The Promise of Change Management as an Unconscious Competence

This is the last of four posts exploring 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 the third post (Change Management as Unconscious Competence: What Does It Take to Get There?), I presented what I believe are the essential elements required to develop Stage Four competence.

In this fourth and last post, I look at what Stage Four change management competence can produce and why this level of change competence should be the aspiration of every organization.

There is No Finish Line

In 1977, Nike ran a very compelling print ad – one of the company’s earliest. Atop the ad was a photo of a lone runner running toward the camera on an open, hilly road that stretched into the distance behind and ahead. Beneath the photo was a caption that read, “There is no finish line.” Several lines of ad copy followed the caption, and the last line underscored the caption and read “…But beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.” The ad became a pop culture icon and inspired later successful Nike ad campaigns.

The caption and the last line of copy speak to what I want to focus on in this final post. The objective of change management is not a finish line. Achieving stability in the newly merged organization/redesigned work process/installed software application/or whatever is not the endpoint. Change must be considered a continuous process and building unconscious competence in change management increases the likelihood of improvement and innovation beyond the original target.

When distilled to its essence, change management is a means to an end. I know I run the risk of ruffling feathers with that statement, and I mean no offense to change management practitioners. However, when properly applied, the methodologies, tools, and processes of change are merely how an organization successfully plans for and transitions from an unacceptable current state to a desired future state. This is the practical utility of change management – means to an end, not an end in itself.

However, change management serves an additional purpose that gets less attention and may be overlooked altogether. Once an organization has successfully transitioned to its desired future state and has stabilized at the intended level, change management can be used to help the organization to evolve and innovate beyond what was originally envisioned.

Change management has an important dual utility. First, it is a practical method to prepare for and navigate organization change. Second, if competence in change is highly developed, it can become an instrument of innovation.

At the end of the third post, I made the following observation.

…With the right elements, conditions to support competence acquisition, and effort, [Stage Four] 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.

This is the promise of Stage Four change management competence. The best way to understand it is to present a short case and relate it to the anticipated demonstrations of change management behavior presented in Change Management Evolved.

A Case of Stage Four Change Management Competence

A manufacturing company’s envisioned change took it on a risky and demanding transition away from an ineffective assembly-line work system to a high-performance work system. The organization employed a structured approach to redesign and change characterized by strong sponsorship, participative governance, constant open dialogue, and extensive engagement. When the transition was complete and the organization was functioning in its new state, the work system and the outcomes it produced, among many others, could be described by the following:

  • Self-reliant teams capable of building the product from end-to-end with responsibility for their own production schedule and oversight of the production process and product quality
  • A profound shift in manager and engineering roles away from command and control and close oversight to teaching, supporting, and building business and production process literacy
  • Deep ownership of the new work system on everyone’s part
  • Product quality that improved by 1000% (from last to first in its marketplace in less than two years)
  • Workmanship errors reduced to zero by the third year of operation
  • Scrap cost reduced by 85%
  • Process yield improved by 80%
  • Manufacturing cost reduced by 60%

The results by far exceeded everyone’s expectations and the organization could have settled there. However, employees began to see change as a continuous process, not a destination, and began to apply their experience and skills to other challenges. There are a number of examples of innovation beyond what was initially envisioned. However, one is particularly representative of what can happen when an organization has developed its change management capability to the level of unconscious competence.

The product being manufactured required very thorough cleaning to prevent contamination. The process used to clean parts prior to final assembly was problematic in two ways. First, it wasn’t as effective as needed. Contamination occasionally still occurred and resulted in product failure. Second, material used in the process resulted in pollution that had become increasingly unacceptable.

One of the process engineers discovered an alternative process from an entirely different industry that seemed to have potential to solve the problem. After assessing the solution’s suitability for their application and checking with her peers, she introduced the idea to leadership and asked permission to form a cross-function, diagonal-slice feasibility team.

The feasibility team determined that the alternative process was viable and could do a more effective job of cleaning parts and would result in a harmless by-product. The team prepared a business case that addressed, among other things, capital cost, the cost of removal and installation, loss of production during the change-over, the cost of training, and return on investment. After comprehensive communication throughout the organization of the work to date and the opportunity for questions and comments, the proposal got a green light and the change effort expanded.

Additional hands and expertise were needed for critical elements of implementation: acquisition of the equipment, planning for and removal of the old equipment (which had significant infrastructure implications), planning for and the installation of the new equipment within a one-week shutdown, and preparation of production workers to operate the new system. Additional task teams were chartered, launched, and went to work.

As a result of much cross-team collaboration and meticulous effort on the part of all involved, the new system was installed as planned a few months later within the prescribed one-week shutdown and worked just as intended. Even better, the new system cleaned critical parts 100 to 1000 times cleaner than the old system and emitted no harmful pollutants.

Connecting the Dots

On its face, the story may not look remarkably different from other examples of making a technical change in an organization. Other organizations make technical changes that are this complex and more so. So, you may ask, “What’s so remarkable about this?” The best way to highlight the difference is to look at the expression of change management behaviors that are associated with unconscious competence (Change Management Evolved).

