Change Management as Unconscious Competence: What Does It Take to Get There?


This is the third of four posts exploring the possibility of change management as an unconscious competence. In the first post (What If Change Management Were An Unconscious Competence? ), I presented the four stages of competence model and used it as a lens to consider the state of organizational change management ability. I observed that Stage Four organizations – ones where change management has evolved to the level of an unconscious competence – are rare but do exist.

In the second post (Change Management Evolved), I explored what we would see if we were to encounter a Stage Four organization. In this post, I will present what I believe it takes to develop Stage Four competency.

Like any form of superior human achievement, reaching Stage Four requires effort and discipline. Superior achievement doesn’t happen by chance. Additionally, however, in an organizational setting where many people in different units are involved, there are other elements that must be added to effort and discipline to complete the formula. I have identified six such elements that help to make Stage Four attainable.

Six Elements Essential to Evolving Your Organization’s Change Competency

  1. A Common Methodology

The first element necessary to evolve your organization toward Stage Four competency is a common change management methodology. A simple definition of methodology describes it as a system of ways of doing something. However, methodologies have several important qualities that make them more than just that.

    • A methodology provides users with a roadmap. A road map informs users of what to do and when and how to do it. A methodology that is scalable is especially important for change management because organizational changes have different magnitude and impact.
    • Methodologies incorporate best practices that emerge from their application over time and in diverse situations, so an organization that embraces a methodology and applies it consistently takes advantage of the best practices that have been baked in.
    • Methodologies inform the order of events and indicate the appropriate application of tools and techniques associated with various steps. The arbitrary or haphazard application of tools and techniques – no matter what the discipline – does not lead to the development of common competence.
    • There is research evidence that a methodology that is applied consistently shortens learning curves, reduces unnecessary trial and error behavior, results in more time spent on-purpose, and increases the likelihood of success.

If you want your organization to evolve to Stage Four change management competency, then having a rich and scalable change methodology is an indispensable element of your employees’ development.

  1. Common Language

This second element is inseparable from common methodology. As I noted in the previous post (Change Management Evolved), common language and common understanding of concepts facilitate cooperative behavior. Disciplines such as engineering, accounting, medicine, and law share terms and common understanding of concepts rooted in language that facilitate working together. For example, our judicial system functions across locations and levels because attorneys, judges, and staff all understand the difference between such matters as pleadings and motions or depositions and declarations.

The very same is true in change management. For example, if someone were to ask whether a stakeholder analysis had been completed for a proposed change, would there be common understanding of what a stakeholder is, why stakeholder analysis is important, what information it would provide, and how that information would be used to support and manage change?

If your objective is Stage Four change management competency, then common language and what results in terms of common understanding of concepts and actions is another essential element.

  1. Common tools

Another element directly related to and inseparable from common methodology is common tools. If methodology informs users of what to do and how to do it, then tools become a methodology’s chief means of operationalization.

Change management tools come in a variety of forms – assessments, templates, guides, checklists, outlines, presentations, samples, tip sheets, reference documents, case studies, etc. They serve three additional important purposes.

    • First, they enable users to execute a variety of essential change tasks such as evaluation, forecasting, strategizing, planning, communicating, chartering teams, conducting key conversations, etc.
    • Second, they educate users about a particular aspect of change management. Why is a business case for change necessary and what elements comprise it? How should a manager address deeply concerned or resistant employees? Why is meaningful engagement important and where and how should opportunities for engagement be structured?
    • Third, common tools strengthen consistent application. For example, having a common business case template ensures that users across different projects will produce a business case based on the same elements and will have done the same level of due diligence.

Common tools underpin common practice, and together with methodology and language they become a mutually reinforcing system that promotes the competency acquisition necessary to achieving Stage Four.

  1. Widespread meaningful engagement

Change management’s purpose is often commonly thought of as creating buy-in. In my opinion, buy-in (defined in several dictionaries as agreeing with an idea or accepting an idea as worthwhile) falls way short of the bar. Buy-in is like aiming for compliance when what you really want is commitment. Stage Four change competency requires more. It requires meaningful engagement.

Meaningful engagement is about inviting people in organizations to co-create the change. It’s about inviting people to participate actively in the change process, providing them the relevant knowledge, skill, and material support needed, and letting them actually shape the change to its ultimate, successful end. Any authentic involvement that allows people to make a consequential contribution to the process and the outcome of the change and deepens their understanding and commitment fits the concept of meaningful engagement.

Meaningful engagement, like change in general, does not happen by accident. Helping people and teams to make consequential contributions to the process and outcome of change requires clear intent. Fortunately, opportunities for engagement abound in organizational changes and they’re limited only by leadership and management’s creativity. See How Do I Create Meaningful Engagement  for suggestions.

Widespread meaningful engagement not only accelerates the change, but, even more importantly, it promotes general competency acquisition – a key for achieving Stage Four change capability.

  1. Leadership Commitment

This element is the heart of the matter. It may also very well be the element that presents the biggest challenge to achieving Stage Four change management competency.

Think for a moment about the leaders and managers you’ve worked with over the years. What would you say is their orientation to control? If your experience is like mine, not all but many have a strong orientation to control. Their exercise of firm control is how they believe they became successful. Engagement, as I’ve described it above, is counterintuitive to their notion of what constitutes strong, effective leadership.

If you agree with the assertion that meaningful engagement is a fundamental condition for competency acquisition that enables Stage Four change capability, then establishing leadership commitment and supporting behavior are a pre-condition.

Inviting members of the organization to co-create change and thereby strengthen their change management competency requires leaders to equip organization members with the ability, authority, and latitude required to do what they have been asked to do. Meaningful engagement is not leadership abdication. Quite the opposite. It’s about leading in a different way. It’s about building member capability to participate fully and make consequential contributions to the change.

  1. Support and Patience

The development of Stage Four competency requires learning and support – both of which require time and patience. Employees who haven’t previously been asked to participate in consequential ways must be equipped to do so. This means not only creating opportunities for participation but also preparing employees for their assignment and supporting them in their efforts.

This requires patience. In a world where organizational performance is measured one quarter at a time, patience can be in short supply. Nevertheless, leadership and management patience that creates space for preparation, applied learning, and support remains essential. When ability becomes proficiency, the payoff is huge, and it keeps paying dividends.

This isn’t as daunting as it seems, and it is aided by two beneficial outcomes. First, widespread engagement means that preparation and applied learning are occurring in potentially many places at once. This redundancy has a systemic benefit. Rather than incremental development within the organization one change effort at a time, capability building occurs in many places at once and development leaps forward rather than progressing in small increments.

Second, with each engagement experience, you develop a cadre of employees who can support others in the next. This reduces the burden of support on your change professionals and accelerates applied learning.

Stage Four change management competency is not merely an aspiration. With the right elements, conditions to support competence acquisition, and effort, it is attainable. And once this mix of elements and conditions become the organizational norm, the experience of change and innovation beyond what was initially envisioned become part of the organization’s repertoire. In the final post of this series, we’ll look at what change management competency at this level can produce.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can evolve change management for your organization, please visit


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