7 Ways to Approach Change

November 30, 2016
Editor @CforST

When it comes to leading change, it’s always good to have a varied toolbox. The trick is knowing which approach is most likely to produce good results—including the result of how people react to the process.

The VISIS Method and Appreciative Inquiry are two commonly used approaches to change, especially in sustainability circles. They can arguably achieve similar outcomes, though they might appeal to different kinds of groups. And there are many, many other specific approaches to change, of course. In fact, it’s a bit of a jungle out there.

To navigate that jungle we use a model that we have adopted from management consultant Léon de Caluwé, to differentiate between seven general ways to approach change. Most of the specific methods that we know about fall into one of these seven categories (or some combination of them).

These seven ways lead to very different ways of looking at any given situation. They lead to different planning actions and different ways of relating among the people involved. Let’s elaborate a bit on the differences.

1. Following a plan
Map a path from now to later: Think, do, check, and deal with problems/resistance
Anyone familiar with project management knows this approach very well. Generally you start by describing the intended future outcome, as precisely as possible. In an organizational context this description often comes directly from the leadership. The organization wants to become more efficient, grow by X percent, implement a new software package, build a new ware- house, install a recycling system, publish a sustainability report. . . . The task of achieving that outcome is given to a responsible project manager or to a team, and they sit together to draft a clear project plan. They identify resources, assign responsibilities, set milestones, and create a mechanism for monitoring progress.

2. Enforcing the future
Install a system of carrots and sticks, incentives and punishment
This model had its origin in the psychologi- cal school of behaviorism. The focus is on behavior, and the core belief is that if we support desired behavior with incentives and praise, and block unwanted behavior though punishment, people will tend to behave in the desired way. All incentive mechanisms in companies (giving bonuses, for instance) follow this way of thinking, but so do market mechanisms, such as emissions trading: A company is rewarded monetarily when it reduces its pollution because it can sell excess emission rights and is punished when its pollution rises.

3. Negotiating the outcome
Play the politics: “what’s in it for you?” and “what’s in it for me?”
When negotiating, people come together to search for a common future that will not disrupt their individual interests and trajectories too much. This model for approaching change is often used by representatives who stand for the interests of a large group. Most political decision-making processes seem to follow this model. Consider the big United Nations climate change conferences: Political representatives from different countries are bound by their national interests but try to find a way forward together on the international level.They trade concessions and search for clever language and solutions that can satisfy all the actors. If the negotiation process is successful, a stable compromise and agree- ment is found. This process is often very slow, and the concluding agreement doesn’t automatically lead to change, as implementation and even monitoring are often subject to continuous negotiating and the weighing of individual interests against common objectives.

4. Creating change together
Participatory development: meet, talk, listen, and decide to act, together
This approach to change is vision-, consensus-, and dialogue-based. It is used when there is a need for real buy in (full acceptance and committed participation) by differ- ent stakeholders. Sometimes, for the change to be both optimal and sustainable, everyone affected needs to be involved and consulted throughout the whole process. Say you want a sales department to refocus their strategy on new market opportunities. Certainly this could just be planned or enforced, top down, by the head of the sales department. But if you engage the whole department, and gain their enthusiastic participation, you can tap into much more of their experience and creativity. Or suppose you’re trying to make labor market rules more humane in a specific region. If you don’t get all the stakeholders “bought in,” from the public, private, and civil sectors, the whole initiative will likely be in danger.

5. Enabling spontaneous growth
See what is sprouting or flourishing already, and support it
Sometimes the system we need to change is so large and complex that it becomes impossible to foresee the results of any initiative. In such cases it might be helpful to observe the system closely and try to set change in motion, but give the system freedom to explore its own options. You keep observing, and when positive changes begin to occur (more or less sponta- neously), you support and reinforce their growth. This approach assumes that the intelligence of the system as a whole is greater than the intelligence of the individuals who are trying to change it. Imagine, for example, that you are the change agent trying to drive a municipality toward greater sustainability. Trying to plan, enforce, negotiate, or even cocreate change in a wide variety of local industries, schools, neighborhoods, and associations would be far too complicated, especially for your small budget. So you observe where sustainability-related change is already occurring and then announce a little competition, to give the best initiatives a prize and some recognition. This accelerates a process already in motion and stimulates others to come up with new ideas that you, as a change agent, might never have identified.

6. Being visionary
Plant seeds for change with dreams, images, and emotions
This approach focuses more on being rather than doing. Nelson Mandela did not do very much during his twenty- seven years in prison on Robben Island. But by being who he was, holding a clear vision, and expressing it through his behavior as well as his words, he became a monumentally successful agent of change in South Africa. As the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

But we don’t need to be Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi to use this approach. Being visionary is about winning over the hearts of people with a compelling picture of a better future, so they naturally want to contribute with changes in attitude and behavior. To use this approach we need to be clear about our own vision: Do we have one? Do we really express it fully? It doesn’t have to be about changing a whole country; it could be about changing your company, or your department. The visionary approach helps people continue moving in the desired direction, even when times get tough and the inevitable doubts arise.

7. Facilitating generative dialogue
Use deep conversation to let go of old patterns and enable new understanding to emerge
In many deeper change processes, and especially those that require a change in culture, you come to a point where all the reasons and answers people come up with don’t seem to touch the source of the issue. In fact, staying at the level of reasons and answers appears to be part of the problem itself. This is an indicator that you are stuck in a paradigm—a deeply held set of beliefs about how reality works—and you won’t be able to find your way out of it by using the logic and reasoning of that paradigm. Albert Einstein once said that no problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it. In order to create a paradigm shift, a move to an entirely new way of thinking, you need a specific approach for thinking together. Generative dialogue is a way of engaging with others in which you (a) create the ability to observe and reflect on the way you are thinking, while you think together; (b) develop the flexibility to let go of patterns of thinking; and (c) create a sense of openness and attentiveness that allows new patterns to emerge and be recognized.

Obviously you can blend different approaches to change, and if we were to keep digging, we might come up with some additional approaches, too. But sometimes it’s good to know when to stop cataloging and start reflecting.

We suggest that you take some time and consider this question: Which of these seven approaches do you use most often, or feel yourself gravitating toward most strongly?

Each method has its strengths in specific situations, but they all have limitations in other circumstances. They are all tools, and (as we said) it’s good to have a varied toolbox.


ParachutingCatsintoBorneo_cover-copyThis blogpost is based on excerpts from Parachuting Cats into Borneo – And Other Lessons from the Change Cafe, written by Center for Sustainability Transformation founders Axel Klimek and Alan AtKisson. Learn more about the book here.