People don’t resist change. They resist being changed! – Peter Senge
of the time, scholars provide us with a ‘recipe’, in the form of
sequential or interrelated steps to follow, on how to do change
management. The well-known guidelines of Prof John Kotter from Harvard
in his 1995 book Leading change comes to mind, where he
introduced his eight-step change process: “Step 1: Create Urgency; Step
2: Form a Powerful Coalition; Step 3: Create a Vision for Change; Step
4: Communicate the Vision; Step 5: Remove Obstacles; Step 6: Create
Short-Term Wins; Step 7: Build on the Change; and Step 8: Anchor the
Changes in Corporate Culture”.
nothing wrong with these steps per se. The challenge lies in how we
apply them and, even more importantly, how we think about the underlying
assumptions supporting our change efforts. It is interesting to note
that Jim Collins in his 2011 book Great by choice states that
conventional wisdom tells us that change is hard. Collins argues that if
change is so difficult, why do we see more evidence of radical change
in the less successful comparison cases of his book? His
answer: Because change is not the most difficult part. Far more
difficult than implementing change is (1) figuring out what works, (2)
understanding why it works, (3) grasping when to change, and (4) knowing
when not to. Change therefore requires a lot of thinking before we
engage in it. But what do we need to think about apart from the aspects
to which Collins refers?
What we need to
embrace when we think about change and its associated processes is
paradoxical thinking. Effective change management requires us to hone
our ability to think about change as a paradox. This implies thinking
about the ‘ands’ and not the ‘ors’, enabling us to hold two ‘truths’ in
mind at the same time. Paradox thinking assists us in overcoming the
trap of singular thinking in a complex world. In a paradox thinking
stance, change needs stability to flourish. As Collins indicates above,
we need to understand which aspects we have to keep stable to engage in
the challenging changes required for continued success. This is true for
us as individuals as well as for organisations. Stable aspects can
include history, track-record, values, and core aspirational
descriptions like vision and purpose statements. Paradoxically, these
stable features help us to find the strengths, willpower and passion to
be involved in challenging, demanding and often complex change
initiatives to transform the status quo into something extraordinary.
Below are examples of general change assumptions and a corresponding paradox view on it.
Traditional assumptions about change management
A paradox view to expand our change options
It takes a crisis to provoke change.
Change is a continuous process of adoption, improvement and
It takes a strong leader to change a big company. Change must start
at the top.
In thriving organisations, leaders and leadership behaviour are
ubiquitous, widely distributed capabilities. Change leadership comes from
To lead change, you need a very clear agenda.
Conducive change conditions come from people relating in a context
around shared ideals.
People are mostly against change.
Most sustainable change is self-driven, locally owned and contextually
relevant. People will resist externally induced change in which they have had
With change there are always winners and losers
From an abundance departure point, win-win outcomes and zero-plus
results are possibilities for all.
Organisations can only cope with so much change.
People have unlimited potential for development and change. Organisational
structures, processes and systems have life cycles which constrain or enable
expanding our change assumptions to include a wider repertoire of
options, we increase the change opportunity spaces available to us.
Paradoxical thinking enables us to explore our core change assumptions
and hence think more inclusively, collaboratively and aspirationally.
Professor Marius Ungerer
teaches Strategic Management, Strategic Personal Leadership and
Strategic Change at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He
is also a regular visiting faculty member at Nagoya University of
Commerce and Business in Japan and the University of Johannesburg. His
research interest is strategy as a practice, strategy governance and
disclosure, strategic change and strategic leadership.