Beyond the Change Curve: The Anatomy of Engaging Change Projects
Paper in proceedings, 2015
A fundamental assumption in the change literature is that employees typically do not like change and try to resist it. Such resistance (Dent & Galloway Goldberg, 1999; Ford, Ford, & D'Amelio, 2008; Piderit, 2000; Stanley, Meyer, & Topolnytsky, 2005; Strebel, 1996) is generally seen as an obstacle to change (Ford et al., 2008), and contributes to the generally assumed failure rate of around 70% of change projects (Beer & Nohria, 2000). To understand why this failure rate exists, and to increase the likelihood for success, scholars have researched the cognitive readiness for change (Armenakis & Bedeian, 1999; Armenakis, Harris, & Mossholder, 1993; Rafferty, Jimmieson, & Armenakis, 2013). Fewer studies have focused on how resistance and readiness change during transition periods. The dominant models in this area are built on Kübler-Ross’ “change curve” (1969). The curve and its adaptations (see Elrod & Tippett, 2002, for a review) suggest that individuals and organizations go through fundamental losses of morale, described as anger, depression, despair (or similar terms), before moving to a state of acceptance and constructive handling of the situation, and that performance also follows this path. But does it have to be that way? Research in organizational behavior and change suggests that engaged employees show less signs of resistance towards change and are less cynical towards change initiatives (Burke, 2011; Ford et al., 2008; Reichers, Wanous, & Austin, 1997). That would, theoretically, lead to a different trajectory than that suggested by the change curve. No research was found to indicate what characterizes such a different trajectory, however. This paper builds on multiyear longitudinal studies of transformation processes in two divisions in two different companies. An outspoken ambition was to engage employees in the change processes. The companies were in different industries (telecommunications vs. health care), and the divisions had different functions (product development unit vs. factory). The study used action research methods where selected employee task forces were involved in collecting data (Beer, 2013; Beer & Eisenstat, 2004). A total of 713 interviews were performed by task forces in 11 interview processes. Data from internal performance measurements was also used to support findings. Whereas the change curve and its adaptions indicate that engagement/satisfaction levels and productivity levels drop during change processes, this did not happen in the two cases. Instead, both engagement/satisfaction levels and performance levels increased. These results occurred as the organizations underwent massive organizational changes. Reponses from organizational members (from first line employees to the level below top management) showed that members went through four major stages that we denote as general dissatisfaction, self-doubt, concern and in the end demand. The study fills a gap in the literature on organizational change by providing empirical evidence of the unfolding of organizational transformation processes, especially for the case of engaging transformation methods. The positive outcome of the change processes are discussed using literature on organizational change. A main argument is that the nature of the change processes change with the managerial approach and method.