The power of continuity in organizational change

I read about an interesting approach to organizational change that fits well with progress-focused working and that emphasizes continuity in organizational change.

The myth that change almost always has to fail

For years, the persistent cliché about organizational change has been circulating that 70-80% of changes fail. Such a cliché can be harmful because it can generate a kind of fixed mindset about change: whatever you try to change, it won't work. Thisd mindset may keep you from even trying. Moreover, the cliché is not true. The chances of success of change initiatives vary greatly. They depend on the circumstances, the type of change and the way the change is handled. A progress-focused way of changing can help to increase the chance of success.

Attention to what remains constant

In a recent article I came across an interesting additional angle that fits well with the progress-focused angle. The article cites a recent report from the Academy of Management. This report states that the best way for leaders to encourage teams to embrace change is to put a lot of emphasis on what remains constant. The report is based on 2 studies, published in 2019. These studies looked at how people accept change and what the influence of communication is on this.

Less resistance by communicating continuity

The first study, Venus et al. (2019), looked at how leaders can effectively communicate change to reduce resistance from their followers. The researchers stated that followers often resist change because it threatens their subjective sense of continuity of organizational identity. They examined whether leaders can reduce this resistance by communicating that the essence of the organizational identity remains unchanged, making their vision of change also a vision of continuity. To investigate this hypothesis, the researchers conducted a field study and an experimental study. In the field study, the researchers surveyed employees and their managers about their leaders' vision for change and the level of support for the change.
In the experimental study, students were exposed to letters containing different visions of change. In doing so, some emphasized that the organizational identity would remain unchanged, while others did not. The findings supported their hypothesis. They found that leaders who communicated a vision of continuity were more effective at reducing follower resistance and gaining support for change. Moreover, this communication strategy turned out to be especially effective when the work-related uncertainty of the followers was higher. The study shows that emphasizing the unchanged aspects of organizational identity plays a critical role in successfully navigating organizational change.

Acceptance of change in education

The second (unnamed) study helped map the relationship between sharing a new vision and accepting change. Nearly 200 international business students received a letter telling them about changes in the training program. One version of the letter explained that the program would take a new direction in the coming year. “The new program and teaching philosophy will be different from what we are used to and will therefore require adjustment,” the letter said. “In short, changes are inevitable.” In the second version, which other students received, additional rules were added. “In short, changes are inevitable,” the letter reiterates. But the text continues as follows: “But remember: despite these changes, what has always characterized our programs, breadth and depth, remains a hallmark of our programs. Only their expression will change.”
By emphasizing the ways in which a shared vision would not change, such as in the shared goals or values, the researchers correctly predicted that the students would feel less insecure about the future of the program and be more open to the changes.

Conclusion: vision of continuity promotes acceptance

When analyzing the results of the two studies, the findings were clear. Those who, after hearing about the upcoming changes, received less communication about what would remain constant felt more doubtful about the change and were more resistant to it. In contrast, the people who had been assured that some things would not change were more likely to support the shifts.
When people feel insecure about change, they are more concerned than excited about what comes next. But when leaders share a vision that connects the future with the past, we are all more likely to embrace change. This is a vision of continuity. It comes down to communicating not only how things will change, but also how they will stay the same.