Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The scale and pace of change: radical or incremental – rapid or gradual?

The frequency change takes place in the external environment, and hence in the organisational context, is relentlessly increasing; change, nonetheless, can differently impact an organization operations, structures, processes and procedures. Albeit change, with the opportunities it offers and the treats it poses, is nowadays affecting all the organizations at large, irrespective of their size and sector of industry, the impact and effect it produces in practice upon these are normally quite different; as it is indeed variable the relevance of the effect produced by the different types of change implemented over time within the same business. In the light of this aspect, a hypothetical representation of the change continuum would not result in a flat horizontal line, but rather in an uneven line characterised by the presence of several and irregular up and down levels as showed in table 1.

Table 1
When the magnitude of change is intended to produce remarkable effects upon the business and the individuals concerned the extent of change is habitually deemed radical; by contrast, whether change is expected to not considerably impact the business it is regarded as incremental. It can be hence argued that radical change seriously alters and impacts the organization status quo at large and that it is thus feared and resisted the most by the employees. In contrast, incremental change being perceived by individuals as less pervasive, intrusive and invasive is likely to give raise to weaker restraining forces, if any, to change. As suggested by Gallivan et al (1994), incremental change can be broadly considered as having a limited impact on businesses and people in that it just entails adjustments, partial modifications or improvement to the current products, norms, procedures, structures and knowledge; whereas radical change usually implies remarkable modifications, if not a complete replacement, of these components and can be thus definitely perceived as invasive by the individuals concerned.

This dimension of change, that is to say the scale or size of change, is associated with the degree and intensity of the effects change is expected to produce in terms of perceptions upon the individuals concerned. The opposite sides of the scale of change have been called in different ways over time: evolutionary and revolutionary (Greiner, 1972), first-order and second-order (Bartunek and Louis, 1988), incremental and radical (Meyer et al., 1990), transitional and transformational (Wilson, 1992), first-level and second-level (Jabri, 1997) and continuous and discontinuous (Weick and Quinn, 1999).

Another important dimension of change is represented by the pace, that is to say the speed change can be introduced and executed in practice within an organization. With reference to this facet, going from one extreme to the other, it is generally considered that change can be introduced and executed within a business either gradually or rapidly.
In order to make appropriate decisions about the most suitable approach to change, managers have to carefully consider the two different main implications associated with this aspect: the employer ability to contrast the restraining forces likely to emerge and its capacity to eventually amend the intended plans en route in order to attain the desired outcome and avert that the overall process may end in failure.

The advocates of the rapid approach (Van de Ven, 1993 and Peters, 1993) contend that implementing change rapidly, leaving little or no room for hindrance, can effectually help employers to better counterbalance and contrast employee resistance to change. According to this viewpoint, the circumstance that the “probationary period” of change is brief contributes to make it easier for change to successfully pass it. Yet, at least supposedly, over a short period of time it is less likely that the restraining forces eventually emerging may successfully associate and unite in order to fiercely oppose and contrast change. Individuals would need a while before finding out whereas the proposed change might actually threaten their personal interest and have detrimental effects upon their status quo, ultimately pushing them beyond their comfort zone.
In the same fashion but taking a different, or rather, opposite viewpoint, the supporters of the incremental approach aver that introducing change over a long period of time ensures change a longer trial period during which managers can eventually identify anomalies and miscalculations and manage these accordingly. In this way, whether during the execution process managers should realise that plans are inconsistent with the pre-identified objectives and that more in general these are not going ahead as expected, to the detriment of the pursuance of the envisaged original programme, these would still be in time to make the necessary adjustments.

Relationship between the scale and pace of change
During the last decades researchers have tried to investigate whether a linkage or even a cause effect relationship might be identified between the size and pace of change. Albeit these different studies have led to different and sometimes even contrasting results, a common view about the existence of a certain relationship between the two dimensions seems to transpire.

Hammer (1990) contended that radical change can effectively and successfully be achieved only by means of a rapid implementation process; by contrast, Tyre and Orlikowski (1994) suggested that a gradual, phased implementation of change is necessary to attain the final desired objective. To this extent, it might reveal to be sorely interesting comparing two different approaches to change management, that is to say the culture-excellence approach with the Japanese methodology.

