3 Strategies for Change Management: Which One is the Best?

3 Strategies for Change Management: Which One is the Best?

You believe that it is time to bring your organization out of the industrial era and into the digital age.

You’ve read a whole lot of books on the subject. You devoured a bunch of blog post too.

You know it is now time for an organizational change in your organization. You’re ready and willing. You’re pumped!

So… how do you proceed?

Change is a difficult subject to tackle, especially since people are a bit (okay, a LOT) weary about change. With good reasons too.

It’s hard for a company to reinvent its architecture. It’s even harder to implement a new one. The endeavor will face the full brunt of the organization’s immune system, competing personal agendas, danger from unexpected context changes, and the mighty power of truly apathetic people. Fun times.

Here are three strategies for change management. Each has their specific uses and knowing which one will save you lots of pain.

Big Top-Down Change

This strategy is a popular one. Not because it’s the best, not because it’s the safest and not because it’s the least traumatizing one. No, it’s the most popular because:

  • It can be managed just like a project, with big planning committees, lots of predictive planning, and good excuses to scrap the whole thing when it goes awry.
  • Many consulting firms prefer to work this way: big endeavor means you’ll need more help, and thus more revenues for the firm.
  • It’s a great way to focus attention. It can be on yourself. It can be away from something else. If your company is large enough, it can even be newsworthy! Perfect to hide something.
  • It keeps you in control.

This doesn’t mean that it can’t be the most appropriate form of change in many situations. It’s just that the bigger you go, the riskier it gets. If you want to go that route, then make sure you do it for the right reasons.

Use this strategy when:

When an organization needs to implement something across the board and do so in a specific manner, a Big Top-down change might be the way to go. Ex: A new governmental constraint for example or a new company initiative.

When the organization needs to do a major pivot quickly, this strategy may be appropriate. Pivots will cover changes in vision, or organization and maybe even the very nature of the work being done. In theses cases, there might now be a better way to implement the change. Mind the risks, however.

Avoid this strategy when:

Avoid this strategy if you can use another. Big top-down change seems safer because a lot of Very Intelligent People talked and planned and produced solid documents. They still often fail because the employees (and even people in upper management) don’t buy-in on the change and will resist it actively or passively.

Know the risks:

It is easy to plan such strategy and still fail miserably to communicate to the organization why it is important and why it has to be done this way. Communication is key here because any Big Top-down change is assured to elicit the most aggressive organizational immune response.

This risk can be mitigated by exchanging with the affected people well in advance, not just to inform them of what’s to come, but to allow them to express themselves and maybe even contribute in making the change less traumatizing for them. Getting any measure of buy-in from them will go a long way toward the success of the change endeavor.

Never underestimate the power of a large group of people dragging their feet.


When you want real change, but are very conscious of limiting the possible damage if something goes wrong, the bottom-up strategy allows you to drive small change increments and observing results before committing at a larger scale.

Use this strategy when:

If your organization already follow a kanban approach, then this will be the way to go, as kanban prefer small but constant improvement over large wide-scale efforts. That’s one way of looking at bottom-up changes; there are two others.

The second one is the small, controlled experiment approach. That’s the one favored by Modern Agile. Find a group willing to participate, ask them to adopt a small change for a set amount of time, then debrief with them and choose to permanently adopt it, drop it or tweak it and retry the experiment. This participatory way of conducting change doesn’t require a huge plan and will give you a lot of data moving forward. When you are done with one change, move on to the next.

The last type of bottom-up change is the grassroots effort. That’s when the people affected by the change request it and drives it. You can’t get better ownership than that, and you get it right from the start. Grassroots efforts can be fragile, however, especially when they cannot get the buy-in from higher-ups.

Avoid this strategy when:

When the buy-in from higher-ups is necessary and won’t be possible, don’t waste your time with the bottom-up approach.

Know the risks:

A lack of buy-in from decision-makers within the organization will doom any bottom-up change efforts. Same goes for lack of buy-in from those asked to participate.

