Rapid and Continuous Change – a Modern Perspective Essay

Rapid and Continuous Change – A modern Perspective By Nathan Jennison As famously held by Charles Darwin, “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change” (Cope, 2009 p; 26).

Hence, in today’s global and dynamic environment marked with hyper-competitive and volatile markets it is widely recognised that an organisation’s ability to manage change quickly, productively and positively is a critical driver of organisational success (Cope, 2009; Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009; Gilley, Godek & Gilley, 2009; Turner-Parish, Cadwallader &Busch, 2008; Appelbaum, Claude, Nadia & George, 1997).

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However, despite the overall agreement that change is essential for organisations to gain a competitive edge or even survive, change can be so disruptive it can completely destroy organisations (Abrahamson, 2004). Results from recent research support this by suggesting that up to 75% of organisational change initiatives fail to yield promised outcomes (Stanleigh, 2008; Glor, 2007; Lawler & Worley, 2006; Reger, Mullane, Gustafson & DeMarie, 1994).

This in turn has made strategies of organisational change an extremely popular and well-debated topic amongst academics and organisational theorists (Turner-Parish, Cadwallader & Busch, 2008). But despite the vast amount of literature on this topic, the link between change strategies and successful change management remains rather unclear and therefore continues to attract further research (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009). Firstly, this essay will explain and critically evaluate contemporary change strategies such as radical and continuous change in light of relevant research in this area.

Secondly, based on the detrimental effects often caused by radical or continuous change initiatives, this essay will demonstrate why organisations would seek to introduce painless change initiatives. Thirdly, based on findings of the extensive research conducted in this area, this essay will show that, organisations successfully implementing radical and continuous change initiatives simultaneously, are more likely to gain a competitive edge in the current high-velocity environment. The essay will conclude with a short summary of the main findings of this critical evaluation as well as an outline of the main mplications for contemporary organisations. As mentioned above, organisations today operate in a highly dynamic and high-velocity environment, hence; as a result of dynamic changes and unpredictable events, many organisations find that their core competencies, values and cultures, are less effective and may as a result become core rigidities (Akgun, Byrne, Lynn & Keski, 2007). General Motor is one recent example of a company that failed to keep pace with dynamic competitive environments (Gilley, Godek & Gilley, 2009).

Thus, for organisations to survive it is sometimes necessary to implement radical and discontinuous changes (Gilley, Gilley & McMillan, 2009; Wischnevsky & Damanpour, 2008; Pellettiere, 2006; Reger et al, 1994). Radical change is often a top-down, leadership-driven fundamental shift in the organisation’s current processes, products, strategy and culture and often include drastic measures such as downsizing, restructuring and re-engineering (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009).

Li and Lin (2008) argue that the clear advantage for organisations pursuing radical change is the ability to adapt itself quickly to meet unforeseen demands such as increased competition. Romanelli and Tushman (1994) add to this by stating that radical change is also necessary as it forces the organisation to break the grip of strong inertia and pursue innovative strategies. However, although researchers such as Gilley et al. (2009) maintain that successful execution of radical change leads to increased competitiveness, research suggests that organisations which successfully achieve radical change are rare.

The main reason behind this is because radical change initiatives are an extremely disruptive and unsettling process for the organisation’s members, and thus; change initiatives often fail due to employee resistance (Lawler & Worley, 2006; Reger et al 1994). Resistance can take various forms such as grievances, restricted output, high turnover and aggressive behaviour towards management (Bernerth, 2004). Diefenbach (2007) maintains that employees commonly react to change with resistance because the preference for stability and continuity is an important facet of human nature.

Hence, employees are reluctant to change their daily routines at work for new change initiatives (Turner-Parish, Cadwallader & Busch, 2008; Lawler & Worley, 2006; Bernerth, 2004). Research conducted by Peus, Frey, Gerkhardt, Fisher and Traut-Mattausch (2009) supports this in finding a correlation between employees’ change commitments and their perception on how it impacts their work routines. The more disruptive the change is to their routines, the more likely employees will react with resistance.

