Is organizational change like a snowball or a snowstorm? Does it gather mass and momentum as it rolls along, or does it dissipate over time, as the original conditions that energized it are exhausted? The answer to this long-standing question has profound implications for managers attempting to implement and manage change in their organizations.
Conventional research on organizational change has for some time demonstrated that change begets change – the snowball effect. The more that organizations implement change initiatives, the more likely they are to continue to do so. This is because change is a skill that organizations learn, and so changing processes and systems create routines and abilities that are self-reinforcing. This is often seen as a reason for pathological organizational behaviours. On the one hand, this could be a good thing – change has momentum, and so the primary challenge for managers who want to implement change is to get the ball rolling. On the other hand, change that develops a momentum of its own may lead to the over-application of particular routines, resulting in “competency traps” that involve the repetition of an accepted strategy without much deliberation as to its effectiveness.
Recent research by Nikolaus Beck, Josef Brüderl and Michael Woywode* however, contradicts this conventional wisdom. Their work is based on a methodological shift too arcane to get into here, but by taking into account the turbulence of organizations’ environments, they show that change initiatives reduce the likelihood of further change, rather than increase it – in other words organizational change tends to decelerate over time, rather than accelerate.
Drawing on three rather different examples - the history of newspapers in Vienna, Coach replacement in German Bundesliga soccer clubs, and personnel rule changes in a German bank – Beck and his colleagues show that change is unlikely to be self-reinforcing for at least three reasons:
1. When change refines organizational procedures there should be less of a need to change them again.
2. Changes produce feedback. If the new arrangements “work”, there will be no need for more change.
3. Change results in learning. Organizations evaluate subsequent actions based on their experiences and this learning means that fewer changes of the same type are likely to occur.
So what? Making change work.
Although the researchers don’t consider the practical side of their results, there are important implications for individuals interested in managing change.
1. Change doesn’t just roll along, and so just getting the ball rolling is never enough – you need to keep it rolling. The feedback and learning associated with change can also lead to complacency; things are fixed, so it’s time to relax.
2. Get it right the first time. The psychological effects of change may reduce the likelihood of a second chance, so just doing something may not be the right approach. Doing the right thing may be critical if change gets harder, not easier, with time.
The politics of change
One important issue not considered by Beck and his colleagues, however, is the power and politics that always accompany, and usually precede, organizational change. A rhetoric of constant change and the need for momentum may reinforce and justify the power of those who evoke it. Interpreting a deceleration of change as stemming from organizational learning may be perceived as complacency. And so, this research suggests that managers and employees should be a bit skeptical of arguments for momentum and the acceleration of change. Perhaps the best model of change to shoot for is a diversity of internal and external initiatives that cycle learning around the organization, where the brake is never fully on, but nor is the organization careening out of control.
*Beck, N., Bruderl, J., & Woywode, M. (In press). Momentum or Deceleration? Theoretical and methodological reflections on the analysis of organizational change. Academy of Management Journal.