“Weak” buy-in from decision-makers, that is a verbal support that isn’t backed by actions will only drive the organization’s immune system to target the change effort and squash it. Over the years, I saw many department directors asking for change but unwilling to ask HR, finances, PMOs and other such groups to allow for the exemptions to the standard rules needed for the change to be successful. I saw people courageously agreeing to step into a new demanding role just to be told later than that all duties from their old role were still expected of them.

Organic cohorts

Writers such as Frederick Laloux and Dave Gray and others argue in favor of a much more organic approach to change in an organization, even if the two have significantly different takes on it.

In his book The Connected Company, Dave Gray describe a model where self-organized groups (called “pods”) plug into a platform that defines the boundaries of what they can do independently and what is expected of them in return, creating a networked company. Called Podularity, the model essentially calls for the creation of franchise-like entities within your company.

This strategy calls for testing the change strategy in a receptive target group (your first pod), see how it goes, broadcast the benefits to reassure the organization. You then readjust your strategy based on what you have learned, and start with a second receptive target group.

You will notice that the platform will constantly grow and change based on the result of practice, observation and back and forth between the pods and management. If your organization is a bit larger, maybe you will end up with more than a single platform. That is totally fine.

This approach will create a living dynamic between upper management and the pods. The platform will stabilize after a while but will always keep this ability to grow and change to better adapt to your current reality in a far more natural way than initiation big changes.

Use this strategy when:

When you want to evolve your company toward a more self-organized, decentralized and adaptative model, this strategy truly shines. It turns upper management into stewards of a sort, rather than taskmasters. It creates more autonomous and engaged employees, who will be better at responding to any situation that is local to them.

Avoid this strategy when:

Organic cohorts change people. Avoid this strategy when you require only a temporary change and plan to go back to normal after a while. It would create a traumatic effect even more important as a Big Top-down change as your employees will feel betrayed to have been granted autonomy only to see it recanted without cause.

Know the risks:

Going toward self-organization and autonomy changes people and the dynamics of the social contract between employer and employees. While this isn’t a problem in itself, it can be a risk to an organization who doesn’t realize the depth of the change in expectation about the dynamics within the organization. Understand what these kinds of changes mean and start on this path only if you feel that you can live with them.

It’s important that your pods get their constraints from the platform and not from the usual sources from the rest of the organization. The reason for that if you ask a group to change but still forces them to conform to all the same rules and requirements as before, you are not only sending a mixed message but in many cases you are preventing the change from succeeding.

We see this situation with Agile transformation all the time: the company request that a group becomes Agile but instead of gathering to their specific needs they still force the group to conform to traditional financing models, conventional project management models, and so on. The Agile transition fails to deliver on its promises simply there was never a real change, just a chaotic mess of contradicting rules.

Getting Help

Change management isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not second nature to most people. Getting professional help is advisable. To that end, many organization hires external consultants (like me).

Getting the right help can be tricky. Many consultants are familiar with only a specific approach to change management and might not be equipped to advise you properly. Look for a versatile one with experience, rather than one branded to a specific approach.

Don’t hire a consultant to drive the change for you. Your organization should take ownership of the change, and the actual work should be done by internal people. This is the only way that the consultant’s expertise will pass on to your organization and allows you to reinforce and maintain the change over time without depending on the consultant.

Don’t keep the consultant for too long. The value of an external consultant over an internal change manager is as much the different perspective brought in than the expertise. Perspective needs to be constantly nourished by different experiences and will weaken when deprived of that diversity. I wrote a blog post on that very subject.

Getting rid of change management

Change management will always be traumatic to an organization, even when that trauma is lessened by using the right strategy. The only way to getting rid of it to move away from change management.

Continuous improvement is a different type of strategy to approach change. Kanban and agile teams are already using this concept, but nothing limits it to them.

In continuous improvement, every group, no matter its size, strives to improve itself, its members and the benefits it brings to the company. It’s an entirely decentralized approach to change and adaptation that allows an organization to adapt and evolve as needed to better respond to its context while still following a vision.

I’ll discuss more organizational continuous improvement soon, so stay tuned!

3 Strategies for Change Management: Which One is the Best?
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3 Strategies for Change Management: Which One is the Best?
Best 3 Strategies for Change Management you should know the organic approach to change in an organization.
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