Connell and Waring (2002) further maintain that, because radical changes are implemented with little or no consultation or communication, radical changes are less likely to be understood by employees, and as a result, employees become confused and resistant to change (Kitchen & Daly, 2002). Changes such as downsizing, which is a common change initiative for organisations in need of streamlining their core business activities, can yield immediate and significant productivity gains (REF).

However, as highlighted by Hart (1993), downsizing can have serious detrimental effects on employees and the organisational culture as it tends to create a perception of uncertainty within the organisation and the link between downsizing and increased performance remains unclear (Cheng-Fei & Yu-Fang, 2008). Similarly, Applebaum et al. (1997) state that, because even top-performing employees may lose their jobs through downsizing, this state of “learned helplessness” can have damaging effects on continued performance.

Based on the detrimental effects often brought by disruptive radical change initiatives, researchers such as Murray and Richardson (2003) argue that adaptable organisations pursuing ongoing and continuous change initiatives are more likely to succeed. In this light, continuous change often involves ongoing communication, training and consultation with employees at all levels thus continuously reinforcing the need for change. Hence as mentioned earlier, resistance to change often stems from a lack of understanding about why change is needed.

Thus, increasing the awareness and understanding of change initiatives tends to reduce the level of resistance within the organisation (Carrigan, 2010; Kitchen & Daly, 2002). Additionally, authors such as Lawrence, Dyck, Maitlis and Mauws (2006) maintain that, discontinuous change initiatives fail to account for the fact that the corporate environment is not static, but rather continuously changing. Therefore, organisations perform well when they ensure that they implement adaptable strategies allowing them to speedily reshape themselves with ease to meet emerging demands (Walker, Armenakis & Bernerth, 2007; Lawrence et al. 2006; Marine & Riley, 1995). Coughlan, Fulton and Canales (2007) go one step further by stating that organisations need to foster a culture where people continuously adapt to environmental changes with innovative solutions. As a result, the concept of continuous change rejects Lewin’s three-stage change model with the assumption of linearity and inertia. That is, rather than viewing the process of change as a straightforward step-by-step procedure, continuous change is viewed as a non-discrete and complex process (Glor, 2007; Purser & Petranker, 2005).

Additionally, in contrast to discontinuous change initiatives, continuous change prevents employees from slipping back in to inertia and the status quo that may suppress productivity and innovative thinking (Glor, 2007). Critics of continuous change however argue that, although continuous change is less disruptive than radical change, continuous change initiatives are inadequate in meeting rapid competitive demands in a dynamic environment (Reger, Mullane, Gustafson & DeMarie, 1994).

Moreover, Broch and Menges (2010) state that, continuous change can be detrimental to organisations where managers demand the same level of urgency on a continual basis thus preventing employees from taking sufficient time between change initiatives to “recharge” and therefore the risk of employee burnout is increased, which subsequently prohibits productivity and innovation. To minimise change barriers such as resistance and employee burnout, some theorists argue for a less disruptive and painless approach to change.

Advocates of organisational development seek to implement painless change initiatives through smaller, incremental and planned changes to the organisation’s products, processes and culture. As with any change initiative, for painless change to succeed it requires support from employees. Thus, as held by Levasseur (2001), for employees to support change they must be engaged and motivated. In this light, common practices for organisations aiming to introduce painless change involve training, acilitating, team building, coaching, participation and support by top-management (Cummings & Worley, 1997). Additionally, managers maintaining clear communication during change initiatives whilst also giving their employees decision-making authority during the implementation process further increase the chance of successfully implementing painless change (Schaufeli, Leiter & Maslach, 2009; Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008; Turner-Parish, Cadwallader & Busch, 2008; Walker, Armenakis & Bernerth 2007; Lawrence et al. , 2006; Kitchen & Daly, 2002).

However, despite its clear advantages, incremental change initiatives are often very time-consuming and therefore fail to meet the needs of a rapidly changing environment (Reger, Mullane, Gustafson & DeMarie, 1994). This is concurrent with Kotter and Schlesinger (2008) who also argue that, by allowing employee input during the change planning stage, it will not only slow the change process, but may have detrimental consequences to the organisation as employees often lack vital strategic information to provide adequate input.

