Organisational change, transition or reinvention. Is there a difference?

By Marius van Wyk, business consultant and founder of Afrinomix Consulting

Jun 5, 2018

Introduction

In the previous blogposts I’ve discussed the complexities, challenges and imperatives of organisational change, and how the starting of a movement is considered a “mission critical” precondition for change. However, I’ve been using the words “change” and “transition” interchangeably, while at some point   alluding to the “reinvention” of a company. One would assume these concepts are merely synonymous, after all implying the same principle. But are they? Not necessarily. Before we continue our discourse on organisational change, I think it would be necessary to pause for a few moments pondering the real meaning of these concepts and to reach consensus on our vocabulary going forward.

Organisational change

In trying to explain how we should understand the concept of organisational change, I turn to John Kotter’s seminal work and international bestseller, Leading Change (2012). As we all know, Kotter is widely recognised as a thought leader on organisational change and transformation. Interestingly, the first chapter of this book is titled “Transforming organisations: why firms fail”, and then he lists organisational change projects (or efforts) such as reengineering, re-strategizing, mergers, downsizing, quality improvements and cultural renewal (pp.3). Moreover, working through his famous eight-step change framework, I can’t help but to assume that Kotter is using “change” and “transformation” interchangeably. That means that organisational change does actually refer to or implies transformation. We could say that organisational change and transformation are mutually inclusive concepts, or events. By definition, events that cannot occur independently from each other are said to be mutually inclusive.

Organisational transition

William Bridges, considered a preeminent authority on change and famous for his transition model, draws a clear distinction between organisational change and transition. To him the concepts of “change” and “transition” are not to be used interchangeably. Change is transactional, such as changing technology/systems, merging two or more entities, improving efficiencies, or even changing a company’s customer service orientation. Transition on the other hand, is psychological. Managing transition involves more than changing things, but the process of helping people through the phase of letting go/giving up their old reality to embracing a new reality – or in fact, a new identity. With change one naturally focusses on the outcome that change produces. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome per se, but the ending you will have to make to leave the old situation behind (Bridges & Bridges, 2017).

Organisational reinvention

The reinvention of an organisation is a process that involves the adaptation of a new business model or differentiating itself into a new industry where its existing competitive environment becomes irrelevant.  This is most often an ongoing process of change and reinvention, like Nokia who through mergers moved from a paper milling to rubber boots to eventually become the biggest mobile phone producer (before its demise). Another example is oil giant Shell, which started as a small business selling seashells. Berkshire Hathaway started way back as a manufacturing company, and now is known as Warren Buffet’s investment powerhouse. Based on the above, I consider it appropriate to argue that change can sometimes include the reinvention (or redesign) of an organisation.

Conclusion

My view is that organisational change, whether in the form of introducing/changing new processes or technology, merging with another company, etc., may or may not go hand in hand with reinvention. However, change (or transformation), including reinvention, should necessarily always involve transition. That is the process of helping people through the change – moving from one reality to the next. From my own experience, having been involved in several organisational change projects, I know all too well that any change (or transformation) effort without transition is doomed to fail. Going forward in my discourse on organisational change, we may safely assume organisational change to include transition.

 

References

Bridges, W. & Bridges, S. (2017) Managing transitions. Making the most of change. Nicholas Brealey Publishing: New York.

Grant, R. (2016) Contemporary strategy analysis. John Wiley & Sons: West Sussex.

Kotter, J. (2012) Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston MA.

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