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Why is Change So Hard?

Theories and thoughts about the organizational change process

by Marcia Drew Hohn
As one of the directors of the Massachusetts system of state literacy resource centers, I have helped introduce and advance many organizational change initiatives. My office has offered training, technical assistance, political forums, and management round tables to promote and assist the organizational change process. Despite these efforts, good intentions on all sides, and much hard work, many of these initiatives disappeared into programmatic black holes. Programs recognized the need to change and reached out for help, but often got stuck. I was puzzled. What was going on here? Do organizations inherently resist change? To start answering these questions, I investigated the organizational change process as it is experienced in program and staff development. In this article, I will share some of the insights I gained and take you on a journey of ships, seas, winds, and icebergs (and, to be honest, I thought up this iceberg stuff long before the recent release of the movie "Titanic").

What We Know

We know from research on change in schools that resistance to and rejection of change can occur for a variety of reasons (Williams, 1993). William's research has also shown that change efforts need to be a combination of top-down' and bottom-up' strategies, strongly led, and combining pressure to change with the support to do so: support in terms of time, financial resources, and decision-making power.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1997) emphasizes that change-friendly organizations are future oriented. They seek to close the gap between current performance and an organization's potential. Change-friendly organizations embrace a learning together' approach characterized by a broad spectrum of participation within the organization and among stakeholders. Change-friendly organizations form networks to exchange knowledge and view differences as opportunities to grow. Their leaders create cultures in which people are challenged to take risks.

What I learned from my research is that the greatest barrier to organizational change has to do with the operating paradigm, or mind set, of the individuals and groups that make up an organization. Organizations are, after all, groups of people connected through common purposes into a systematic form to achieve particular ends (Morgan, 1997). While groups are sets of people small enough for their members to know and interact with one another, organizations are often large and the individuals who work in them only dimly perceive the total organization. Most of the human processes that happen within a formal organization actually take place in small groups, and organizational behavior can be understood by examining the ways of thinking and human processes of those groups (Pfeiffer & Ballew, 1991).


Pfeiffer & Ballew (1991) point to the work of Marilyn Ferguson (1980) as useful in understanding the varieties of change. Ferguson classifies change into four types, described here.

1. Change by exception is where we allow exceptions to our beliefs but do not change our beliefs. For example, when we meet someone who does not fit our stereotypes, we classify them as being an exception to the group. The multi-pierced, skateboarding teenager who is polite and well-spoken may conflict with our assumptions about teenagers as rude and inarticulate, so we classify this particular one as an exception' but we do not change our beliefs about teenagers in general.

2. Incremental change is so gradual that it occurs before we become aware of it: usually, a collection of small changes that ultimately alter our belief systems. For example, a teacher may have started using technology with an attitude of resistance and disdain, but gradually changed to a point where technology became an indispensable tool in her practice. The teacher could probably not pinpoint the time where her beliefs about technology changed.

3. Pendulum change is when an extreme point of view is exchanged for its opposite. The hawk turns into a dove, the heathen turns into a religious zealot, or vice versa. Government programs are seen as the solution to social problems and then as having no viable role. Pendulum change ignores the past, ascribing no positive attributes to the previous points of view. The new belief is often as zealously held as the old.

4. Paradigm change is when we step out of the box for a more fundamental rethinking of premises. Discordant information is considered and integrated and new ways of thinking emerge. As Ferguson (1980) points out, it is only paradigm change that promotes transformation, and for transformation, or true organizational change, to occur, the beliefs that control behaviors must undergo the more profound mind set change.


A paradigm is a model of how the world works that permits the holder to interpret and use new information. A paradigm is the general perspective from which we view the world. A paradigm shapes perceptions and practices in nearly unconscious and unquestioned ways. It shapes what we look at, how we look at things, what we label as problems, what problems we decide to address, and what methods we use. It is a way of filtering and making sense of all the information that bombards us daily (Maguire, 1987; Wheatly, 1992). Ten years ago, paradigms were rarely applied to the analysis of organizations. Now, organizations regularly discuss and strategize about shifting paradigms. The idea that organizations can shift their paradigms is extremely powerful. It means that individuals and groups can define how they view and interpret the world around them, and begin organizing behavior around new way of thinking that can significantly transform organizations.

Systems Theory

At this time in history, we seem to be caught between two ways of thinking: analytical, expressed by the machine metaphor, and synthetical, which seeks interconnectedness and wholeness as expressed in metaphors such as webs, fluid mosaics, and rivers. In the analytical way of thinking, the world is seen as a machine. The underlying assumption is that phenomena can best be understood by being broken down, reduced into individual parts, and examined part by part. In this school of thought, the scientific method, objectivity, linear thinking, either-or thinking, and competition are promoted and presumed to be free from values and independent of context.

