Organisational Change Management: A
RUNE TODNEM BY
Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, UK
ABSTRACT It can be argued that the successful management of change is crucial to any
organisation in order to survive and succeed in the present highly competitive and continuously
evolving business environment. However, theories and approaches to change management
currently available to academics and practitioners are often contradictory, mostly lacking
empirical evidence and supported by unchallenged hypotheses concerning the nature of
contemporary organisational change management. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to
provide a critical review of some of the main theories and approaches to organisational change
management as an important ﬁrst step towards constructing a new framework for managing
change. The article concludes with recommendations for further research.
KEY WORDS: Critical review; theories and approaches
Change management has been deﬁned as ‘the process of continually renewing an
organization’s direction, structure, and capabilities to serve the ever-changing
needs of external and internal customers’ (Moran and Brightman, 2001: 111).
According to Burnes (2004) change is an ever-present feature of organisational
life, both at an operational and strategic level. Therefore, there should be no
doubt regarding the importance to any organisation of its ability to identify
where it needs to be in the future, and how to manage the changes required
getting there. Consequently, organisational change cannot be separated from
organisational strategy, or vice versa (Burnes, 2004; Rieley and Clarkson,
2001). Due to the importance of organisational change, its management is
becoming a highly required managerial skill (Senior, 2002). Graetz (2000: 550)
goes as far as suggesting ‘Against a backdrop of increasing globalisation,
Journal of Change Management
Vol. 5, No. 4, 369–380, December 2005
Correspondence Address: Rune Todnem By, Queen Margaret University College, Corstorphine Campus,
Edinburgh EH12 8TS, UK. Email: email@example.com
1469-7017 Print=1479-1811 Online=05=040369– 12 #2005 Taylor & Francis
deregulation, the rapid pace of technological innovation, a growing
knowledge workforce, and shifting social and demographic trends, few would
dispute that the primary task for management today is the leadership of
Since the need for change often is unpredictable, it tends to be reactive,
discontinuous, ad hoc and often triggered by a situation of organisational crisis
(Burnes, 2004; De Wit and Meyer, 2005; Luecke, 2003; Nelson, 2003). Although
the successful management of change is accepted as a necessity in order to survive
and succeed in today’s highly competitive and continuously evolving environment
(Luecke, 2003; Okumus and Hemmington, 1998), Balogun and Hope Hailey
(2004) report a failure rate of around 70 per cent of all change programmes
initiated. It may be suggested that this poor success rate indicates a fundamental
lack of a valid framework of how to implement and manage organisational
change as what is currently available to academics and practitioners is a wide
range of contradictory and confusing theories and approaches (Burnes, 2004).
Guimaraes and Armstrong (1998) argue that mostly personal and superﬁcial
analyses have been published in the area of change management, and according
to Doyle (2002) there is even evidence to suggest that with only a few exceptions
existing practice and theory are mostly supported by unchallenged assumptions
about the nature of contemporary organisational change management.
Edmonstone (1995: 16) supports this observation when stating ‘many of the
change processes over the last 25 years have been subject to fundamental ﬂaws,
preventing the successful management of change’.
Even though it is difﬁcult to identify any consensus regarding a framework for
organisational change management, there seems to be an agreement on two
important issues. Firstly, it is agreed that the pace of change has never been
greater then in the current business environment (Balogun and Hope Hailey,
2004; Burnes, 2004; Carnall, 2003; Kotter, 1996; Luecke, 2003; Moran and
Brightman, 2001; Okumus and Hemmington, 1998; Paton and McCalman,
2000; Senior, 2002). Secondly, there is a consensus that change, being triggered
by internal or external factors, comes in all shapes, forms and sizes (Balogun
and Hope Hailey, 2004; Burnes, 2004; Carnall, 2003; Kotter, 1996; Luecke,
2003), and, therefore, affects all organisations in all industries.