Instinctive recognition of stakeholders and the importance of their role in the change

The process engineer, whose discovery started the effort, knew who would have a stake in the proposed change and deliberately included key stakeholders in the feasibility team. The feasibility team, after the change was green-lighted, became the project team. It included members of management, representatives of manufacturing and process engineering, and members of functional units. With a clear grasp of who the wider circle of stakeholders was, the feasibility team turned project team expanded engagement without direction or prompting to include their perspectives and their direct contributions.

The skill to assess the scope and magnitude of the change and plan a proportional approach

Understanding of the need to identify and include relevant stakeholders was a reflexive response based on the experience of the initial change. Beyond that, however, project team members understood that initiating and managing change had essential steps but that changes vary in size and complexity.

The project team recognized that the approach needed to be scaled to match the scope and magnitude (read impact) of the change. This was a change within a unit operation, not a whole organization change. While it was technically complex, it did not require the breadth and depth of what had been done to initiate and execute the full work system change. Further, they also knew that there were tools at their disposal to help them both scale and customize the approach.

A great deal of participatory planning

One of the key constraints placed on the change was the amount of time that production could be suspended. The change-over, involving dismantling the old system and installing the new one, needed to be accomplished in one week with the expectation that the new cleaning system would be production-ready on day eight. This was no small task. It required the commitment and direct involvement of facilities, the cleaning unit operation itself, process and manufacturing engineering, materials, direct labor, and management. However, because of the felt ownership for the work system that resulted from the original change, the required engagement, planning, and commitment needed no coaxing. Although management was deeply invested in the change, they did not direct it. The locus of responsibility and control resided with the expanded project team. (More on this below.)

Alignment to common purpose

Ideally, all change efforts have a clear end in mind. An early challenge of every change effort is to describe the end in mind and the reasons for it clearly and compellingly enough to win the support of the organization’s membership.  The aim is alignment to common purpose and the benefit that follows.

From the beginning, the end in mind for this change had two purposes. First, the change in cleaning systems needed to improve the cleanliness of parts prior to final assembly. If it could not accomplish this (and not just by marginal amounts), it would be a waste of time.

Second, the system had to reduce or eliminate adverse cleaning by-products. Without this condition being met in conjunction with better cleanliness, the search for an alternative must continue.

Both purposes had been established by prior experience, but there was still a need to socialize the opportunity and to connect it to the two purposes. Again, previous experience with managing change and level of change competence contributed to a) understanding this need, b) knowing how to approach it, and c) being able to execute on it skillfully.

Collaboration across boundaries and organizational levels

The story itself makes this behavior evident. Complex change requires many hands, multiple disciplines, lots of mind share, and cooperation from numerous organizational units. Highly developed change competence results in shifts in at least two key orientations. One is a norm shift away from smug tribalism to common purpose, as noted above. The second is an environment where levels and boundaries fade as impediments or forms of discouragement to cooperation and collaboration. What results is a much more fluid effort across typical lines of demarcation.

Locus of control and responsibility

In an earlier post, Meaningful Engagement vs. Buy-in: What’s the Difference and Why Should I Care?, I told the story of a newspaper ad that declared “Change imposed is change opposed.” In a subsequent post, What’s the Driving Force Behind Engagement?, I wrote about “own” forces vs. “induced” forces. “Own” forces promote change in the desired direction. Imposed change is an “induced” force that triggers reactive “own” forces in the opposite direction. Truly meaningful engagement overcomes this and builds “own” forces in the right direction.

One of the most beneficial outgrowths of Stage Four change competence is that change begins to emerge from anywhere in an organization where a need is observed. The companion dynamic to this is the emergence of ownership, control, and responsibility for change at the appropriate level.

Closing Reflection

What if managing change were truly a highly developed competence for all members of an organization? What would we see and how would it be different from organizations whose members don’t possess that level of competence? What outcomes might this produce and how would that be different from what we would ordinarily expect?

The four entries in this series have attempted to answer these and other questions. Along the way, I made the following observations:

  • Stage Four organizations – where change has evolved to the level of an unconscious competence – are uncommon but do exist
  • Stage Four organizations demonstrate a fluidity of action relative to change that we would not likely see from other organizations. They’re like a well-practiced athletic team whose players know where to be, what to do, and how to do it with synchronous, coordinated effort.
  • Change management as an unconscious competence does not happen by chance. There are essential elements required to evolve your organization’s change competence and key among them are leadership commitment, support, and patience.

In this final post, I’ve offered what I think are the two most important benefits of change management as an unconscious competence. One is a change management ability that is reflexive. It doesn’t require direction and oversight from leadership and management. It occurs naturally.

The other benefit is truly the prize in my opinion. Change management can become an instrument of innovation.  When change management becomes an unconscious competence, innovation beyond the change that was initially envisioned becomes part of the organization’s repertoire.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *