Introducing and implementing change, irrespective of its scale, habitually proves to be a daunting task for the managers and professionals involved. What typically lies at the root of the failure of most of the projects aiming at introducing and implementing change is indeed their lack of accurate planning. Albeit many individuals are nowadays genuinely aware of the importance of introducing change and of how inevitable it actually is, insofar as every so often change initiatives are proposed by the same individuals eventually affected by it, people at large tend to avert change.
One of the most significant phases of the preparation of a change project is definitely represented by the correct identification of its level, or rather, levels of intervention. The concept of “level of intervention” is actually borrowed from Organization Development, which can be in many important respects regarded as a broader and more pervasive “total system” form of change management intervention. The main difference between Change Management and OD is that whereas the former takes care of the effects the introduction of change may produce upon individuals, the latter aims at aligning the ever-changing business strategy with internal readiness to effectually pursue it in practice. It can be contended that both of them aim, albeit to a different degree, at enhancing organizational effectiveness.
The concept of “level of intervention” is essentially associated with the precise and correct identification of the target groups a planned change is aimed at, which clearly represents one of the most significant phases of change management planning, somewhat of a prerequisite before developing a concrete and realistic plan of action for the introduction of change into an organization. It is indeed hardly conceivable that change might be planned before having identified the people impacted by it and the benefits it is intended to provide to the individuals concerned.
Change can actually affect an individual, a group or a whole organization. Duly taking heed of this particular aspect and developing the plan of action accordingly is of paramount importance for the production of the desired outcome of the overall change management project. As contended by Cheung-Judge and Holbeche (2015), each initiative is intended to produce the desired results according to the different levels of the system it is directed at. Developing a plan of action accurate for a level of the system, but implementing it at a different level of the system is clearly destined to result in a dismal failure.
According to some OD founders, the different levels of the system at which change agents can actually intervene, typically known as the “focus” or “units” of change, are:
- Total organization, intergroup, single group or team, dyad or triad, role and person (Schmuck and Miles, 1976);
- Larger social system, organization, intergroup, group, individual (Blake and Mouton, 1985);
- Group, interpersonal and individual (Reddy, 1994).
Some of the descriptions of the different levels of a system provided include the prefix “inter” already. By enabling change management practitioners to derive two different sub-layers from the main ones identified, the use of the prefixes “inter” (between) and “intra” (within) can indeed help them to comprehensively detect the different layers of a system. The sub-layers produced by the system level “individual” or “person”, for instance, are “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal”, the former term refers to the relationship existing between two or more individuals, whereas the latter to an individual taken in isolation.
Intervening in a single level of the system would prove not to be enough so that change practitioners should seriously consider, according to the data available to them, intervening in different levels of the system at once. It is broadly acknowledged that to ensure the introduced change to be sustainable, the intervention should ideally cover no less than three levels of a system (Cheung-Judge and Holbeche, 2015).
The Group Dynamics theory developed by Lewin (1944, 1947) can effectively help change practitioners (and indeed OD practitioners) to gain a deeper understanding of how crucially important the correct identification of the right levels of a system and the overarching knowledge of the interrelationship existing between these are, for the development of a viable and successful plan of action aiming at introducing change.
The findings of the experimental studies conducted by Lewin (1944) revealed that individual decisions are sorely affected by the decision of the group to which these belong. Individuals having a personal negative attitude towards a proposed change, after a favourable group decision, took a more positive stance on the change. Group decisions thus contribute an individual the motivation to cooperate as a member of the group for the attainment of the common objective, to the detriment of his/her personal preferences and tendencies.
This type of individual behaviour clearly accounts for the group or team to gain efficiency; this result, nonetheless, is obtained dealing with each individual as a group member and not working with individuals taken in isolation. Lewin studies suggest that it is relatively more straightforward to change individual cultural habits and attitudes by working with groups rather than with individuals. Yet, so strong is the link naturally established between an individual motivation and his/her group decision as to having a positive impact on the practical implementation of the decisions made by the group and on the individual respect of the new norms eventually emerging from the group decisions. This is indeed a process very similar to that organizational culture develops. Once the shared values and beliefs are accepted by all of the individuals forming a group, these become norms and their strength reinforce with the passing of time, hence the difficulty to change organizational culture. The powerful influence exerted by a group on the individuals forming it can be consequently taken as axiomatic.
Whether change practitioners should deal with a single individual to foster and execute change, these should be well aware that the effect of their work is destined to vanish into thin air once the person in question will go back to his/her group. The influence exerted by his/her group is highly likely to prevail over any other external influence.
This groups’ feature should not be necessarily regarded positively, it has in fact some considerable downsides, the most significant of which is represented by the possible emergence of the so-called groupthink syndrome. The circumstance an individual complies whit the prevailing group viewpoint may prevent innovation in that individuals may refrain from proposing new ideas for fear of these being rejected by the group.
It can be contended that all of the layers or levels of a system are linked and interrelated. The successful introduction and implementation of change is not only considerably affected by the dynamics characterizing a group, but also by the impact that the change planned for a layer may have upon the other layers of the system.
Identifying the immediate or direct target of a change project does not hence suffice in that the planned change is highly likely to impact other units or teams within the business, never mind the whole organization. Do not carefully considering and timely dealing with the consequences the change intended for a layer may potentially have on the other layers of the system would definitely represent a major blunder, which can produce irreversible catastrophic effects.
This is actually the reason why many change projects, especially restructuring projects, fail. Once the primary target layer has been identified, it is of paramount importance to determine the organizational units or functions which may be affected by the execution of the change programme. This may require processes to be reviewed, senior and middle management competencies to be complemented with additional skills or some HR practices to be adapted (Cheung-Judge and Holbeche, 2015). The list of activities to be performed can clearly be much longer so that change practitioners should act as risk managers in this case and give to each activity a different level of priority so as to perform the identified tasks in the most appropriate order, as required by the circumstances.
It is crucially important that every aspect concerning the change initiative is duly taken into consideration and that the interdependencies between units and functions are all investigated and the issues eventually emerged properly addressed.
It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a change project directly impacting the Market Management and Sales functions of an insurance company would not make a considerable impact on its Underwriting and Claims functions, and in turn on their (directly managed or outsourced) Call-centre. This is just a general example, but it is self-explanatory of how the change projects managed within any given function of an organization are likely to impact others.
Lewin’s Group Dynamics theory essentially holds that whether the object of change is an individual, at least the group or team to which this belongs has to be also regarded as the direct object of change. Notwithstanding, it is hardly believable that the activities performed by a group within an organization’s function do not impact the activities performed by other groups within the same function or other functions of the organization. For the successful introduction and implementation of change it is of paramount importance that these interdependencies are timely identified so as to develop the most appropriate plan of action and avert having to deal with foreseeable issues during the change implementation process. This does not clearly entails that the execution of change is immune from problems, always expect the unexpected, but duly taking heed of all the variables which may affect the implementation of change during its preparation can definitely enable every individual handling change to considerably reduce the chances of failure.
It can be finally taken as axiomatic that identifying the immediate objective of change does not suffice; since the very beginning of the change preparation phase it is hence absolutely necessary to identify the different levels of the systems which will be affected, directly or indirectly, by the change initiative so as to develop the appropriate plan of action. Also in change management, prevention is definitely better than cure.