and see” groups, and either over-ride or ignore the fully resistant.
– Expect and treat change, to be a multi-layer event,
– Keep watching (observing and recognizing), keep adapting and keep the
recognition high for any compliance and the pressure on when it is
tempting to back off.

3.  Recognize that power in the change game is always exemplified
by the process or willingness to kick people out of the game who
don’t comply.  When the market is the most powerful, it’s rewarding
some and clearly kicking others out of the game.  When a culture or
system is the most powerful, it tends to kick out individuals who
don’t fit or support it, including leaders.  When leaders are the most
powerful, they kick people off the bus that don’t comply.  In some
profound ways it really is that simple.

Bottom Line:

My own model is that change is ultimately personal and experienced in
terms of the power of personalities.  It is reflected as a tension between the
personality of leadership, the personality of the culture and the people who
most shape that, and the personality and actions of the market, where
power is exercised as the effect of kicking people out of the game that don’t
comply.   Stability looks  like unchanging power relationships, change looks
like a shift in dominance positions between the three personalities.  Just
remember, the personality that is actively throwing individuals out of the
ring that don’t comply, is in power and driving the change process.

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9 Comments. Leave new

I work for Yellowbook USA a company that is undergoing constant change as our society becomes more and more paperless. Your article rings true to what I’ve witnessed in our local office regarding change. Whether it’s a new product to sell, software to learn, or even our entire corporate structure adaptability is key. I credit my own ability to “go with the flow” for sustaining a career in sales which is not typically renowned for its job security.


Gerald, thanks for the comment. Yes being adaptive is very important, and then when you pair that with ability to ask about and focus on the right thing, what “moves the needle”, you’ve got something really powerful.



I has a boss once that always said “change isn’t bad it is just different” if you don’t like change you will get stagnant and others will pass you by.


It is interesting to read about the different groups of people within an organization and how traits one thru four affect a company. After reading this, it helped me to better understand why large corporations are so resistant to change or move so slowly with progress. It’s not just because large companies have many moving parts, it’s also due in part because certain individuals in key decision making positions fall into characteristic TWO and THREE. I received the brunt of such futility recently when I tried to offer my services to a couple of major super market chains. There is so much red tape, but at the root of it all are the traits described in this article.


I think those that resist change are afraid of the outcome because they think it could mean their job security and that some of the younger people that are embracing the change will pass them by or take their very jobs, which after reading your post and looking at the one throwing people off the bus I guess that is a plausible fear. In today society you want to be the bus driver not the one being thrown under the bus.


Change is going to happen and there is nothing any of us can do about it. I once heard a statement that went something like this “the only thing that remains the same is everything changes. Now we can fight change if we want to but it will only make us miserable. It is far better to go with it then to go against it.


Barbara, My favorite quote on the topic of change is one from John Galbriaith, ““Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

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September 23, 2011 2:05 am

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