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Definition of Change Management

4 Principles to Shape Change

Definition of Change Management

Here we offer an alternative definition of change management. We suggest that it’s not enough to define change in conventional terms, as we have done in our article “define change management”. The real value of change is perhaps found when definitions are shaped by some abiding principles.

In keeping with the site’s emphasis on thinking differently and taking a fresh look at ideas, we suggest that managing change is much more than processes and steps. It should be guided by principles that help shape change.

Here are 4 principles we think should be considered when developing your own definition of change management:

  • The principle of care: “First, do no harm”.
  • The principle of the golden rule: “Do as you would be done by”.
  • The principle of admitting you don’t know: “I don’t know and don’t think that I do”.
  • The principle of insufficient mandate: “those unable to change themselves cannot change those around them”.

The Principle of Care: First do no Harm

The first principle derived from the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession, suggests that a primary aspect of a definition of change management should be to ensure that no harm is done. Of course many of the actions of a doctor have some parallels in business. Sometimes there needs to be short term pain to prevent long term harm. It may be that to restore health sometimes “surgery” is needed.

However surgery is always a last resort, much is accomplished simply by preventative methods, by creating the conditions for a healthy organization. Do no harm is a good place to start, but of course you should also do some good!

The Principle of the Golden Rule: Do as You Would be Done by.

The golden rule is expressed in some form in most of our religious and moral traditions. It is a helpful way to think of change, especially with respect to how we manage people through change. Our actions towards others should be guided by asking how we would react to being treated in such a manner. Confucius is quoted as expressing a variant of the golden rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” What do we wish for when we decide that change is needed?

The Principle of Admitting You Don’t Know.

Change is inherently unpredictable and difficult to manage. Therefore a healthy dose of “admitting when you don’t know” provides a crucial level of integrity in developing our own definition of change management.

The principle is best captured in words attributed to Socrates. Socrates questioned a man with a reputation of being knowledgeable who seemed to be wise both to himself and to others. Socrates is quoted as thinking:

I went away thinking to myself that I was wiser than this man: the fact is that neither of us knows anything beautiful and good, but he thinks he does know when he doesn’t, and I don’t know and don’t think that I do: so I am wiser than he is by only this trifle, that what I do not know I don’t think I do.

More recently Professor Bob Sutton suggested an approach that possibly should be a characteristic of great managers, where you argue as if you are right, and listen as if you are wrong. Argue persuasively for the change you believe needs to happen, but listen carefully as if you are wrong.

The Principle of Insufficient Mandate.

Finally and most importantly is the dual challenge stressed by Reg Revans, the founder of action learning. Perhaps the most fundamental principle to apply to any definition of change management should be that:

Those unable to change themselves cannot change those around them.

Secondly, Revans provocatively suggests that:

Those who are to change significantly that which they freshly encounter must themselves be changed by the changing of it.

Are we asking others to change when we are not willing to change oursleves?

Be the Change

All four principles are worth some reflection. Ask yourself: how might you manage change differently if you applied these principles? Think for a moment about how different change might be if these principles were more commonly used.

What better way to finish than to summarise this alternative definition of change management than with Gandhi’s salient words:

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

If you want to read more about change management, see our article that expands on the theory of change management. We have also explored the nature of change in more fully in “What is Change Management”.


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