Change Management Evolved

This is the second 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, in my experience, Stage Four organizations – ones where change management has evolved to the level of an unconscious competence – are uncommon but do exist. These are organizations that have purposefully committed the time, resources, and effort to establish a cultural context that enables change management competency at this level.

Let’s push the exploration further. If you or I were to encounter a Stage Four organization – one where change management is a highly evolved competency – what would we learn and see?

The following observations are based on personal experience with high performing organizations where continual innovative change became a norm and competency in change management developed broadly to a high level. These experiences suggest the following:

  1. Previous experience that continued to evolve

The organization has at least one significant, successful change initiative under its belt. If the table stakes were no higher than this (and this is not trivial), then quite a few organizations would be on their way to becoming Stage Four. Regrettably, many organizations that navigated a successful change heaved a collective sigh of relief at having crossed the finish line and then settled into complacency at the new level. They had arrived at the goal they’d set for themselves, and they were finished.

One of the key distinguishing features of a Stage Four organization is that it has become emboldened to keep pushing. The new environment that people help to create, the learning they accumulate in their change journey, and the skill they develop, become the launching point for evolving and innovating the change beyond what was initially envisioned. An additional critical ingredient is the orientation of leadership and management to support innovation and continual evolution.

In an example of a Stage Four organization that had undergone a major organizational redesign, successive change opportunities became evident as they lived into the new system. Because of the way leadership had approached the initial change and successfully engaged people, employees discovered their agency. Employees learned that they possessed both the insight and the ability and had leadership’s encouragement to keep refining the initial change. Change no longer was initiated at the top; it was initiated anywhere by anyone with a good idea. (More about this example in the final post of this series.)

Stage Four organizations see change as a continuous process not a destination.

  1. Common language and common understanding of concepts

Another characteristic that we’d observe is that people think about and talk about change in the same way. They use terminology in the same way, understand concepts similarly, and use them to guide their actions consistently.

In a second example of a Stage Four competency, when a change was under consideration, those proposing it understood they needed to conduct a change impact assessment. They understood what an impact assessment was, why it was important, how to do one, and how to use the results. This was a developmental outcome of the methodology they adopted as part of building their change capability and it was part of their arsenal of tools.

Common language and common understanding of concepts facilitate cooperative behavior. Just as engineers, accountants, attorneys, and medical professionals share the language of their discipline and their work together is facilitated as a result, we see the same dynamic around managing change in a Stage Four organization.

  1. The application of common tools

Common tools are an extension of common language. Having agreed-upon templates, guides, assessments, outlines, and other tools to inform and structure essential deliberations and decisions contributes to a shared, uniform approach that also facilitates cooperative behavior.

In a third example of Stage Four competency, an organization worked with their finance professionals to develop a business case template that was required for every proposed change. The template helped to ensure that the same level of due diligence was being done to establish the rationale, financial justification, and return on investment. Based on experience, those proposing change understood that they needed to develop a business case and submit it to leadership for review and approval.

  1. Regular demonstrations of key change management behaviors

The last category of Stage Four observations is about behaviors. The expression of behaviors that have become second nature is the clearest indication that a competency has taken hold. Here are a few examples of the change management behaviors that would be evident in Stage Four organizations:

Instinctive recognition of stakeholders and the importance of their role in the change – My experience with Stage Four demonstrates that people have internalized the concept of stakeholder engagement and centrality of stakeholders in making change happen. At the level of second-nature behavior, I’ve watched ad hoc groups developing a change proposal give clear thought from the start to what parties have a stake in the change and how they will need to be engaged.

The skill to assess the scope and magnitude of the change and plan a proportional approach – People in Stage Four organizations know that a change effort must be proportional to the amount of change people will experience. They know that one size does not fit all and this understanding informs their engagement of stakeholders, planning, collaboration, and targeted change activities.

A great deal of participatory planning – A critical behavior that would be evident is a lot of participatory planning. In the last installment of this blog series, I’ll share the story of a complex technical change that was accomplished within very demanding parameters and yielded outstanding results. It would not have happened without a lot of participatory planning and expression of the previous three behaviors.

Alignment to common purpose – While this in and of itself is not necessarily a change management behavior, one of the things that is evident in Stage Four is that there is a great deal of commitment to common purpose. Having devoted great effort to the initial change, there is understanding and appreciation for the need to rally in support of subsequent change efforts to ensure they are successful. Common purpose fuels joint effort for mutual success.

Collaboration across boundaries and organizational levels – Another clear behavior is the ease of collaboration across boundaries and organizational levels. Again, while this behavior may not technically be a change management behavior, I name it here because it derives from alignment to common purpose, joint effort, and participatory planning. In the spirit of working to ensure success, broad collaboration across boundaries and hierarchical levels is a hallmark of Stage Four change competency.

Stage Four change management competency is like a well-practiced athletic team – pick your sport – in which every player knows where to be, what to do, and how to do it and the sum of their synchronous, coordinated efforts leads to a fluidity of action. Just as exceptionally well-practiced athletic teams make the craft of their sport look nearly effortless, Stage Four organizations have invested the time and attention and accrued the experience to make the execution of organizational change become normative and fluid. In the next post, I will explore what it takes to get there.

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

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