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The nature of change is changing: the new pattern.

by Mark P. McDonald  |  April 12, 2010  |  20 Comments

There is a new pattern of change emerging driven by information and communications rather than leadership and vision. This is a new cycle.  It is interesting because it is qualitatively different from what we all know about change management.  The traditional pattern for change rests on:

  • Problem – something is wrong, the problem is defined, given shape and the need for change is communicated.
  • Solution — the actions you take to address the problem either wrapped in the term initiative or program.  The assumption is that there is a solution to each problem.  The assumption is that the solution, properly applied, will solve the problem, if it did not then why go to the effort of implementing the solution.
  • Adoption — the acceptance of the solution by the workforce.  This is the change part of the change process as people are assumed to discontinue old ways of working in favor of new approaches.  A well-executed adoption process will ensure the solution is applied properly in order to solve the problem and raise performance.

The logic of Problem/Solution/Adoption to change gives the whole process a mechanistic or programmatic approach, show in the figure below.  Follow the steps properly and you will get the intended results.  Its interesting that when people encounter difficulties in the change process and they ask for help, the answer is that you must not have done the steps right.


This view is advocated by change experts, for example John Kotter in his book Leading Change comments,  “Successful change of any magnitude goes through all eight stages, usually in the sequence shown.  Although one normally operates in multiple phases at once, skipping even a single step or getting too far ahead without a solid base almost always creates a problem.” (p.23)

This view is the hallmark of a technical process that equates changing the way you work with how you make a roast beef dinner.  True there are steps to follow, but change is a social process that resists mechanistic answers.

Change is a social system that requires a social process

New change processes reflect the social nature of change.  The logic of Dissatisfaction/Transparency/Choice and Change is not neat or clean, but it is inherently social.  It recognizes that every problem cannot be solved by an initiative and that things will naturally evolve.  This is the changing nature of the change process with a pattern based on the following cycle:

  • Dissatisfaction – there is a feeling or evidence that the status quo is no longer acceptable.  People know things are wrong and they ask for information to prove otherwise.
  • Transparency – the demand for information creates a move for transparency either as a proposed solution or as means to rebuild trust while solutions are being implemented.
  • Choice - armed with the information created by transparency people start voting with their voices, dollars or feet.  Before transparency I either did not have a choice or I did not know how different my options are.
  • Change – people change in the face of clear information that drives active choice rather than passive submission.  The change creates dissatisfaction that drives the energy and cycle of improvement.

These activities occur continuously in a cycle, shown in the figure below.  It is important to note that companies using this cycle never really ‘solve’ a problem rather then are always working toward improving processes as one solution or changes in the marketplace create new issues requiring choice and change.  The ability to use transparency and choice to adapt gives this approach greater flexibility than the more programmatic approach to change that rests on a premise of holding the world constant while we execute the change initiative.


The nature of change is changing because the flow and control of information has become turbulent no longer flowing top down, but flowing in every direction at all times.  This means that the ability to manage and lead change is no longer based on messaging, communication and traditional sponsorship.  Rather it is based on processes of informing, enrolling and adapting that is significantly more disruptive and difficult to manage for executives and leaders.

The changing nature of change is symptomatic of broader changes facing enterprises and their leadership teams.  This post seeks to put the changing nature of change on the table with a brief description of the differences and the process.  Subsequent posts will talk about what these activities mean for the enterprise and IT.

Category: leadership  strategy  

Tags: change  change-leadership  change-management  cio-leadership  it-strategy  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on The nature of change is changing: the new pattern.

  1. Saqib Ali says:


    I agree that change is now being driven by information and communications rather than leadership and vision.

    Some thoughts:
    If I am not mistaken, in figure number 2 you are trying to depict role of innovation and improvement in an evolutionary cycle. I think you need to make an clear distinction between innovation and improvement. Responses and fixes are usually part of improvement.


  2. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comment and observation about the second figure. I would like to suggest that change in the future is agnostic to whether the change is an innovation or an improvement — they both require change.