While there is an ever-growing generic literature emphasising the importance
of change and suggesting ways to approach it, very little empirical evidence has
been provided in support of the different theories and approaches suggested
(Guimaraes and Armstrong, 1998). The purpose of this article is, therefore, to
provide a critical review of theories and approaches currently available in a bid
to encourage further research into the nature of organisational change with the
aim of constructing a new and pragmatic framework for the management of it.
In order to do so the article has adopted Senior’s (2002) three categories of
change as a structure with which to link other main theories and approaches.
These three categories have been identiﬁed as change characterised by the rate
of occurrence, by how it comes about, and by scale. Although total quality
management (TQM), business process re-engineering (BPR) and other change
initiatives embrace several of these characteristics (Balogun and Hope Hailey,
2004; Pettinger, 2004) this article will concentrate on the main characteristics
370 R. T. By
of change and not on individual change initiatives. Finally, the article identiﬁes
some areas for further research.
Change Characterised by the Rate of Occurrence
The early approaches and theories to organisational change management
suggested that organisations could not be effective or improve performance if
they were constantly changing (Rieley and Clarkson, 2001). It was argued that
people need routines to be effective and able to improve performance (Luecke,
2003). However, it is now argued that it is of vital importance to organisations
that people are able to undergo continuous change (Burnes, 2004; Rieley and
Clarkson, 2001). While Luecke (2003) suggests that a state of continuous
change can become a routine in its own right, Leifer (1989) perceives change as
a normal and natural response to internal and environmental conditions.
Table 1 identiﬁes the main types of change categorised by the rate of occurrence
to be discontinuous and incremental change. However, different authors employ
different terminology when describing the same approach. While Burnes (2004)
differentiates between incremental and continuous change, other authors do not.
Furthermore, to make it even more confusing, Grundy (1993) and Senior (2002)
distinguish between smooth and bumpy incremental change.
Grundy (1993: 26) deﬁnes discontinuous change as ‘change which is marked by
rapid shifts in either strategy, structure or culture, or in all three’. This sort of rapid
change can be triggered by major internal problems or by considerable external
shock (Senior, 2002). According to Luecke (2003) discontinuous change is
onetime events that take place through large, widely separated initiatives, which
are followed up by long periods of consolidation and stillness and describes it
as ‘single, abrupt shift from the past’ (Luecke, 2003: 102).
Advocates of discontinues change argue this approach to be cost-effective as it
does not promote a never-ending process of costly change initiatives, and that it
creates less turmoil caused by continuous change (Guimaraes and Armstrong,
1998). Nelson (2003: 18) states that ‘Change cannot be relied upon to occur at
a steady state, rather there are periods of incremental change sandwiched
between more violent periods of change which have contributed to the illusion
of stability once assumed to be the case.’
Table 1. Change characterised by the rate of occurrence 1
Type of change
Smooth incremental 33
Bumpy incremental 33
Continuous incremental 3
Punctuated equilibrium 33
Organisational Change Management: A Critical Review 371
Although the discontinuous approach to change is still employed in recent
change initiatives (Duncan et al., 2001) there seems to be a consensus among
contemporary authors that the beneﬁts from discontinuous change do not last
(Bond, 1999; Grundy, 1993; Holloway, 2002; Love et al., 1998; Taylor and
Hirst, 2001). According to Luecke (2003) this approach allows defensive beha-
viour, complacency, inward focus, and routines, which again creates situations
where major reform is frequently required.
What is suggested as a better approach to change is a situation where organi-
sations and their people continually monitor, sense and respond to the external
and internal environment in small steps as an ongoing process (Luecke, 2003).
Therefore, in sharp contrast to discontinuous change, Burnes (2004) identiﬁes
continuous change as the ability to change continuously in a fundamental
manner to keep up with the fast-moving pace of change.
