The history and future of change management

Over the past quarter of a century, change management has emerged, evolved and grown from foundational understandings, to conceptual underpinnings and on to a recognized discipline. Prosci’s research and experience suggests that in the coming years the focus will shift toward advancement along three fronts: • Increased collaboration of change disciplines • Enhanced organizational maturity development • Individual professional development

Four distinct eras mark the evolution and growth of the change management discipline:

  1. Pre-1990s: Foundations – Academics begin to understand how humans and human systems experience change
  2. 1990s: On the radar – Change management enters the business vernacular
  3. 2000s: Formalization – Additional structure and rigor codify change management as a discipline
  4. Going forward – Individual professional development and enhanced growth of organizational maturity emerge

Pre-1990s: foundations

The first era of change management was the period before 1990. During this period, the focus was on improving our collective understanding of human beings, how we experience change and how our human systems interact and react. This era provided crucial insights, research and frameworks for understanding successful change. Some of the primary contributors during this time include:

  • Arnold Van Gennep (1909) – a cultural anthropologist studying rites of passage around the globe who introduced change as happening in three states: separating from our current state, moving through a transition, and reincorporating into a future state (examples include adolescence, marriage, parenthood)
  • Kurt Lewin (1948) – a social psychologist who introduced three states of change – unfreezing, moving, and refreezing – as well as force field analysis
  • Richard Beckhard (1969) – a pioneer in organization development, defining the discipline as “an effort (1) planned,
  • (2) organization-wide, and (3) managed from the top to (4) increase organization effectiveness and health through (5) planned interventions in the organization’s ‘processes,’ using behavioral-science knowledge”
  • William Bridges (1979) – a speaker, author, and consultant who described the states of a transition as the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning

This list is certainly not exhaustive. Many other scholars from psychology, business, engineering and the social sciences added research and insights that helped shape our understanding of how people experience change. It is important to understand the roots.

1990s: On the radar

The second era of change management was the decade of the 1990s. During the “on the radar” era, change management began to enter the business vernacular. The people side of change moved out of the academic and exploratory space and into concepts discussed at project meetings, in C-Suites, and around boardroom tables. Language began to form around the discipline of change management, and many of the guiding principles that still guide the discipline were articulated. The first steps were taken to show that individual change does not happen by chance, but can be supported and driven with thoughtful and repeatable steps.

While there were many who contributed to putting change management on the radar, some of the most notable include:

  • Contribution of the Foundations era: An underlying understanding of how individuals and systems experience change.
  • General Electric (early 1990s) – as a recognized world leader, GE introduced the Change Acceleration Process as part of its larger improvement program
  • Daryl Conner (1992) – in his seminal work Managing at the Speed of Change, Conner provided invaluable insights on numerous change concepts and topics
  • Todd Jick (1993) – Jick’s Managing Change: Cases and Concepts included topical case studies and a chapter titled “Implementing Change” in which he shed light on the common pitfalls and introduced his Ten Commandments of Implementing Change
  • Jeanenne LaMarsh (1995) – LaMarsh’s work Changing the Way We Change developed concepts around the importance of the ability to change, the mitigation of resistance and the enabling frameworks for supporting change
  • John Kotter (1996) – first in a Harvard Business Review article and later in his book Leading Change, Kotter described eight change failure modes and subsequent steps to address them
  • Spencer Johnson (1998) – Who Moved my Cheese? presents the readers with a parable that addresses how people can deal with the changes happening around them and to them

During the 1990s, change management landed“on the radar” with concepts and language that began to take hold in mainstream management. Geopolitical forces, economic development, budding new value systems (think empowerment), and shifting employee-employer relationships set the stage for increased recognition of how important the human side of change was.

2000s: Formalization

The third era in the development of change management was that of the 2000s, leading up to the present. This era of change management was marked by the formalization of the discipline. Where the foundations era gave us underlying understanding, and the “on the radar” era gave us concepts and language, a shift occurred as we entered the new millennium. Growing out of a need for greater repeatability and structure, the change management discipline began adding formal structure and discipline on a number of fronts. Although founded in 1994, it was early in the 2000s that Prosci formalized and accelerated its research specifically in change management.