Furthermore, organisations intending to make painless change often fail to invest essential resources for participation and facilitation programs which has subsequently delayed or even terminated important change initiatives (Kotter & Schlesinger, 2008; Glor, 2007; Murry & Richardson, 2003; Chattopadhyay, 2001). Additionally, as held by Brown and Eisenhardt (1997) organisations today are much more dynamic, therefore; traditional change theories such as Lewin’s change model which is based on the assumption that the environment is more static and predictable, may not be relevant for contemporary organisations (Purser & Petranker, 2005).

Based on the shortcomings of radical, continuous and incremental change initiatives, many researchers suggest that, in order to respond to hyper-competition, contemporary organisations should not only concentrate on exploring new ideas for products or services for emerging markets, they should also exploit existing capabilities and competencies for their existing markets (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009; Li & Lin, 2008 van Woerkum, Aarts, & de Grip, 2008; Smith & Tushman, 2005; Zeisler 2003; Kitchen & Daly, 2002; Johnston, Fitzgerald, Markou, & Brignall, 2001; Tushman, 1997; Tushman & O Reilly, 1996).

In other words, to gain a competitive advantage, organisations must implement radical and continuous change (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009; Eisenbach, Watson & Pilla, 1999). These so called ambidextrous firms are capable of pursuing radical and continuous change programs simultaneously, thus positioning themselves as totally market oriented (Li & Lin, 2008).

Goodyear, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Ciba Vision, Hewlett-Packard and Asea Brown Boveri are prime examples of successful ambidextrous companies that simultaneously compete in mature markets through continuous changes and in emerging markets through discontinuous innovations (Li & Lin, 2008; Smith & Tushman, 2005; Tushman, 1997). Li and Lin (2008) further note that these ambidextrous firms succeed by separating their continuous and radical activities by unit or function.

However, despite the clear advantages of ambidextrous organisations, managers are faced by the dilemma of constantly changing the strategy and culture to meet current demands whilst also supporting radical changes, which may involve partially destroying the very structure that made the organisation successful to begin with (Tushman & O Reilly, 1996). Nevertheless, regardless of the change method used it can be argued that the success of any change initiative is also highly dependent on the leader’s ability to lead the organisation’s members through change (Gilley, Gilley, & McMillan, 2009; Long & Spurlock, 2008; Garg & Singh, 2006).

This is congruent with research by Woerkum et al. (2007) who further argue that it is essential for organisational leaders to link the change initiative to the overall strategic vision. Co-founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, is a great example of a visionary leader who has successfully instigated and implemented critical change initiatives with his ability to share and reinforce his strategic vision with the organisation’s members (Prange & Schlegelmilch, 2009).

In addition to change strategies and leadership abilities, Harel and Tzafrir (1999) also note that selecting and retaining key employees with the right attitudes and openness to change initiatives are also important when introducing and driving change. This in turn has lead to an increased interest in selection tools such as psychometric tests including ability and personality testing (Wesley, Thomas & Morris, 2009; Lyons, 2006; Holdeman, Aldridge, Jeffrey & Jackson, 1996).

In conclusion, based on the detrimental consequences often brought by radical and continuous change, such as resistance and employee burnout, contemporary organisations often seek to introduce painless change initiatives. However, as demonstrated throughout this essay, although painless change has its merits as it may decrease the risk of resistance and employee burnout, it is evident that incremental and planned change initiatives are inadequate to meet the demands of a dynamic environment.

Hence, the implications for contemporary organisations are clearly substantial. For organisations to gain a competitive edge, they must meet the demands of rapidly changing emerging and mature markets by pursuing radical and continuous change concurrently. Further findings from this evaluation support the conclusion that barriers to change such as employee resistance and burnout can be minimised through strong leadership and the appropriate selection of a workforce that thrives on change and innovative opportunities.

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