Burnes (2004) refers to incremental change as when individual parts of an
organisation deal increasingly and separately with one problem and one objective
at a time. Advocates of this view argue that change is best implemented through
successive, limited, and negotiated shifts (Burnes, 2004). Grundy (1993) suggests
dividing incremental change into smooth and bumpy incremental change. By
smooth incremental change Grundy (1993) identiﬁes change that evolves slowly
in a systematic and predictable way at a constant rate. This type of change is
suggested to be exceptional and rare in the current environment and in the
future (Senior, 2002). Bumpy incremental change, however, is characterised by
periods of relative peacefulness punctuated by acceleration in the pace of
change (Grundy, 1993; Holloway, 2002). Burnes’ (2004) and Balogun and
Hope Hailey’s (2004) term for this type of change is punctuated equilibrium.
The difference between Burnes’ (2004) understanding of continuous and
incremental change is that the former describes departmental, operational,
ongoing changes, while the latter is concerned with organisation-wide strategies
and the ability to constantly adapt these to the demands of both the external and
internal environment. In an attempt to simplify the categories, Luecke (2003)
suggests combining continuous and incremental change. However, it can be
suggested that this combination makes it difﬁcult to differentiate between depart-
mental and organisation-wide approaches to change management. Therefore, for
the purpose of this article Table 2 suggests a combination of the above-mentioned
Table 2. Change characterised by the
rate of occurrence 2
Type of change
Bumpy incremental change
Bumpy continuous change
372 R. T. By
Smooth incremental change has been deleted from the list as it is seen as an
outdated approach to change (Grundy, 1993). Furthermore, Burnes’ (2004) and
Balogun and Hope Hailey’s (2004) punctuated equilibrium model has been
merged with Grundy’s (1993) bumpy incremental change model as they both
are describing the same approach. Furthermore, Table 2 distinguishes between
incremental change and continuous change to enable the differentiation between
operational, on-going changes, and strategies implemented throughout the
whole organisation to enable it to constantly adapt to the demands of both the
external and internal environment. Bumpy continuous change is suggested as an
additional category with the assumption that just as there will be periods of
relative serenity punctuated by acceleration in the pace of change when it
comes to operational changes (Grundy, 1993; Senior, 2002), the same can
arguably be the case for organisation-wide strategies.
Change Characterised By How It Comes About
When characterised by how change comes about, there are several different
approaches, as identiﬁed in Table 3. However, the literature is dominated by
planned and emergent change (Bamford and Forrester, 2003). Even though
there is not one widely accepted, clear and practical approach to organisational
change management that explains what changes organisations need to make and
how to implement them (Burnes, 2004) the planned approach to organisational
change attempts to explain the process that bring about change (Burnes, 1996;
Eldrod II and Tippett, 2002). Furthermore, the planned approach emphasises the
importance of understanding the different states which an organisation will have
to go through in order to move from an unsatisfactory state to an identiﬁed
desired state (Eldrod II and Tippett, 2002).
The planned approach to change was initiated in 1946 by Lewin (Bamford and
Forrester, 2003), who was a theorist, researcher and practitioner in interpersonal,
group, intergroup, and community relationships (Eldrod II and Tippett, 2002).
Lewin (1946 in Burnes, 2004) proposed that before change and new behaviour
can be adopted successfully, the previous behaviour has to be discarded.
According to Lewin (1952 in Eldrod II and Tippett, 2002) a successful change
project must, therefore, involve the three steps of unfreezing the present level,
moving to the new level and refreezing this new level. This model of change
recognises the need to discard old behaviour, structures, processes and culture
before successfully adopting new approaches (Bamford and Forrester, 2003).
Table 3. Change characterised by how it comes about
Type of change Burnes (1996)
Stace (1993) Senior (2002)
Organisational Change Management: A Critical Review 373
Even though this three-step model was adopted as a general framework for
understanding the process of organisational change, it is rather broad (Eldrod II
and Tippett, 2002). Several authors have, therefore, developed Lewin’s work in
an attempt to make it more practical (Bamford and Forrester, 2003). By reviewing
more than 30 models of planned change, Bullock and Batten (1985) developed a
four-phase model of planned change that splits the process into exploration,
planning, action and integration. According to Burnes (2004) this is a highly
applicable model for most change situations. The model looks at the processes of
change, which describe the methods employed to move an organisation from one
state to another, and the phases of change, which describe the stages an
organisation must go through to achieve successful change implementation
(Bullock and Batten, 1985).