The advocates of the culture-excellence approach, aiming at fostering innovation and stressing the significance of the soft qualities of individuals, do not seem to have reached a common consent as for what concerns the rhythm change has to be introduced and implemented. Peters (1993), for instance, suggested that employers should adopt a “big bang” approach to radical change management: “change radically and do it quickly”; Handy (1986), in contrast, supported a more gradual approach to radical change: “big changes over a long period”; whereas Kanter et al (1992) argued that a blended approach, based on a mix of these two extremes, would have represented the most appropriate methodology to the implementation of radical change. According to the latter method invasive, remarkable changes, especially when these are affecting behavioural aspects, can successfully be achieved over a longer period of time only. Notwithstanding, the Authors also recognized that, albeit radical change can effectually be attained only in the long run, employers should also preferably put in place some initiatives aiming at yielding tangible, immediate results. This is basically why this approach to change is defined as a combination of “bold strokes and long marches.”
The Japanese approach, also called organisational learning, is essentially based on a more focused and structured method where the design phase of change is basically concerned with the identification and creation of a vision and the execution phase with the implementation of the activities considered necessary to move towards the desired position by means of incremental steps (Burnes, 2009). This actually is a methodology typical of the Kaizen philosophy to management, also known as lean production. This approach is underpinned by the idea that businesses, to improve the quality of their output or more in general to attain efficiency, have to introduce and implement change gradually and continuously. Products and performance enhancement are thus achieved by means of incremental rather than rapid change.
The Japanese methodology is based on the idea that plans have to be ambitious and overarching and have to be gradually, but relentlessly pursued till their successful attainment. Notwithstanding, Burnes (2009) suggests that the effectiveness of this approach is debatable in that it is unlikely to produce valuable results in western countries, such as the US and the UK, where businesses can successfully implement radical change over a short period of time and where a built-in aversion to long-term thinking, especially within the financial service industry, which plays a pivotal role in the life of many other organizations, seems to dominate. According to Cawsey et al (2012), the Japanese entrepreneurs actually learned this approach from US management researchers such as Duran and Deming. Irrespective of this fact, it can be hardly averred that Japan is a country unaffected by the pressure coming from the exogenous environment. Since the most recognised Japanese employers operate in the automotive and electronics industries it is indeed difficult to imagine that these might afford to be late of a single day vis-à-vis their competitors in terms of innovation or that these are immune to the market pressure. This approach may perhaps rather explain the reasons why the Japanese economy has experienced so many hardships during the last years. Yet, the circumstance that from time to time some Japanese automotive manufacturers have to retire from the market large numbers of cars on account of the detection of some technical problems might induce to think that this approach is lately showing some signs of weakness, but this is a completely different topic.

Focusing back upon the pace and scale of change subject, a definitely compelling question arises whether a direct relationship between these two dimensions of change can be actually identified in practice; and more in particular whether it could be assumed that both radical and incremental change have to be implemented at a specific, universally recognised and pre-identified pace.

Employers can actually decide, and sometimes even be practically obliged, to introduce change for a wide variety of reasons. Yet, change can relate to different aspects of the organisational life; technology advancements, the need to change the organisation of work and the way activities are performed within a business only represent a very few examples of how change can remarkably impact an organisation. Change can indeed affect deeper, more pervasive and intangible aspects of the organisational life which may require in turn trickier, profounder and more thorough interventions such as those aiming at transforming an organisation culture or structure in order to more effectually sustain the business strategy. It can be hence agreed with Newman (1998) that change, and not necessarily only radical change as she contended, “is a process by which firms regain competitive advantage after it has been lost”, or rather, since prevention is invariably better than cure, before it might be lost.
As organisational wants can clearly be different and the specific circumstances, which are subject to change over time, clearly play a remarkable role in change decisions, to avert an inevitable, dismal failure the one-size-fits-all approach has to be definitely excluded. This clearly entails that it would be pointless and even counterproductive trying to establish a universal, precise and predetermined link between the size and pace of change. After having identified for each specific project the size of change, one of the most important decisions managers have to make actually concerns the speed change has to be practically introduced and implemented, but this has to be set as suggested by the different circumstances and by no means according to what the alleged best practice might suggest.

To identify the most appropriate, suitable speed at which change has to be introduced, some particularly significant factors have to be thoroughly and carefully analysed: first and foremost the context. Both the internal and external context in fact sensibly impact employers’ decisions.

When in the mid-1990s Mr Jong-Yong Yun was appointed as the new Samsung Group President and CEO, for instance, to identify the most appropriate speed at which implementing change within the company he clearly had to take into due consideration both the pressure coming from the external environment and the internal conditions. Albeit the main key to success was in that case represented by the type of strategy Mr. Yun decided to adopt, based on fostering and instilling a generalised sense of crisis within the business, he would have not clearly been able to attain the predetermined objectives whether the speed of change implementation would have not supported the identified strategy.