    As I talk and work with people I am beginning to see fewer real distinctions between the two and separation of innovation and improvement more of a red herring and artificial separation. That may make me sound like a knuckle dragger and backward, but it may be innovative to stop thinking about innovation as something apart.

    Interested in your thoughts.


  3. Saqib Ali says:

    Group Partners wiki makes the distinction between innovation and improvement as follows:
    “Innovation is distinct from improvement in that it causes society to reorganize. It is distinct from problem solving and is perhaps more rigorously seen as new problem creation.”

    But I would like to go one step further, and opine that innovation is distinct from improvement in that it creates a whole new category (types) of problems.

  4. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for the detail and yes traditionally innovation has been viewed as separate from improvement. I would suggest that the reorganizing society bar for innovation makes most of the things that people see as innovation just simple improvement. Using that definition, the last real innovation was during the French Revolution, or maybe the united nations.

    Agreed that any significant change creates new problems, and not just innovations – i think its the level or significance for the change.

    For purposes of this post, I am considering innovation and improvement the same from a change perspective. Both involve change, both require choice. In relaxing the separation between the two I am hoping to uncover something else which is that you need a unified approach to change in this new environment as any change is still change.

  5. James Dellow says:

    I like the points your Dissatisfaction/Transparency/Choice and Chang model raises. However, while you have referenced one linear model of change, I was wondering how your idea of social change differs from Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations, which was very much grounded in change with social systems?

  6. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your post and to some extent any social based discussion of change will share similarities with other socially based processes like Roger’s Diffusion. If I understand Roger’s model correctly, including extensions provided by Geoffrey Moore, that model does more to describe market behavior and adoption of new technology from a market segmentation structure and how people move between the segments. I know this type of segmentation has been used in change management approaches as well.

    The post on the changing nature of change sought to identify how social interaction is changing this process and moving it from a linear technical process operating at the enterprise level to a continuos social process that operates at the individual level.

    Thanks for bringing the two of these ideas together. They are both based on the social decisions that people take and therefore have some commonality. My attempt in the post(s) was not to challenge or correct Rogers, just to point out that the nature of change is changing for enterprises.

    Thanks for reading the blog and look forward to other comments.

    Is there a post on Rogers that I should be linking to as well ?

  7. James Dellow says:

    Not sure I have any links for you, but as well as Roger you might find James Carlopio of interest. I’ve used his model for change and innovation (still in the context of introducing new technologies) that is based on Roger’s model but describes applying this process in a iterative and cyclic way at the organisation level, within groups or teams and finally at the level of the individual. I would perhaps argue that the linear approach has never really been that effective, but a non-linear or an emergent approach was optional. I do very much agree that this is changing.

  8. […] Mark MacDonald recently made the observation that change these days is being driven more “by information and communications rather than […]

  9. Ron Leeman says:

    I have long held the view that change is wholly underpinned by Stakeholder Management and Communication … through these channels information is provided that allows those that are impacted by the change to be part of the “IN” crowd … informed, involved and interested. My change model is driven by these two aspects and I necessarily implement focused and widespread StakeMan & Comms processes before anything else. These are the difference between success and failure.

  10. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments. The intention of this post and its related detail posts is to suggest that this model may need to change as the relative power of top down stakeholders and bottom up front line workers shifts.

    I have seen many situations where stakeholders feel and declare victory, but there is no real or sustained change in business performance. Social media and other tools have the opportunity to change that, but at the cost of greater transparency and recognition of choice.

    Thanks for your points and I appreciate the dialogue that we are creating around this point.


  11. Gordon Andersen says:

    I agree with the premise that linear thinking isn’t as effective in the long term as a more cyclical and holistic approach to change. Changes are occuring more spontaneously (from all levels of organziations). In my profession of business process management I’ve seen most of the great ideas arise from the people actually doing the work, not the managers.