Although the planned approach to change is long established and held to be
highly effective (Bamford and Forrester, 2003; Burnes, 2004), it has come
under increasing criticism since the early 1980s (Kanter et al., 1992; Burnes,
1996). Firstly, it is suggested that the approach’s emphasis is on small-scale and
incremental change, and it is, therefore, not applicable to situations that require
rapid and transformational change (Burnes, 1996, 2004; Senior, 2002).
Secondly, the planned approach is based on the assumptions that organisations
operate under constant conditions, and that they can move in a pre-planned
manner from one stable state to another (Bamford and Forrester, 2003). These
assumptions are, however, questioned by several authors (Burnes, 1996, 2004;
Wilson, 1992) who argue that the current fast-changing environment increas-
ingly weakens this theory. Moreover, it is suggested that organisational
change is more an open-ended and continuous process than a set of pre-identiﬁed
set of discrete and self-contained events (Burnes, 1996, 2004). By attempting to
lay down timetables, objectives and methods in advance it is suggested that the
process of change becomes too dependent on senior managers, who in many
instances do not have a full understanding of the consequences of their
actions (Wilson, 1992).
Thirdly, the approach of planned change ignores situations where more directive
approaches are required. This can be a situation of crisis, which requires major and
rapid change, and does not allow scope for widespread consultation or involve-
ment (Burnes, 1996, 2004; Kanter et al., 1992). Finally, the critics argue that
the planned approach to change presumes that all stakeholders in a change
project are willing and interested in implementing it, and that a common agree-
ment can be reached (Bamford and Forrester, 2003). This presumption clearly
ignores organisational politics and conﬂict, and assumes these can be easily ident-
iﬁed and resolved (Burnes, 1996, 2004).
In response to this criticism of the planned approach to organisational change,
the emergent approach has gained ground. Rather than seeing change to be top-
down driven, the emergent approach tends to see change driven from the
bottom up (Bamford and Forrester, 2003; Burnes, 1996, 2004). The approach
suggests change to be so rapid that it is impossible for senior managers effectively
to identify, plan and implement the necessary organisational responses (Kanter
et al., 1992). Therefore, the responsibility for organisational change has to
become increasingly devolved (Wilson, 1992).
374 R. T. By
The emergent approach to change emphasises that change should not be
perceived as a series of linear events within a given period of time, but as a
continuous, open-ended process of adaptation to changing circumstances and
conditions (Burnes, 1996, 2004; Dawson, 1994). The emergent approach stresses
the unpredictable nature of change, and views it as a process that develops through
the relationship of a multitude of variables within an organisation. Apart from only
being a method of changing organisational practices and structures, change is also
perceived as a process of learning (Altman and Iles, 1998; Davidson and
De Marco, 1999; Dunphy and Stace, 1993).
According to the advocates of the emergent approach to change it is the
uncertainty of both the external and internal environment that makes this
approach more pertinent than the planned approach (Bamford and Forrester,
2003). To cope with the complexity and uncertainty of the environment it is
suggested that organisations need to become open learning systems where
strategy development and change emerges from the way a company as a
whole acquires, interprets and processes information about the environment
(Dunphy and Stace, 1993). The approach stresses a promotion of ‘extensive
and in-depth understanding of strategy, structure, systems, people, style and
culture, and how these can function either as sources of inertia that can block
change, or alternatively, as levers to encourage an effective change process’
(Burnes, 1996: 14). Furthermore, Burnes (1996: 13) argues, ‘successful
change is less dependent on detailed plans and projections than on reaching
an understanding of the complexity of the issues concerned and identifying
the range of available options. It can, therefore, be suggested that the emergent
approach to change is more concerned with change readiness and facilitating
for change than to provide speciﬁc pre-planned steps for each change project
Although Pettigrew and Whipp (1993) argue there are no universal rules when it
comes to leading and managing change, several advocates of the emergent
approach have suggested sequences of actions that organisations should comply
with. However, many of these suggestions tend to be rather abstract in nature
and difﬁcult to apply (Burnes, 2004). There are some authors who offer more
practical guidance to organisations and managers. Three of these authors are
Kanter (1983, 1989), Kanter et al. (1992), Kotter (1996) and Luecke (2003).