Synthetical thinking, or systems' thinking, popularized for organizations by Peter Senge (1990) and Meg Wheatley (1992), emphasizes putting things together. In this view, the system as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. Localness, harmony, cooperation, and a sense of mutual dependence are promoted, contextualized in the values and meaning systems of those involved. Systems theory, being about a world view, helps us understand paradigms. Systems theory helps us understand how deeply ingrained assumptions about how the world works shape our habits and minds and our society's organizations and institutions in a continuous process of reinforcement.

In the organizational realm, Morgan (1997), an organizational theorist and consultant, writes that old ways of thinking, represented by the machine concept of the world, are so ingrained in us that they are dif cult to recognize, let alone shake off. They have been the basis for the educational and political structures and social institutions that guide our lives. Therefore, " we get stuck in taken-for-granted ways of thinking and stuck in actions that are inappropriate for dealing with the problems and situations at hand. We operate in narrow, technical concerns, characteristic of the machine age" (p. 277). We are unable to make the transformative organizational changes needed to increase our productivity and address problems creatively.

Three-Pronged Process

Kurt Lewin (1951), the father of organizational development, saw change as a three-pronged process: unfreezing, moving, and refreezing. Unfreezing involves loosening or melting ways of thought, behaviors, or sets of often unconscious behaviors that work against productivity in solving social problems and conflict. Once the ices of thought patterns or behaviors inhibiting productivity are melted, they flow into more natural channels until cooled enough to refreeze in more functional and congruent patterns. The new patterns remain until they are once again challenged by the perception of the need to change again. Lewin's formula for change is elegantly simple but fearsomely difficult to put into practice. Fortunately, Gareth Morgan (1997) has introduced a way to actualize Lewin's concept of the change process.


Morgan, an organizational theorist and consultant, introduced the term and process "imaginization"as a way to break free from habits of the mind and heart into space that allows for acting differently within organizations, to unfreeze, move and refreeze. Morgan sees metaphor as the primary means through which we forge our relationship to the world. According to Morgan, the images we hold of ourselves and the world can either constrain or expand our potential for transformation. By developing an image of an organizational structure, a problem area, or the future, we gain insight into how our organization operates and what it will take to change. Nature supplies many excellent ideas for imaging. For example, we might imagine organization as an ant colony, a spider plan, a river, or a web.

Morgan's ideas about imaginization led me to think about conceiving of an organizational change initiative in which I was deeply involved as ships, seas, winds, and icebergs. This gave me a way to "imagine" what was facilitating and what was inhibiting the adult basic education programs' abilities to engaging in a participatory planning process. It was also a way to understand why programs were having so much difficulty with a seemingly simple process. So come with me on a journey into images. Think of two adult basic education programs, one school-based and one community-based, as sailing ships in the organizational sea of a participatory planning process: cold seas where icebergs are common.

Strong prevailing winds help the programs begin their journey. Fueling these winds are a well thought-out, systematic planning process with a number of useful and practical implementation tools as well as support through training, technical assistance, and dollars allocated for staff time. Other sources of momentum include the professionalization and enhanced confidence of programs as a result of five years of intense program and staff development, and the desire and capacity of the programs to plan and deliver quality services.

The Logistics Iceberg

The two adult basic education ships are sailing the organizational seas of a participatory planning process. They have made it out of the harbor and are sailing along with gusto when the first iceberg appears. It is small and highly visible. This is the logistics iceberg, where the investment of time and resources needed to carry out the planning process is at odds with part-time staff and capricious and multiple funding sources. In this iceberg are found such difficulties as getting day and evening staff together for planning, including night-time staff who have other jobs during the day, and finding time to carry out the process and the action plans because some funders do not provide funds for planning.

The logistics iceberg is not insignificant, but the ships slip around it with creative thinking. The crucial issue is whether a program and its management understand and support the entire planning process. The looming and more hidden icebergs have to do with habit and mind set: the paradigm in which the program and its staff are operating. These are the potentially formidable barriers to implementing a process that presumes teamwork, cooperation, and power sharing for learning together about solving problems and making improvements.

