​Applying the Change Equation to Business Transformation Journeys

Lionel Grealou Business Leadership 4 minutes

Image Credit: background image from PEXELS, quoting the change equation from Beckhard-Harris (1987)

It is commonly said that business transformations are journeys; marathons, not sprints. This is because they have multiple dimensions, from people, to data, processes and tools. Every attempt in trying to understand or simplify complex things is likely to drive at first more questions than answers; this is pretty normal and, as expected, things typically get more complicated before they get simpler. This is how things evolve and progress.

I read about the ‘change equation‘ many years ago—the logic was sound but I didn’t think much about it at the time as the model appears theoretical, not very practical; I was reminded about it during a recent conversation…

The Beckhard-Harris change equation

In a nutshell, Beckhard and Harris (1987) suggested that business change requires robust stakeholder engagement across the organization—at all times and especially at the beginning of the project: from top management, change leads, support functions (HR, procurement, finance, etc.), to key users who are directly and indirectly impacted by the change.

C = D x V x F > R … where C = Change; D = Dissatisfaction; V = Vision; F = (knowledge of the) First step, and R = Resistance

Beckhard and Harris (1987)

There are a number of published variations of the above equation (…). Its principle is pretty much always the same: the need to balance change driving forces versus status-quo restraining forces. Basically, the premise of this equation is that change can only happen when the drive for change is greater than the resistance, when there is a clear vision, when there is a plan in place toward the first step of the change… Considering the context of the change, its vision, the urgency, the understanding of the change, the ability to embrace the change, such as:

  • Does the organization have a choice? (and by when would the risk of doing nothing becomes an actual issue)
  • Is there a consensus on the problem statement and possible root causes?
  • If there are choices, what are the possible remedies?
  • How to decide on the first step towards the change?
  • Is the first step toward change not to acknowledge that something must change?
  • Who is positively driving the change vs who is resisting the change, and for what reasons?
  • Is the change vision sound and commonly supported? Does it need to be validated and how?
  • What drives the resistance to change and does it relate to the risk of doing nothing or alternative solutions?
  • Is there an effective change leadership committee, and is it inclusive of all relevant business dimensions?

Limited usability of the change equation

While the change equation makes sense at a theoretical level, it does not seem practical. It cannot be used quantitatively to size influencing parameters, such as the drive or resistance to change, the robustness of the plan, etc.—hence, it is rather subjective.

The equation does not account for any contextual parameters, such as culture, leadership, and the ability of an organization to implement change. It might give the illusion that, once defined, a vision and a first step plan are everything that it takes; or, on the contrary, that change cannot be initiated without these.

Having a vision is important as it informs the “why” behind the change, setting long-term unifying intentions. Some cultures might favour a vision that is far-reached such as long-term directions, whereas others might prefer something that will eventually be validated as it might provide a better sense of purpose.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.

Casey Stengel, New York Yankees, quoted in Beckhard and Harris (1987)

Sometimes it is ok to end up somewhere else. Gradual alignment to the vision is likely to happen through the change itself. Likewise, the initial business case might only be gradually confirmed or adjusted (sometime completely re-written) throughout the change journey.

Having detractors in the early days of a change journey is often healthy to challenge existing perceptions or beliefs. Detractors can contribute to keep everyone honest about the journey and help frame the required adjustments along the way.

Change is a marathon, not a sprint

Not only implementing change is a marathon, “selling” it internally to a steering committee or the end-users can be a marathon in itself. Everyone needs to be educated to some level and continuously aligned with the problem statement, remediations and target operation model. Experimentation brings new insights, and in turn, contribute to realigning the vision, the business case, expectations and requirements.

Furthermore, Bridges (1991) highlighted that everyone goes through the process of change at their own pace. Hence, the change equation might be either balanced or imbalanced at different stages of the change journey. The process however is the same for everyone; it follows three transition stages:

  1. End zone: realising that the change is truly happening—needing to be reminded about the purpose and the expected outcomes of the planned change.
  2. Neutral zone: shifting from the old to the new reality—showing the benefit of the change, managing issues and educating people.
  3. New beginning zone: accepting change, developing and applying new skills—encouraging, celebrating adoption, learning from the change.

What are your thoughts?


References:

  • Beckhard R and Harris R (1987) Organizational Transitions: Managing Complex Change, Reading MA, Addison-Wesley.
  • Bridges W (1991) Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

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About the Author
Lionel Grealou

Lionel Grealou

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Lio is founder and independent consultant with Xlifecycle Ltd—helping organizations make the most from their digital enterprise strategies and manage the 'Lifecycle of Things' across PLM, MES, ERP, IOT, SCM platforms.

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