Emergent Change: Shifting to a complexity paradigm

The traditional approach to organizational change has been a tightly planned process with objectives established by top management. This planned approach to organizational change is reinforced with the publication of numerous best practice case studies for change, detailed guides for leading the neophyte through the change wilderness, and studies of what is needed to remove barriers (mainly employee resistance) to proposed change. Yet the majority of these change efforts fall far short of the objectives that were set by the proponents of the change. When examining the underlying assumptions for these planned approaches to change there is a high reliance on two fundamental models of change: teleology (planned) and dialectic (establishing a conflict that points in a new direction) processes. Both are driven by a further assumption, that being the ability to control the change process. This attitude toward control is deeply embedded in our culture, which has been shaped by the industrial and scientific revolutions.

There is an underlying belief in our ability to identify the points of leverage and then be able to manipulate those points of control at will. Over time there has been minimal demonstration of success, but a sufficient amount to reinforce the belief that planned change is possible and failure is nothing more than an aberration that can be corrected next time. Further, when there has been success it has been more transactional and not fundamental, transformative change.

An alternate approach to organizational change is to treat change as an emergent process. This concept is driven by insights from complexity theory and organizational learning theory. In this approach, a more holistic view is taken of organizational change with increased emphasis on building fundamental capabilities that will be available when the organization is facing environmental pressure toward changing. Teleological approaches to change are deemphasized while understanding is sought regarding the evolutionary and life cycle processes at work in the organization and how they might be influencing events. The dialectic change model is also treated differently. Approaches using a program of planned change use dialectics to create dissonance between the current state and that being proposed. If successful, change is possible from a conflict between the thesis and antithesis, but may be directed toward an unforeseen state that is a synthesis of possibilities. An emergent approach would seek to establish a number of possibilities with wide ranging diversity.

Emergent Change
The dominant paradigm for organization change is the planned model where visioning, action planning, and implementation are all within managerial control. Shaw (1997) stated that this model is based upon an unquestioned assumption that the current system was created through purposeful intention and that additional actions can alter conditions again. An alternate description of planned change is that it is an attempt by the formal organization to alter an organizational system previously established by the informal organization in response to both formal intentions and environmental influences. The potential benefit of approaching organizational change through an emergent process raises the question of why emergent change is not seen more often.

Research by Gephart shows that we may be looking at emergent change, but not seeing it. The explanation given by the author is the stronger expectation of planned change on the part of the consultants who were directly involved in seeing that the process of planned change was successful. Managers had less at stake in advocating planned change. However, even the managers interpreted the past in a lexicon used by those involved in advocating planned change. The effect of the strong paradigm of planned change was so great that it filtered the past when being summarized for future use. The stories had all the elements of emergence, yet the summary fit the methodology expected by planned change.

"The results of this research suggest that an emergent learning process may be the norm in large-scale transformational change, even when an emergent learning model is not the mental model guiding change" (Gephart, 1998). It is easy for top managers to be trapped by a planning paradigm having spent years involved in a formal strategic planning cycle with others believing in their ability to control the organization’s future. All actions and events are examined within that paradigm with great effort required to prevent the interpretation expected by the paradigm.



Shaw, P. (1997).  Intervening in the shadow systems of organizations: Consulting from a complexity perspective.  Journal of Organizational Change Management, 10, 235-250, 237.

Gephart, M. A. (1998).  Implementing high performance work systems: Planned change or an emergent learning process?  In Change Processes in Organization (pp. 420-426), 426

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