OCI #11: Two Change Paradigms
Exploring the intersection of Change Management and Organization Development
Two Paradigms: Diagnostic and Generative
The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. –Thomas Kuhn
Over the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of two fundamental paradigms that characterize approaches to organizational change: “diagnostic” and “generative.” They begin with fundamentally different assumptions about the nature of the work and approach the process of change very differently. While many practitioners combine elements of both, they each have their own origins and history, and it’s worth spending a little time exploring their contrasts and thinking about how they might be integrated in practice to leverage the strengths of each.
The Diagnostic Paradigm
The diagnostic paradigm frames the work of change in terms of understanding the risks, issues, gaps, challenges, and obstacles that characterize change initiatives and systematically addressing them in planning and implementation activities. This approach is characterized by data gathering, analysis, planning, and logic, and is strongly influenced by project management and related disciplines. The profession of “change management,” which first emerged in the early 2000s, is grounded in the diagnostic approach. Most published methodologies in the change management space reflect this paradigm by including a taxonomy of risks and focusing primary attention on overcoming resistance to change and on identifying and addressing gaps in sponsorship, change readiness, change capacity, cultural alignment, and other areas.
The Generative Paradigm
The generative paradigm frames the work of change in terms of engaging the system in creating a shared vision of the future, tapping into the life-giving forces, strengths, and positive attributes of the system to create momentum, and taking action to bring the desired future into being. This approach is characterized by imagery, open-ended questions, and rapid prototyping of options. The field of “organization development,” which emerged in the 1950s, is one of the primary sources of the generative approach. Methods such as Appreciative Inquiry, action learning, and large-group engagement are core elements of OD that reflect this way of thinking.
As a practitioner who “grew up” in the diagnostic paradigm and has focused a good bit of attention on exploring the generative paradigm as well, I believe there is a strong potential synergy between them; each brings value to certain aspects of organizational change. Here are some of the areas where I believe their differences can be leveraged effectively.
As described above, the field of change management has leaned toward the diagnostic paradigm and a “problem-focused” bias in which discussions are framed in terms of addressing risk and overcoming obstacles and challenges, while the generative approach places a strong emphasis on positivity, strengths, and opportunities.
I believe it’s vital to attend deeply to the opportunities and possibilities that are present in any situation, and to engage effort in drawing out strengths, aspirations, hope, and compelling images of the future. These maximize innovation, engagement, and creative thinking, which bring life and power to the process of change. I also believe it is important to be realistic about the risks and challenges we face in any situation. Every major change requires work to orchestrate alignment across all parts of the system, and includes some level of disruption and difficulty that needs to be navigated. Effective diagnosis and planning ensure that we have plans in place to move beyond the initial surge of vision and enthusiasm to ensure sustainable solutions, and allows us allocate sufficient resources to move to successful completion.
Here are some ways these approaches might be combined:
Consciously reframing issues and problems into possibilities and vivid images of the desired future.
Balancing identification of risks with identification of assets and resources.
Asking questions that draw out strengths and opportunities.
Looking for examples of “positive deviance”—places where things are going unusually well—and systematically expanding them.
When to Begin
Some diagnostic-centered change methodologies explicitly state that the work of change management begins once an initiative has been defined. Generative approaches, in contrast, often start by engaging the whole system in conversation to identify shared goals and desires as the foundation of change.
Reconciling and integrating these perspectives requires recognizing that there is a wide spectrum of change initiatives. Some initiatives are transitional in nature, driven by technology or regulatory requirements, initiated by management decisions that are not open to input or influence, or driven by time constraints that allow little opportunity for participation. In these cases, early efforts to engage the organization may not be a productive use of time and can set up false expectations of participant influence. Other initiatives, in contrast, seek to transform organizational culture, need high levels of engagement and buy-in, and can draw immense benefit from the thoughts and perspectives of a broad group of voices. In these initiatives, engagement needs to begin as early as possible, and the process of change needs to have a high level of participation, openness, and fluidity. Failing to invite early, broad involvement significantly reduces the potential for meaningful change.
Here are some ways to balance these perspectives:
Ensure that the organization’s strategic processes include open-ended, well-orchestrated opportunities for the whole system to come together to define and design its future in addition to leader-driven initiative planning and prioritization.
As new initiatives and potential initiatives are identified, evaluate the optimal level and timing of engagement, and adjust the first stages of the process accordingly.
Once an initiative has been defined and approved for action, pay continued attention to engagement throughout its implementation.
Identifying and addressing potential resistance to change is a cornerstone of most diagnostic-centered approaches. Generative approaches tend to focus primary attention on engaging members of the system in defining changes and bringing them into being.
