Not all changes are the same or require the same approach or level of effort. The complexity of our strategy should be determined by the nature of the change we are undertaking. Essentially, there are three broad types of change: incremental, transitional and transformational.
In incremental change, we are mainly improving what already exists, and outcomes are an enhancement, rather than wholesale change. This is the continuous improvement type of change and people’s mindsets are usually not challenged here. It will, however, often require the development of new skills or knowledge.
Transitional change occurs when continuous improvement is not sustainable because there are one or more fundamental flaws with the current way of operating. This type of change is more complex than incremental change and requires the management of a transition process to dismantle the old way of operating.
Many of the changes facing public service leaders are transitional, and are often done in partnership with large consulting/IT companies. That being said, the speed of change today is pushing many of these transitional changes to the transformational level, which is significantly more complex.
Transformational change is complex and requires fundamental changes to how our organization operates, including behaviours and mindsets. This often requires major shifts in the way members of our organization approach their work, how they deal with challenges, and how they interact with each other and those outside the organization. At this level of complexity, many of the changes will significantly alter the business model of a department or agency.
How do we recognize the type of change we’re leading?
Figuring out the type of change we are leading is helpful in determining the approach we are going to take, as well as the level of effort needed, to navigate the change. If we ask ourselves the following questions, we can get a good idea of how complex our change really is.
- Are we modifying (not completely replacing) what already exists?
- Are the current mindsets and behaviours of the organization already aligned with the change we will be making?
If yes to either or both of these, our change is most likely incremental.
- Will we be dismantling old systems and replacing them with completely new ones?
- Will this result in major changes to the way we operate?
- While complex, can this type of change follow a relatively fixed but flexible timeline?
- Do we have a clear picture of how we will work, and how the system will operate once the change has been made?
If yes to three or more of these questions, our change is most likely transitional.
- Is the end state of our change not yet fully clear or even unclear at all?
- Do we need to significantly shift paradigms and the organization’s culture?
If yes to both of these questions, our change is likely transformational. Asking ourselves these questions is a great way to get a sense of what type of change we are leading. We may also want to have some discussions on this topic among the leadership team, as alternative perspectives may reveal some hidden complexities and interdependencies.
There are two complementary aspects of leading change. Change management is often project-focused and based on the length of the project, although it should start before the project begins and continue long enough for the change to take root. Change leadership focuses on strengthening the capacity of leaders and the organization to deal with change over the long term.
It is important to understand how we can harness both aspects in order to help ourselves and our department better deal with change.