Mr Yun had to face at the time particularly exceptional circumstances; the external environment was marked by a severe recession affecting the entire Asian region and the organisational context was sorely unprepared to face the current adverse conditions. A restructuring process leading to a workforce reduction of about a third of the existing staff, the recruitment of 1,000 employees composed of American MBA graduates and PhD-level engineers, the introduction of profound changes in the firm’s management structure and a huge investment in technology are clearly self-explanatory of the scale of change the company had to undergone. Albeit under such circumstances Mr Yun had not really that many options available to him and had to necessarily opt for a rapid pace of change, this example clearly bespeaks the relevance and significance that the contextual factor has for employers decision about the speed change has to be introduced (Instilling a sense of crisis – Crisis v Urgency in change management (Instilling a sense of crisis – Crisis v Urgency in change management).


The exogenous context
The Samsung example helps to show that the pressure exerted by the external context plays indeed a remarkable role in the decision-making process aiming at identifying the right pace of change. Nonetheless, for ludicrous it might seem to be, the grim exogenous circumstances can at times actually help employers to accelerate the speed of change without giving rise to relevant, if any, restraining forces. Whenever an employer initiative aiming at introducing change is dictated and imposed by the exogenous environment in fact change is much more likely to be accepted by individuals. In such circumstances the pace of change can be accelerated with little or no risk that this might be severely opposed by employees, who will certainly be much more incline to accept change despite this might require them to leave their comfort zone. Under these circumstances, properly communicating employees the reasons, scope and necessity for change and how this can effectively and genuinely help the business to stay afloat and competitive in the market is more crucial than usual.

The influence exerted by the external context may not clearly take only the form of economic or financial hardships; technological advances, new legislation and many other factors may indeed prompt employers to introduce sensible changes within their business over time.

The endogenous context
Irrespective of the circumstance that change may be deemed as radical or incremental, employers would invariably ideally prefer to introduce and implement change as quickly as they can. The pace of the implementation of change actually turns to be an issue for employers in that, whether inappropriate, this might favour the emergence of restraining forces. Yet, the larger the magnitude of change, the harsher the likely resistance opposed by individuals to it. The pace of change has hence to be duly identified and adapted to the circumstances by employers in order to prevent restraining forces to emerge or the worse comes to the worst to eventually effectually enable employers to contrast and curb these.

As properly claimed by Boddy (2008), albeit employers aim at introducing change to alter the organisational state of play, the organisational context can in turn, even remarkably, impact employers initiatives. This is basically why, based on the businesses environmental characteristics, Pettigrew et al (1992) made a distinction between receptive and non-receptive organisational context to change, which may respectively naturally favour or oppose change.
An organization receptiveness or unreceptiveness to change depends on a number of factors, amongst these a particularly remarkable role is played by organisational culture. Organizations whose culture is based on fostering and stimulating continuous development and where individuals are encouraged to contribute new ways of organising and performing their own job activities can clearly be considered receptive organisations. These habitually are not only constantly ready to change, but also prepared to its rapid implementation. Other examples of receptive organisations can be considered those businesses whose culture fosters the need and readiness to capitalize on the latest technological advances.

In Samsung, which is nowadays one of the most, arguably the most, valued and trusted global consumer electronics manufacturer, culture is still based on fostering a sense of crisis and urgency. The tenet underpinning this idea is that, even though the business is performing incredibly well at the moment, it might take little for the positive trend suddenly and abruptly go into reverse.
It can be ultimately argued that the rate of change should be sorely associated with the real need, awareness and perception the same employees develop about change.
It cannot and should not be overlooked that also the general and financial conditions of an organisation may play a role. Whilst individuals could accept, for instance, a rapid radical change whether the business is experiencing severe financial hardships, these might oppose change or prefer a phased, incremental approach in those cases in which the business is financially strong.

According to the type of change, the pace could also be influenced by its magnitude. Taking as an example the introduction of a business-wide new technology, a sudden and too fast implementation could very likely produce a series of downsides and a knock-on effect on employers too. Whether people would not be properly and appropriately trained and put in a position to comfortably deal with the new system and procedures before definitively using these, the consequences might be detrimental for both parties. Especially when change affects different levels and units of the business a rapid, revolutionary approach, rather than a phased and evolutionary one, can clearly risk paralysing a business’ operations.
All-in-all, it can be concluded that the pace with which change is introduced by employers should be as faster as it could be reasonably sustained and justified. Individuals are habitually much more willing to accept a faster pace of even radical change whether this is perceived and considered as appropriate, pertinent, functional, proportionate and reasonable to the circumstances and to the attainment of the preset and communicated objectives. The identified and communicated objectives need in turn to be supportable and objectively significant. According to the different viewpoints this can be indeed considered as somewhat of a virtuous or vicious circle.
Individual comprehension and understanding can be ultimately considered equal to individual acceptance; whether there are genuine, good reasons for introducing change just clearly explaining these to employees will dramatically increase the employers’ chances to succeed.
Longo, R., (2013), The scale and pace of change: radical or incremental – rapid or gradual?, Milan: HR Professionals, [online].