To some extent, this difference in perspective is an echo of the “when to begin/how much to engage” issue. When engagement and input are high, people are more likely to experience ownership of change and feel a greater sense of control. When initiatives are driven by other imperatives and are planned and “rolled out” to the organization by a core team, participants are likely to feel less control and ownership, and are likely to experience greater disruption to their expectations.
However, the issue is not as simple as it seems. Proponents of generative approaches often appear to assume that because people are involved in defining and planning change, they will be fully on board with the implications of what they have chosen, and that resistance will be swept away by passion, enthusiasm, and momentum. Experience and research suggest that this is not true. Even changes we are excited about and fully committed to bring surprises and disruption, and initiatives that affect a whole organization or other large system almost inevitably require people to adopt new mindsets and behaviors, which can be disruptive and uncomfortable even if those initiatives ultimately lead us into a much-desired future.
Similarly, proponents of diagnostic approaches treat “resistance to change” as if it were a single phenomenon that can be planned for and managed, rather than as a combination of multiple issues that might lead people to direct their energy in some way other than alignment with the goals of the change, and which have different causes and different solutions. For example:
I don’t like the implications of this initiative for me and my work.
I agree that something needs to change, but this is the wrong solution.
I am protecting my energy and trying to avoid unnecessary disruption.
I don’t want someone telling me what to do.
I don’t trust you.
I believe that the way resistance is framed and defined in most change management methodologies creates the very thing we would like to avoid—it sets up an “us/them” relationship between change planners (typically agents & sponsors) and change participants. It normalizes/prioritizes the perspectives of the planners of change and frames healthy human reactions as a problem. No matter how many times change planners say, “resistance is normal,” it’s clear that it is also defined and viewed as problem to be overcome.
Integrating the paradigms to address these issues involves blending the generative paradigm’s value for whole-system involvement and widespread ownership of change with the acknowledgement that all significant changes—even those we are thrilled about—have the potential for turbulence and disruption. Using tools that have been developed within the change management community to anticipate potential sources of disruption, set clear expectations, build trust, and ensure high levels of motivation, skill, and capability, we can reframe the issue of “resistance to change” into a more productive conversation about how to align energy toward a jointly desired future.
Here are some examples:
View participants and advocates as partners in the change process rather than as “targets” of change management activities.
Shift focus and language away from “managing resistance to change” and toward activating, directing, and sustaining human energy while working with normal human responses to disruption.
Systematically evaluate demands on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy, and design ways to help people protect, build, and replenish their energy during change.
Anticipate potential sources of disruption, help people understand and manage their own responses as a normal part of the change process, and prepare leaders and others to provide support and encouragement.
Sources of Power and Influence
In my experience, “diagnostic” change management approaches focus primary attention on formal sources of power and influence (leadership/sponsorship) while underplaying the role of informal sources (peers, social networks, etc.) Generative approaches are more likely to focus attention on including all voices across the system and fostering widespread inclusion—sometimes to the point where formal sources of power are not adequately taken into account.
Both formal and informal sources of influence are important. Formal power in organizations is extremely important for some aspects of the change process, including creating and enforcing accountability, establishing clear expectations, aligning disparate groups around common goals, and embedding new ways of operating into organizational systems. Informal power is extremely important for leveraging the power of peer relationships, collaboration, and other sources of perspectives and ideas in ways that shape opinions, energize action, and inspire hope. Informal power is especially critical for creating change in environments where formal power structures are absent, complex, or ineffective.
Integrating these two approaches is simple in principle, but not always in practice. Traditional change management approaches have many excellent processes and tools for ensuring sponsor engagement and effectiveness. Generative approaches have well-designed tools for engaging whole systems, which we can use to incorporate more emphasis on the “advocate” role in change planning and implementation. The biggest challenge in combining these is balancing efficiency with inclusion. It takes more time and patience to foster broad conversations, listen to varying perspectives, suspend judgment, and allow creative ideas to emerge than it does to get a small group together, decide how to proceed, and then work to gain buy-in from the larger organization.
Here are some ideas for finding a healthy balance:
Spend time early in the change process identifying and connecting with people in the “advocate” role—proactively engage them in the process to the greatest appropriate extent.
Use tools such as social network analysis to identify key informal influencers, and ensure that engagement and communication strategies include them.
Include skills in deep listening, large-group engagement, qualitative data analysis, “viral” marketing, and other related areas as part of the core change management capability.
I hope this article has sparked some ideas! This is a theme I will continue to explore in my thinking and writing—thanks for being part of this journey.
Although I do believe that many practitioners draw on both paradigms, I am continually surprised by how the worlds of Change Management and Organization Development remain separated. In Atlanta, where I live, there are two separate organizations representing these fields, and they have such little overlap in membership that they often meet on the same night without any sense of conflict.