Table 4 combines Kanter’s (Kanter et al., 1992) Ten Commandments for Execut-
ing Change, Kotter’s (1996) Eight-Stage Process for Successful Organisational
Transformation, and Luecke’s (2003) suggested Seven Steps in order to identify
similarities and differences between these models.
As the emergent approach to change is relatively new compared to the
planned approach, it is argued that it still lacks coherence and a diversity of
techniques (Bamford and Forrester, 2003; Wilson, 1992). Another criticism
of the emergent approach is that it consists of a rather disparate group of
the planned approach to change than to an agreed alternative (Bamford and
Forrester, 2003; Dawson, 1994). However, according to Burnes (1996) the
general applicability and validity of the emergent approach to organisational
change depends on whether or not one believes that all organisations operate
Organisational Change Management: A Critical Review 375
in dynamic and unpredictable environments to which they constantly have to
adapt. If so, Burnes (1996: 14) argues ‘the emergent model is suitable for all
organizations, all situations and at all times’.
Dunphy and Stace (1993) do not agree with this view and argue ‘managers and
consultants need a model of change that is essentially a “situational” or “contin-
gency model”, one that indicates how to vary change strategies to achieve
“optimum ﬁt” with the changing environment’ (Dunphy and Stace, 1993: 905).
They advocate an approach that reﬂects not only that organisations are operating
in ever-changing environments, but also that there is a range of approaches to
change. Furthermore, it is argued that the planned and emergent approaches to
Table 4. A comparison of three models of emergent change
Kanter et al.’s Ten
Executing Change (1992)
Kotter’s Eight-Stage Process
for Successful Organisational
Transformation (1996) Luecke’s Seven Steps (2003)
1) Analyse the organisation and
its need for change
1) Mobilise energy and
commitment through joint
identiﬁcation of business
problems and their
2) Create a vision and a common
3) Developing a vision and
2) Develop a shared vision of
how to organise and
3) Separate from the past
4) Create a sense of urgency 1) Establishing a sense of
5) Support a strong leader role 3) Identify the leadership
6) Line up political sponsorship 2) Creating a guiding
7) Craft an implementation plan
8) Develop enabling structures 5) Empowering broad-based
9) Communicate, involve people
and be honest
4) Communicating the
10) Reinforce and institutionalise
8) Anchoring new approaches
in the culture
6) Institutionalise success
through formal policies,
systems, and structures
6) Generating short-term wins
7) Consolidating gains and
producing more change
4) Focus on results, not on
5) Start change at the
periphery, then let it spread
to other units without
pushing it from the top
7) Monitor and adjust
strategies in response to
problems in the change
376 R. T. By
change should not be seen as the entire spectrum of change events. An approach of
contingency to change that supports a ‘one best way for each’ organisation
approach rather than a ‘one best way for all’ approach is therefore suggested.
The contingency approach to change is founded on the theory that the structure
and the performance of an organisation are dependent on the situational variables
that it faces (Dunphy and Stace, 1993). No two organisations are alike, and will not
necessarily face the same variables. Therefore, their operations and structures
may be different (Dunphy and Stace, 1993). However, contingency theory in
general has been criticised for the difﬁculty of relating structure to performance
and that the theory assumes that organisations and managers do not have any
signiﬁcant inﬂuence and choice over situational variables and structure
Burnes (1996: 16) suggests that an organisation does not necessarily have to
adapt to the external environment, and advocates an approach of choice by
suggesting ‘there is certainly evidence that organizations wishing to maintain or
promote a particular managerial style can choose to inﬂuence situational variables
to achieve this. The point is that rather than having little choice, rather than
being forced to change their internal practices to ﬁt in with external variables,
organizations can exercise some choice over these issues.’
