Theories of Planned Organisational Change

Essay, 2014
11 Pages, Grade: 60

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A man goes to the doctor and says "Doctor, I've become a compulsive thief." The doctor prescribes him a course of tablets and says, "If you're not cured in a couple of weeks would you get me a widescreen television ?" Ideal behavior is not the lesson of this narration. It is rather a comical illustration of alternatives - whether one should attempt to instigate change, to accept it or to keenly support it. The continuous nature of change is becoming more predominant as an idea but, nonetheless, change is still habitually experienced as disruptive and related to and fear of uncertainty, loss of security and resistance, (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010). Thus, it is characterized as a probable drawback to the organization’s persistence (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010). Consequently, planned change is required to smoothen the process of change and thus, multiple theories and models of planned change have emerged to tackle the issue. The aim of this paper is to examine and critically analyze planned change, its theories, and its practices. A brief description of planned change will first be given, followed by a literature review under which criticisms of planned change will be presented. This is followed by explanations of three models of planned change: Lewin’s three-step model, action research model, and the positive model.

Planned Change

Change, according to Skringer and Stevens (2008, p. 6), is simply “a transition from one state to another.” There exist multiple ways of implementing change. However, planned change, which is a collaborative, calculated and purposeful effort to effectuate developments with the aid of an agent of change (Mitchell, 2013). Planned change possesses a different connotation from mere change. As defined by French, Bell and Zawacki (2005, p.80), “organizational change is typically triggered by a relevant environmental shift that, once sensed by the organization, leads to an intentionally generated response.” Livne-Tarandach and Bartunek (2009, p.11) point out, “conscious, planned change [is seen] as infinitely preferable to unconscious, emergent change.”

Change is a vital ingredient to advancement, however the literature on change identifies numerous complexities associated with transforming plans into action, and attempts at change often fail because change agents take an unstructured approach to implementation (Wright 1998).

It is important, therefore, that managers, or change agents, identify an appropriate change theory or model to provide a framework for implementing, managing and evaluating change (Pearson et al 2005).

Theories of Planned Change: Lewin’s three-step Change Theory

Kurt Lewin’s (1951) three-step change theory regarded behavior as a dynamic balance of forces working in opposite directions. Restraining forces hamper change because employees are pushed in the opposite direction, whilst driving forces enable change because employees are pushed in the direction desired (Kritsonis, 2005). Hence, an analysis of these forces need to be conducted, and this model of change can help shift the equilibrium in the course of the planned change.

Unfreezing is the first step in the model. It was the understanding of Lewin that the human behaviour’s stability had its base on a ‘quasi-stationary equilibrium’, with a complex field of restraining and driving forces supporting it (Burnes, 2004, p. 985). Therefore, there needs first to be a destabilization of the equilibrium (unfreeze) before new behaviour is effectively adopted and old behaviour is castoff (unlearned) (Burnes, 2004).

Referring to the second step – change – Lewin’s view was that unfreezing creates incentive to learn, but does not necessarily predict or control the direction (Burnes, 2004). From planned change, any attempt to pinpoint a precise consequence is very hard, attributable to the complex nature of the concerned forces. An agent needs to, instead, take into consideration all the forces at play and analyze, on a basis of trial and error, all the accessible choices (Burnes, 2004). Through this approach, the change subjects are enabled to transfer to more satisfactory behaviour. Nonetheless, with the absence of reinforcement, change could be brief (Burnes, 2004).

Refreezing, the last step in the model, seeks to create stability at a new quasi-stationary equilibrium, so that the new status can be safeguarded against reversion (Burnes, 2004). The rest of the behavior should be harmonious with the new behaviour, environment and organizational culture. This is the reason why effective change was viewed by Lewin as an activity for a group, for if organizational norms remained untransformed, changes to behavior of the individual will be short-lived (Burnes, 2004). Refreezing therefore often necessitates changes to organizational practices, policies, norms, and culture (Burnes, 2004).

Theories of Planned Change: Action Research Model

There are particular differences between the three-step model and the action research model. The outcomes, in action research, are fed back in order for further changes and enhancements to be made (Mamwangi, 2003). The model is thus distinguished as a recurring process. The aspect of research implies a pursuit of knowledge that may be used somewhere else (Mamwangi, 2003). It is also a cooperative effort between the organization and the consultant who engage in joint evaluation, implementation, planning diagnosis and further planning (Mamwangi, 2003). Furthermore, the three-step model chases organizational and individual effectiveness objectives only while in addition action research concerns itself with spawning new knowledge for application somewhere else (Mamwangi, 2003).

