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A Theory of Change Management

A Theory of Change Management: Planned or Emergent?

Much of the theory of change management (and the associated models) are rooted in how change is understood.

How do you see change, and how can theory help ensure change is managed effectively? A good place to start is by trying to understand the different views about change itself.

In some circumstances change is deliberate and structured. On other occasions it seems to be more spontaneous, as if it’s evolving naturally.

Change comes in different guises, and how we think about change may well determine how we define change management, and consequently how we manage it.


The Nature of Change: Planned or Emergent?

One of the biggest distinctions in views about change is in relation to the nature of change. If you think of change as being about moving from one state to another in a structured manner, you are more likely to develop models which highlight a structured set of steps.

This is generally referred to as “planned change”.

An alternative is to see change as largely fluid and emerging, it’s all pervasive and continuous. Taking this view means you are more likely to manage change as part of what happens naturally in an organisation, and perhaps see interventions as cyclical or iterative.

This is commonly referred to as “emergent change”.

Planned change approaches rely more on assumptions that an organisation’s environment is known. Change can then be planned to facilitate movement from one condition to another. In contrast, emergent change emphasises the need to be responsive and adaptive: that change is constantly around us. It may be that some changes can be seen as more stable and predictable moving from one state to another, whilst other change is more fluid and on-going in nature

A theory of change management

UK academic Bernard Burnes suggests that a situational view of change may be appropriate where the approach to change may vary from planned to emergent and from directive to co-operative styles. You decide on a way forward depending on the context, to better respond to environmental issues and constraints within the organisation.

The value of exploring the theory of change management is to understand that different approaches may well suit different kinds of change situations. Change is complex and the reality of organisational life needs to be accommodated into ways of managing change.

There are several implications of this need to recognise change from differing perspectives. For example:

  • Managing change is about managing a process, using appropriate approaches, based on the nature of the change being managed.
  • Change can be guided by perceptive facilitation, recognising the organisational context and constraints.
  • Change theory and models should be applied selectively, with thought to best fit the nature of change and to the context within which the change is occurring.
  • Think about both sequential change and cyclical, iterative change.

How we think about change starts to shape how we define change. We have tried to emphasise this need to be selective and adaptive in our article: “define change management“.


A Theory of Change Management – Planned and Emergent

Even the most carefully planned and structured change is likely to have elements of emergent change, as the unpredictable surfaces through the change process. It is therefore worth building a theory of change management that fits the context and constraints of the organisation, and its environment.

As well as exploring the nature of change it’s valuable to consider some of the characteristics of change. We try to do this in our article: what is change management?


Making Change Management Easier!

This is one of the articles and tips in our managing change series. For some practical tips on how to manage change, look at our great-value guides (below). These include some excellent tools to help you change yourself, and manage change at work.

The best way to use these is to buy our Managing Change bundle, available from the store. We’ve bundled together five e-guides, available at half the normal price!

Read the guides in this order and use the tools in each. Then change it – on time, in budget!

5 guides, 136 pages, 25 tools, for half price!

Where to go from here:


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