In 2003, Prosci introduced the first integrated approach to change management that leveraged organizational and individual change management processes and tools. The Prosci ADKAR Model, an individual change model, provided an outcome orientation to change management work: driving success one person at a time. The Prosci 3-Phase Process provided the structure, process and tools for creating customized change management strategies and plans. In 2005, Prosci started to formalize research and a platform for the innovators of the discipline who started working to embed change management as a core capability of their organizations.

There are three dimensions where this formalization can be seen more than any others:

  • Processes and tools: building on the underlying understandings and concepts that had been laid, practitioners began building and applying more rigorous structure to the work of change management, including more robust and repeatable processes and enhanced tools to support consistent application
  • Positions and job roles: organizations began creating specific jobs with a sole focus on applying change management on projects and initiatives (with significant growth since 2010)
  • Organizational functions: organizations began establishing and resourcing functions and structures to support change management application across the enterprise (such as a Change Management Office, Center of Excellence, or Community of Practice)

In addition to formalizing of processes and tools, positions and job roles, and organizational functions, steps were taken to formalize around the profession of change management during this era. Professional associations, standards and certifications emerged during this time (such as the Change Management Institute and the Association of Change Management Professionals).

Going forward

So, what comes next? The last 10 years have been marked by a meteoric rise in the awareness, understanding, application
and codification of the discipline of change management. We are sitting at a pivotal point on the journey, and Prosci’s research and experience indicates that the maturation will continue on a number of fronts.

Contribution of the Formalization era: Structure and definition, along with tools and processes, that provided repeatability and credibility to a growing discipline.

  • Front 1: continued incorporation and collaboration with related disciplines

Enhanced integration with project management was one of the top three trends identified by participants in Prosci’s 2015 benchmarking study. Integration will happen both at an initiative level (integrating CM and PM on Project X) and
at the organizational level (increased collaboration between PMOs and CMOs and the creation of standard integrated methodologies). Additionally, change management will continue to incorporate the latest technology related to change. These technologies include both the tangible sort, such as social media, and the intangible sort, such as learning around neuroscience. Prosci has recently contributed to leading PM and OD texts, reinforcing this collaboration.

  • Front 2: the increased focus on building organizational change capability

Just like raising a child, implementing successful change takes a village. Decades of research show just how important leadership, management and front-line associates are in times of change. Organizational change capability results not from a few expert specialists, but from within and throughout the organization. Enterprise Change Management – the term we use to describe embedding change capability into the organization – will become a central focus for many organizations and change leaders. This emphasis will expand past the innovators and early adopters, and start to infiltrate the early majority. Structured and intentional efforts to build individual change leadership competencies and to embed effective change practices into the fabric of the organization mark this shift in emphasis toward enterprise capability.

  • Front 3: the individual professional development of change professionals

In 2004, when Prosci began delivering our open enrollment Change Management Certification Program, we delivered one per quarter (four for the year). In 2016, hundreds of certification programs will take place in locations around the world. While the uptake of certification has been remarkable, we are seeing an even increased appetite for senior and experienced practitioners to continue their own personal development. Whether it is becoming an expert in applying change management in complex situations, architecting the approach to building organizational capability, or facilitating role-based training to increase the change leadership of others, advanced practitioners are yearning to improve their own and their organization’s capabilities.

What it means to you

You are sitting at a crossroads in the evolution of our discipline. You can choose which path to take, and there are increasing opportunities available for you to advance your own development. At the same time, you are an early adopter and subject matter expert in your organization – and you play a central role in raising the bar not only for yourself, but for your entire organization in how change is strategically lead and embraced. Finally, stay tuned-in and continue to learn about other emerging disciplines focused on improving change results, as this may be where significant growth and innovation for change management occurs.

Right now is an exciting time to be part of our discipline – enjoy the ride!

Are you interested in further reading?

Download: “The History and future of Change Management”