The action research model focuses on planned change as a process of cyclicality (Mamwangi, 2003). Initial research concerning the organization is inputted to conclude the action to be taken. It is an iterative cycle of research and involves the eight steps of problem identification, consultation with an expert, data gathering and preliminary diagnosis, data feedback to the key client, joint evaluation of problem, joint action planning, implementation of proposals for change, repetition of the cycle – fresh data gathering and feedback of results of change (Mamwangi, 2003, p. 9).

Theories of Planned Change: Positive Model

What the organization is doing right is what the positive model focuses on (Cummings and Worley, 1997). The positive model aids members in understanding their organization when it is at its best, and then builds up those capabilities for the achievement of better results (Cummings and Worley, 1997). Through the process of appreciative inquiry, the positive model has been applied to planned change (Cummings and Worley, 1997). Appreciative enquiry encourages a positive orientation to the way change is conceived and managed (Cummings and Worley, 1997, p. 26). It promotes broad member involvement in creating a shared vision about the organization’s shared potential (Cummings and Worley, 1997).

The positive model of planned change involves five phases: initiate the inquiry (determines the subject of change), inquiry into the best practice, discover key themes, envision a preferred future, design and deliver ways to create the future (describes the activities and creates the planes necessary to effectuate the vision) (Cummings and Worley, 1997, p. 27).

Comparisons of Planned Change Models

According to Cummings and Worley (1997), all three models so far discussed describe the phases by which planned change occurs within organizations. However, there is an overlap in their emphasis with regards to action used implement planned change being preceded by an initial stage and succeeded by a concluding stage (Cummings and Worley, 1997)

The three-Step model has attracted major criticisms (Burnes, 2004). The main ones being that it: is top-down and management-driven; is only fit for small-scale change projects; assumes organizations operate in a stable state; and ignores organizational power and politics (Burnes, 2004, p. 977).

There have been arguments that the three-step change model is too mechanistic and simplistic for a world where organizational change is a continuous and fluid process (Burnes, 2004). Dawson (1994, pp. 3–4), for instance, makes the following comment: “Although this [Lewin’s] theory has proved useful in understanding planned change under relatively stable conditions, with the continuing and dynamic nature of change in today’s business world, it no longer makes sense to implement a planned process for ‘freezing’ changed behaviours.” This is similar to Buchanan and Storey (1997, p. 127) who state that: “. . . their attempt to impose an order and a linear sequence to processes that are in reality messy and untidy, and which unfold in an iterative fashion with much backtracking and omission.”

In response to this critique, Burnes (2004, p. 993) explains that far from viewing organizational groups as stable, or viewing change as linear, Lewin understood the boundaries of stability and argued that a constant state of change characterizes social settings, and “just like a river, the rate varies depending on the environment.”

A second criticism by Bawson (1994) is that the model is only pertinent to isolated and incremental change projects and is not able to incorporate radical, transformational change (Burnes, 2004). Burnes (2004) addressed this criticism by saying that rather than the magnitude of the change, it seems to relate to the speed because, over time, incremental change can result in drastic renovations.

The action research model, unlike the three-step model, is a closed-loop system; this means that recycling through the process is the next stage after evaluation (Collier, 1945). This makes the action research model favourable as a continuous planned change model. However, a cyclic process such as this may present continuous costs to the organization and cause the organization not to want to repeat the process (Collier, 1945). As Collier (1945) also states, action research is not a “quick fix” or a “patch up” for ailing organizations in dire need of change.

The positive model is often orientated towards the future, and is not only concerned with what is, but also what it should be; involving also judging and sanctioning proposed solutions (Rimoldi, Lawn, Lunt & Macrae, 2004). Similar to the action research model, collectiveness is the philosophy it rests on (Rimoldi, Lawn, Lunt & Macrae, 2004). Therefore, the positive model has the unique advantage of being future-oriented and longer-tem focused, rather than present-oriented like the other two models.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Source: Cummings and Worley (1997)

Literature Review and Criticisms of Planned Change

In the 1940s, modern studies on planned change began, with attempts to comprehend the dispersion process of technical inventions (Parker, 1980). The aim of the studies was to look at agents of agricultural extension could convince farmers to accept innovations such as hybrid corn (Parker, 1980). The literature was eventually extended to evaluate the way that medical practitioners adopted new drugs and techniques. Those studying the diffusion process characterized the central problem of innovation as adoption (Parker, 1980, p. 432).

