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Strategies for Change

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Innovation diffusion researchers find that the best route into an organization or community is through Opinion Leaders, those persons (or institutions) to whom others turn for advice. Hovland and Weiss noted many years ago that the most persuasive communicators are those whose expertise, experience, or social role establish them as credible sources of the information presented. Harvard has been an institutional opinion-leader on almost anything—as are Yale, Stanford, the University of California and many other major universities. Today, with the dominance of the Internet as a source of information, there is much less a centralization of opinion-leadership. As Thomas Freedman has noted, we have become a “flat world” in which opinion-leadership is diffuse and constantly changing (and often isolated and reinforced in small opinion enclaves).

Social interaction researchers also find that certain attributes of innovations besides impressive reason and evidence influence their adoption. Does the innovation have clear relative advantages for our particular situation, whether those advantages are better ability to meet institutional objectives, reduced costs, higher status or greater enjoyment? Is the innovation compatible with our values, our structure, our skills and styles? Is the innovation divisible so that we can adopt only the parts we like, or adopt in some easy sequence, rather than buying the whole change at once? Is the new thing simple to understand and do? Does it involve low risk and low uncertainty? Can we observe it and try it out so we know better what we are getting into? Whether it’s a consultant’s recommendation or an internally-generated proposal to modify a production process, these ingredients will be important. Yet it is difficult to assess the relative advantages of specific innovations. They often clash with traditional organization-wide values and structures. Often, a whole, complex proposal is laid on the leadership team at once, with little promise that it will reap positive rewards. And such proposals are usually paper descriptions, not visible experiences which members of the organization can see and try before accepting. Small wonder that significant, planned change is such a rare occurrence in many organizations.


Parsons has noted that institutionalization of a change is imbedded in the non rational layers of motivation among the people who work in the organization. Change will not occur simply through the presentation of rational arguments regarding the advantages of this change.  People are not the issue—rather it is the need of these people for dependency or autonomy that is the issue. Or it is the intensity of anxiety experienced by these people as they face the challenge of change. There is, in short, a psychological dimension to change to which neither the Rational nor Social models do justice. Rational planning and social interaction do form part of the equation, but underlying interests, habits, fears and prejudices compose the bulk of the iceberg. We often pretend that the essential aspects of planned change are out in the open, in our plans and public discussions. We know better. And if we seek a strategy for intentional change which will actually work, then we need to get at these hidden sources of resistance. Human Problem-Solving approaches offer some assistance.

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