Change Characterised by Scale
When it comes to change characterised by scale there is less confusion as there
seems to be some wider agreement. According to Dunphy and Stace (1993),
change identiﬁed by scale can be divided into four different characteristics:
ﬁne-tuning, incremental adjustment, modular transformation, and corporate
transformation. Fine-tuning, also known as convergent change (Nelson, 2003),
describes organisational change as an ongoing process to match the organis-
ation’s strategy, processes, people and structure (Senior, 2002). It is usually
manifested at a departmental or divisional level of the organisation. The
purpose of ﬁne-tuning is, according to Dunphy and Stace (1993), to develop
personnel suited to the present strategy, linking mechanisms and create
specialist units to increase volume and attention to cost and quality, and
reﬁne policies, methods and procedures. Furthermore, the ﬁne-tuning should
foster both individual and group commitment to the excellence of departments
and the organisation’s mission, clarify established roles, and promote conﬁdence
in accepted beliefs, norms, and myths (Dunphy and Stace, 1993). According to
Senior (2002) incremental adjustment involves distinct modiﬁcations to
management processes and organisational strategies, but does not include
Modular transformation is change identiﬁed by major shifts of one or several
departments or divisions. In contrast to incremental adjustment this change can be
radical. However, it focuses on a part of an organisation rather than on the organ-
isation as a whole (Senior, 2002). If the change is corporate-wide and character-
ised by radical alterations in the business strategy it is described as corporate
transformation (Dunphy and Stace, 1993). According to Dunphy and Stace
(1993) examples of this type of change can be reorganisation, revision of
Organisational Change Management: A Critical Review 377
interaction patterns, reformed organisational mission and core values, and altered
power and status.
Recommendations for Further Research
Drawing on the reported poor success rate of change programmes in general, the
lack of empirical research on change management within organisations, and
an arguably fundamental lack of a valid framework for organisational change
management, it is recommended that further research into the nature of change
management is conducted. The ﬁrst step in this process should be to carry out
exploratory studies in order to increase the knowledge of organisational change
management. Such studies should enable an identiﬁcation of critical success
factors for the management of change. Furthermore, in order to construct a
valid framework for change management it is arguably necessary to enable
measurement of the success rate of change initiatives. Methods of measurements
should, therefore, be designed.
It is evident from this article that change is an ever-present element that affects all
organisations. There is a clear consensus that the pace of change has never been
greater than in the current continuously evolving business environment.
Therefore, the successful management of change is a highly required skill.
However, the management of organisational change currently tends to be reactive,
discontinuous and ad hoc with a reported failure rate of around 70 per cent of all
change programmes initiated (Balogun and Hope Hailey, 2004). This may indicate
a basic lack of a valid framework of how to successfully implement and manage
organisational change since what is currently available is a wide range of contra-
dictory and confusing theories and approaches, which are mostly lacking empiri-
cal evidence and often based on unchallenged hypotheses regarding the nature of
contemporary organisational change management.
By providing a critical review of current change management theories and
approaches, applying Senior’s (2002) three categories of change as the focal
structure, this article has made an attempt to highlight the need for a new and
pragmatic framework for change management. In order to construct such a frame-
work it is recommended that further exploratory studies of the nature of change and
how it is being managed should be conducted. Such studies would arguably identify
critical success factors for the management of change. The article also suggests that
methods of measuring the success of organisational change management should be
designed in order to evaluate the value of any new frameworks suggested.
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Notes on Contributor
Rune Todnem By is a lecturer at the School of Business and Enterprise, Queen
Margaret University College. His research interests are strategic management,
change management and organisational learning. This is the ﬁrst in a series of
articles where the author hopes to highlight the need for further qualitative and
quantitative studies into the management of organisational change, the metho-
dologies utilised and the ﬁndings of empirical studies currently being undertaken.
380 R. T. By