Under traditional planned change management, the strategies involve sequential steps for modifying organizational and individual behavior (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010). Typically, the method is engaged when decision makers detect a need for change (Burnes, 2004) after an analysis of the environment’s enabling and constraining forces (Burnes, 2005). Lewin (1951) developed the three-stage model which has come to be the common fashion of visualizing change in organizations (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010). The model has its basis on action research, group dynamics and field theory (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010). Lewin’s model, which prevailed until the economic instability of the 1970s questioned it (Burnes 2004), keeps on underpinning numerous efforts for change today (Burnes, 2004).

As a result of its focus on trial-and-error testing and group involvement, planned change theories, initiatives and practices are frequently criticized as static, slow and suitable only for periods of stability, not dynamic complexity and interrelatedness(Hatch and Cunliffe, 2006).

Cummings and Worley (1997) argue that more information is required to guide the steps within models of planned change with respect to specific situations. They outline that planned change is lacking in the area of knowledge about how the stages of planned change differ across situations. The accusation is that planned change models tend to be general and intended to be valid in most change cases. However, factors such as the magnitude of change, the level of organization of the client’s system, and whether a domestic or international setting affect the effectiveness of planned change models (Cummings and Worley, 1997).

It is also misleading to think that planned change is an orderly process (Cummings and Worley, 1997). It is, as a matter of fact, a mix of shifting goals, chaos, discontinuous activities and fluidity (Cummings and Worley, 1997). An example is given by Cummings and Worley (1997) of executives who initiate changes without plans that clarify their strategies or goals. As it proceeds, there may be an appearance of new stakeholders and variables. Planned change is thus made to be a disorderly process instigated by these emergent factors (Cummings and Worley, 1997).

Hatch and Cunliffe (2006) also propose that planned change can be a fear-producing and unethical, extending prevailing top-down structures of power. Lewin (1951) acknowledged that the initiation of change could be from anywhere, but it was expected to occur within the given change framework (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010). There has also emerged criticism towards this approach for overlooking environmental factors not consistent with initiatives of planned change (Livne-Tarandach and Bartunek , 2009). In this increasingly global, interconnected, corporate and complex world, this is especially true (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010).

Planned change efforts are not criticized on baseless logic. Rates of failure tend to be very high, up to seventy percent (Sackman, Eggenhofer-Rehart & Friesl, 2009). Eight reasons for the failure of planned change efforts are enumerated by Kotter (1995). These include not securing changes in the organization’s culture, proclaiming success too soon, an inadequately influential guiding coalition; failure to produce short run successes, failure to institute satisfactory urgency to change, and a blocked, under-communicated or missing vision. Research in recent years adds difficulty negotiating group identities that differ (McInnes, Beech, De Caestecker, MacIntosh & Ross, 2006) and failure to appreciate environment-organization interdependencies (Sackmann et al, 2009).

Planned change efforts, as Weick puts forward, often get the praise in change agents’ favour for victories in delivering novel tactics for survival, but rarely do they adjust the organization’s core nature and glitches usually recur. According to Sackmann et al. (2009), planned change has been discovered to be most suitable when an anticipated need for structural changes exists. Alone, however, structural changes are inadequate to assure the change efforts’ sustainability or organizational learning (Liebhart and Lorenzo, 2010).


An analysis of three planned change models has been proffered: Lewin’s three-stage theory, action research model, and the positive model. Due to the distinctiveness of each planned change model, situational heterogeneity should imply that not all change situations are the same, and therefore an organization must select the model which fits well with the nature of the change factors and their magnitudes. Despite their distinctiveness and their unique attributes, they all operate within the framework of planned change and thus possess overlapping commonalities. It is therefore possible to integrate the three models in order to take advantage of the unique features of each one, although one must not complicate the already complex change process beyond a controllable level while attempting to compound the models. Several criticisms of planned change have also been given, as well as responses to them. From the analysis, it can be concluded that although there are still improvements needed, planned change is a necessity in a realm of organizational complexity, competitiveness and structural dynamics. The theories of planned change can be applied, carefully and in employment of trial and error processes, effectively and successfully within the organization.


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Burnes, B. (2005). Complexity theories and organizational change. International Journal of Management Reviews, 7(2), 73-90.

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Theories of Planned Organisational Change
Monash University, South Africa Campus
Bachelor of Business Science - Management
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ISBN (Book)
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organizational change and development, planned change
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Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) Abel Gaiya (Author), 2014, Theories of Planned Organisational Change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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