Why change management can’t keep up with our complex world

Real organizational change requires a human-centred approach.

Here’s a common scenario: Your company has just finished another transformation project, but the investment hasn’t delivered the results you wanted. The project was on time, under budget and all the milestones and deliverables were met. Your leaders are left scratching their heads: if everything has changed, why is nothing different?

The answer is as complex as the problem. To keep up with today’s lightning-fast pace and multifaceted nature of change, we can no longer trust traditional plan-and-deliver approaches as they are becoming ineffective.

It’s time for a shift.

To truly transform, you must take a human-centred approach to change.

What is change?

According to a 2018 report, 89% of organizations have adopted or have plans to adopt a digital-first strategy. These sweeping digital transformations, which involve new processes, digital tools and company-wide cultural change, have a high failure rate. But change doesn’t only occur in large, formal transformations. Change, specifically human change, happens any time an organization is moving people, process and/or technology from being one way to another.

Much of today’s organizational change is focused on the implementation of technology, where the final goal is adoption of the tool or platform, and the human element is often overlooked. This limited view is often the natural response to what the organization has defined as the success criteria for the project.

If success is defined as rollout and adoption, there is little incentive and patience for exploring how the new technology will change how employees experience their life at work. However, when organizations take a human-centred approach, they often learn that the new system will require people to change in significant ways. In fact, the human-centred approach to change often opens unanticipated opportunities to build trust and engagement, the benefit of which often dwarfs what the technology and process changes could yield.

Change is everywhere

Change happens at every layer of an organization. When we assume it’s isolated to a small group, we often learn that the change’s effect is felt far and wide across the organization. Change is so ubiquitous and essential that the single most important role of a leader is orchestrating successful change. Within that change, the greatest source of complexity comes from the human element.

Change never ends

The assumption that change happens in discrete, contained areas of an organization when we as leaders choose to initiate it ignores the complexity and dynamic nature of human systems. Change is continuous and everywhere. We only need to observe the day-to-day realities of our people to see how constant and ubiquitous change is. Our people survive that dynamic by connecting with the more stable belief system that underlies the organizational culture.

How we got here: the origins of change management

Change management started as an area of inquiry in the 1960s and continued to grow and transform into the formal discipline we know today. Traditional change management methods, like Prosci’s ADKAR model or Kotter’s 8-Step Process, rely on some common principles, such as:

  • Change is a linear, step-by-step process from current to future state.
  • Change can be planned, applied, managed and controlled from the outside.
  • People change is separate from technology.

A closer look: The ADKAR Model

The ADKAR Model is a framework for understanding and managing individual change developed by Prosci

ADKAR stands for:

  1. Awareness – Understanding why change is needed
  2. Desire – Deciding to participate in change
  3. Knowledge – Understanding or learning how to change
  4. Ability – Achieving or demonstrating the desired change
  5. Reinforcement – Continuing the change

According to this model, the individual must proceed through and achieve each of the five milestones in order for change to be successfully implemented and sustained. Organizations focus their efforts on activities that will drive individuals through this these milestones, such as:

  • Readiness assessments
  • Communications plans
  • Sponsor roadmaps
  • Coaching plans
  • Resistance management
  • Training plans
  • Recognition and rewards

Why we need something new

Models like ADKAR have been useful for many years, but the world does not stand still. The workplace is a very different ecosystem today. Our personal relationships with work have evolved steadily since the 1950s when work was an inherently lousy deal in which we would exchange our best hours of the day for a salary. On the other end of the spectrum, the rules of industry have been re-written over the last ten years rendering irrelevant much of what we could rely on to create competitive advantage a decade ago.

Trends that are disrupting traditional change management include:

Work is creative

Since the 1950s, work in North America has been moving away from routine, non-cognitive tasks, when manufacturing dominated our economy. Work is becoming more creative – people need to be creative to solve the ever-changing problems they’re confronted with – and so human performance matters more than it ever has before. Productivity, performance and output of an organization now depend largely on human creativity.

Teamwork and collaboration are essential

An estimated 80% of employee time is spent collaborating. Modern organizations rely on teamwork to share information and resources and ultimately get things done. Complex problems have eclipsed what smart people can solve alone and require the coordinated thinking of diverse perspectives. To win in industry today, it’s no longer enough to get the best out of each employee individually; organizations must harness the power that comes from successful collaboration. Aside from the productivity impact of collaboration, employees feel more connected to their jobs and less stressed when they work collaboratively with others.

Within this world of complex problems lies a specific challenge for leaders who have built their authority around the idea that they have the intelligence and experience to know the path forward. This “our leader knows best” ethos creates conflict in a culture where the collective intelligence of the organization solves the toughest problems.

Work environments are more complex

The distinction between complicated and complex is an important one. A lot of our work used to be complicated. Complicated challenges were technical in nature and could be solved by step-by-step “sense, analyze and respond” approaches. There might be many, many steps, but results were generally predictable if you followed a well-worn path.

Work is now increasingly complex. The rise of the influence that human systems have over the success of an organization, coupled with the increasing complexity of those human systems brought on by the need for more collaboration, means that problems can rarely be solved in isolation, ignoring the greater system of human factors. These complex problems are rife with unknown unknowns and demand a “probe, sense and respond” approach, which lends itself well to agile approaches that value rapid learning and course correction.

It’s important to recognize that complex problems are not simply extra-involved complicated problems; they are a different problem type that requires a different problem-solving approach.

Industry is increasingly competitive

According to a Dell survey, 78% of business leaders believe digital start-ups pose a threat to their organization now or in the near future, and 62% have seen new competitors enter the market as a result of the emergence of digital technology. In fact, the vast majority of the clients we work with face industry disruption significant enough that they require deep innovation of their business model.

Organizations face competition not only for customers, but for employees too. To attract and retain top talent that will help their business succeed, organizations need to be highly competitive. Mediocre organizations are bound to end up as fatalities in today’s competitive labour markets.

The pace of change has accelerated

Change is no longer unfolding at a steady pace. This can be attributed to a number of different factors, all happening concurrently, such as always-up-to-date cloud-based platforms, AI and automation, emerging communication technologies, migration and mobility, demographic shifts, the nature of employer-employee relationships and even our own expectations for change.


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