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Why Change is So Complicated

In spite of the efforts of managers and advisors, all too often everything stays the same. Why is it so difficult to change organizations consciously?

We still know little about planned organizational changes. It's certain that these changes are difficult to plan, manage and predict. More than 70% of the planned changes in organizations get stuck or don't deliver the intended result and things aren't going much better outside. More than 75% of the changes that were identified (afterwards!) Were not planned or intended. These interpretations are important because managers and advisors tend to overestimate the controllability and planability of changes.

Irrationality is part of it

On the basis of a number of theories and concepts, we explain why change is so complicated. They emphasize the irrational aspects of change processes or rather, the existence of different rationalities that sometimes escape the eye of a manager.

These theories and concepts can be contradictory on some points. Characteristics of bureaucracies and professional organizations seem to be opposite. But there are also interesting similarities. Are the ambiguities of loosely coupled systems the result of individual interests and motives? Does strong emphasis on planning lead to a loose coupling of behavior and views?

Loosely coupled systems

Loosely coupled systems occur in situations in which elements in a system don't respond to each other very often or slowly. The concept indicates the ambiguity and variability of the relationships between people and (parts of) organizations.

Take a look at the following quote:

"Imagine yourself as the referee, captain, player or spectator of an unusual football game. The field on which the match is played is round. There are various targets that are scattered randomly around the round field. People can participate in the competition and leave whenever they want. They can bring balls into the game whenever they want, they can say, "That's my goal," whenever they want, as often as they want and for as many goals as they want. The entire game is played on a sloping playing field and the game is played as if it's significant ".

Ambiguous goals, work processes and responsibilities

This quote is widely applicable to many organizations. It shows how ambiguous, or ambiguous, organizations are. Whether it concerns those involved, objectives or work processes. Three things stand out in the quote:

- goals are vague and multi-interpretable. They 'cover' a varied variety of activities and actions. Many business plans and policy plans contain such vague, ambiguous goals
- work processes are also ambiguous. It's therefore difficult to judge whether someone has done something right or not. This's specially applicable to the service. What's good education?
- tasks and responsibilities are unclear. There are subtle differences between thinking along, listening in and making decisions, between responsibility and ultimate responsibility.

The concept of the loosely coupled systems puts the image of the organization or a change process into perspective as a consciously designed machine. Does that mean that there's no point in planning at all? That you shouldn't ask about people's views? No. However, the concept of the loosely coupled systems indicates that you must always establish a relationship with (future) reality. Ask yourself, "Is this realistic? Is this feasible? Am I really going to do that? "

Rigid bureaucracies

A bureaucratic organization is rather rigid. Changing such an organization is therefore no easy task. Bureaucratic organizations are particularly strong in legal equality and legal certainty.

The main principles of bureaucratic organizational theory are:

- an organization is best organized on the basis of rational considerations
- the organization is organized pyramid-wise, with one person at the top
- the authority of the leadership is legitimate and isn't questioned
- planning and control are the basis for control
- rules are created and enforced
- employees are seen as (replaceable) means of production.

Changing bureaucracy

Organizations with many bureaucratic characteristics are relatively insensitive to impulses. Both inside and out. They've a low adaptive capacity; they're quite rigid. Changing in these types of organizations means changing rules, enforcement and control. This's difficult and time consuming. People easily develop mechanisms to get out of rules. In bureaucratic organizations it's very important that management supports the change.

Strong points bureaucracy

The bureaucracy has its strong points. Bureaucracy:

- is an instrument in the fight against uncertainty and arbitrariness
- provides a measure of predictability
- is an instrument for legal equality and legal certainty
- enables collaboration and indirectly supports individual freedom (together we stand strong)
- offers some predictability, leadership and planning that are also important in change processes.

Stubborn, unmanageable professionals

Thinking about organizations has been strongly influenced by the theory of bureaucracy. In this theory, controlling, controlling, standardizing, efficiency and hierarchy are the dominant principles.

What are professionals?

For example, doctors, teaching staff, researchers and engineers. They've been learned, or have learned a lot. They know (best) how to practice their profession. They decide how they treat clients. They learn by doing and from each other. They often identify more with the profession and profession they practice than with the organization they work for.

Managing professionals is a profession in itself. Because professionals:

- don't accept leadership, challenge leadership legitimacy and decisions
- are allergic to anything that smacks of bureaucracy, bosses and policy (the three angry B's)
- monitor their managers' operations with suspicion
- question the competence of management in public
- don't tolerate public criticism from management of their own performance.

Professionals make decisions based on consensus. Rather not a decision, than a decision that one of the valued colleagues can't agree with. The self-cleaning ability in professional organizations is low. A blundering fellow professional isn't easily addressed and when management intervenes, they close ranks.

Professionals change

Well-functioning professionals:

- are critical of themselves and their own work
- reflect regularly and change their approach or attitude if they consider it useful
- consult with colleagues and sometimes take over things from each other
- innovate and change under your own power and from within.

Pocket veto: say yes, do no

Employees can't carry out an assignment, task or request without telling their boss. In principle, this means that every employee has a veto in the pocket; the pocket veto.

The following example is a nice illustration of a pocket veto:

Boss Jan sees employee Piet do something that boss Jan isn't so happy with. It can be about the way in which Piet deals with a customer or a client or with a colleague. Jan thinks that "that is no longer possible today" and asks Piet to discuss this. In that conversation, Jan explains why he thinks that Piet's behavior or actions can't be tolerated. In turn, Piet explains why it's right and why his actions were very adequate. Jan explains his view on this again. Piet his again too. They end the conversation and Jan thinks: "I made that clear to Piet". Piet thinks: "Now Jan will understand better."

Pocket vetos occur in all organizations. You get the phenomenon for free as a result of (excessive) use of hierarchy and pressure. If there's a lot of 'pocket veto', the top turns loose from the workplace. Two worlds arise that have little to do with each other.

Employees often subconsciously apply pocket vetoes. As a rule, they aren't intended as sabotage or resistance. It's a means for employees to (continue to) do the right things for customers or clients. "After all, the boss can't know everything. If we do what the boss wants, we lose the customer. Ignorance is bliss."

Avoid pocket vetos

Pocket vetos are avoidable. They don't arise in an organization where there's room for dialogue, respect and acceptance. If management doesn't impose or enforce its will, employees won't be easily inclined to create their own world.

Power and action: everyone for themselves...

It's said that people only act out of self-interest. Every person would only keep their own interests and goals in mind and pursue them purely individually.

The supposed irrationality of situations disappears when you analyze the events from the individual positions and interests of individuals and parties. Pay attention to socio-political processes such as:

- power formation
- preserving and increasing influence
- forming coalitions
- seeking compromises
- negotiate
- black Petes
- keep the powder dry.

An image emerges in which power formation and conflicts are inevitable. Conflicts arise when individual goals and interests aren't in line with those of other persons or a collective. The organization or change as an unambiguous collaborative system or operation doesn't fit in with that.

How come

Something has been dormant for years. Only then does the need for a change arise. Events, ideas and developments precede this.


In search of the engines behind change, four clusters of theories serve you:

- life cycle theories: change is a natural, organic development
- teleological theories: change is a process of developing and implementing vision, after which new goals and visions emerge
- dialectical theories: change is a clash between opposing ideas, a play of synthesis and antithesis
- evolution theories: the strongest survives, after which variation occurs again.


The change, as it were, comes naturally from this engine. But what's the fuel for this change engine?

- The context: characteristics in the environment and history of an organization
- The reason: a sudden event makes opportunities and possibilities visible
- The philosophies: ideas, beliefs and norms give meaning to the context and the reason
- The interpretation of these influencing factors will depend on your own perspective.

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