    As I read through your article it connected with a book I’ve skimmed through by Peter Senge named “The Fifth Discipline”. Many of the thoughts you express are also expressed there. Specifically you describe the linear model and describe some of its failures. Mr. Senge writes of these failures as well, in context of problems that try to be solved through application of linear thinking. One of the issues with this approach is unintended consequences of the fix, which are usually not immediately apparent due to delays in the consequences appearing. I think this is a risk, even when ‘perfectly’ executing the linear change management model.

    Your second model aligns more with Senge’s “systems thinking” approach in that it is cyclical, and it involves many various points of view (social factors in your terminiology).

    I wonder if you have read of Senge’s work, or something similar.

    I appreciate your point of view and will be following your blog more closely in the future. Thanks for sharing.


  12. Malcolm says:

    I think you make a very interesting point. However, I do like Kotter’s model as it helps. I do accept that though that not all steps can be sequential. When I’ve used Kotter’s model to track change, the steps can be out of sequence but still we see a positive result at teh end.

    Very helpful blog, thanks

  13. […] story is illustrating how the nature of change is changing and how management must think differently because the technology now exists to ask your people for […]

  14. […] The nature of change is changing: the new pattern. I agree that the nature of change is changing, but through a different pattern loosely based on design rationality (pp. 166-173). 1. Openness: A person must be open to take in information from anyone, and must be open to try new things in a transparent way. Not afraid of making mistakes and willing to share knowledge and experiences with others are a must. At this point, it is not necessary to be dissatisfied or even be able to identify a problem even though both could be case. What is most important is that the person realize that improvement is a valuable pursuit and that it is possible. 2. Predictions: Through social practice, the individual predicts certain outcomes based on changed behavior. Depending on the level of expertise, this stage may include some level of intervention to assure that predictions are based on sound research. 3. Negotiation: As the change in behavior unfolds, the individual negotiates with other individuals and manipulates objects until intended and unintended outcomes result. In the negotiation stage, everyone has a vested interest that drives a person’s actions, so being able to interpret one’s actions and having perspective are crucial. 4. Opportunities: As the person reflects on the intended and unintended outcomes, he/she recognizes certain opportunities taking into account all the contextualized cues (unique to each individual) that exist at that particular moment. Any opportunities that present themselves provide new information that is then part of a new scenario requiring the individual to become even more open to new information thus continuing the cycle. As we repeat the cycle – unique to each individual – we become more open and better at predicting, negotiating, and recognizing opportunities based on new scenarios. To facilitate individuals through this cycle, all stakeholders must work together to create an adaptive environment where those who are targeted to change can do so at different rates and with the support they need. Summary: Openness provides the mindscapes needed in order to make more accurate predictions given a particular scenario (unique for each individual). Based on sound predictions the individual begins negotiating with others and manipulating objects through an ongoing social process that positions the person in a perceived role within a particular learning network. By negotiating with others and manipulating objects, certain opportunities or lack of opportunities may result, some intentional and some unintentional. These opportunities or lack of opportunities provide new information that changes the context for the individual which is then used to make further predictions. Posted by Benjamin Stewart at 4:55 am […]

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  16. […] nature of change is changinggas organizations and individuals grow tired of facing a future of burning platforms and change […]

  17. Graduation says:

    […] Graduation represents the best analogy for change, at least in my opinion, and one that organizations should apply more often.  Graduation drives change based on completing something and recognizing there is more in the future.  This is different than traditional change management approaches that largely focus on the dark side of behavior – the burning platform, the compelling reason, the fearless change leader with foresight, the gaps that need to be filled, etc. The nature of change needs to change. […]

  18. […] Graduation represents the best analogy for change, at least in my opinion, and one that organizations should apply more often.  Graduation drives change based on completing something and recognizing there is more in the future.  This is different than traditional change management approaches that largely focus on the dark side of behavior – the burning platform, the compelling reason, the fearless change leader with foresight, the gaps that need to be filled, etc. The nature of change needs to change. […]

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