The Way Business is Done

The way business is done, or habit, iceberg contains existing approaches and structures by which the program operates. This iceberg is not highly visible and has deep and jagged edges, which can fatally damage the ships. If the operating norms of a program are ones of isolation, authoritarianism, and mistrust, then the organizational environment will be hostile to a participatory planning process. People in organizations do not organize their behavior around processes introduced from the outside. They organize their behavior around the operating norms that contribute to the culture of the organization. A program in which staff rarely meet or even talk to each other, and in which helping one another is not valued, is not a likely place to use a participatory planning process effectively. Such programs are usually managed by a director whose style is top-down and who has little history of consulting staff about programmatic, funding, and personnel issues. Such directors may act in a highly paternalistic or materialistic manner and are unlikely to share their decision-making power. This type of environment tends to generate mistrust and competition and inhibits the development of skills necessary to work in a cooperate, participatory manner.

Programs that have already been operating in a participatory, collaborative manner, in which staff talk to each other a lot, support each other, and work together, are likely to have receptive organizational cultures. These are usually programs where the director has readily shared information and decision-making power with the staff. Such programs are like ships with special radar. The radar detects the iceberg and steers clear of it. However, the ships now enter dangerous waters that harbor a hidden and treacherous iceberg. Only the most sophisticated radar can detect it hovering deep in the waters, waiting to pierce the bottom of the ship. This is the iceberg of mind set, which embraces the many assumptions, beliefs, and values about how the world works.

The Paradigm Iceberg

The third iceberg, the hardest to detect, is the mind set, or paradigm, iceberg. In this iceberg are the thinking patterns, attitudes, beliefs, and values that underlie the behavior of programs and practitioners. They often come into conflict with the assumptions underlying a process that embraces teamwork, cooperation, power sharing and learning together.

Thinking in terms of processes and systems, working in teams, and vesting power in practitioners throughout an organization are enormously difficult for most people. Most of us have learned to manage by meeting short-term numerical goals. We have not considered the capabilities of the system as a whole or the interrelationship of processes, especially as they relate to overall goals. Teamwork is not commonplace. Collaboration and cooperation are often undervalued and individual achievement championed over that of the group. The skills it takes to function successfully in a team, both as a member and as a leader, are frequently viewed as soft,' having little to do with the real work of getting business done. Most of us are unfamiliar with and unskilled in consensus building, participatory decision-making, and all the other skills needed for teams to function effectively. Our intellectual training has promoted thinking in absolute categories and either-or terms, making us uncomfortable with ambiguity and confrontation. Our lack of skill and discomfort make us reluctant to give up old ways.

Other attitudes and beliefs important to embracing change have to do with what we think about motivation and power. A participatory planning process assumes internal motivation and the capacity of each practitioner to recognize and solve problems. It trusts that the resulting shifts in power will be of benefit to the organization. A deeply ingrained assumption in our culture, however, is that competition is a prime motivator. Just look at our schools' grading systems and assessment tests.

And then there are beliefs about power. The participatory planning process shifts the power in the organization from the top and spreads it throughout the organization. If a director believes there is only a nite amount of power in any given organization, then she is likely to resist letting go of that power. If a director believes that power grows as you give it away, the chances that a participatory planning process can take root are much higher.

One of the programs successfully cleared the first two icebergs but wrecked up' when it encountered the paradigm iceberg. The other program sailed the seas of the participatory planning into a new world of thinking, growing, and doing. This was a change-friendly organization that took risks to reach a vision of what it could be.


What does this tell us about the organizational change process? How do we shift to being change-friendly? One way is to develop insight into why so many change efforts fail. We also need to recognize that complex change efforts are just plain hard. Recognizing the paradigm in an organization and the need to change it is big step in an organization's ability to plan and implement change effectively. Significant organizational and management changes may be needed to support the paradigm shift.

Shifting paradigms also helps us recognize that meaningful organizational change needs to be systemic and continuous. And, in change, loss and anxiety emerge around surrendering old and familiar ways. Linking change efforts to issues vital to the organization is one way for staff to see the benefits of the change in areas that have personal meaning for them. This is likely to reduce anxiety, but conflict and anger may erupt out of the stress that true change creates.

The process of organizational change is likely to be bumpy, difficult, and frustrating: a series of two steps forward and one step back. It needs to cut through barriers in our hearts and minds as well as in our organizations. But it does liberate us from addressing problems according to our prior approaches. It moves us from simply tinkering with the system to using our collective brainpower to make a difference in a world. The need to change is our constant companion. It may be hard, but it is always worthwhile.



Ferguson, M. (1980). Chapter Two in Pfeiffer, J.W. & Ballew, A.C. (eds.), (1991). Theories and Models in Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 4, (223-225) San Diego: Pfeiffer & Co.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper & Row.

Kanter, R. M. (1997). Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Books.

Maquire, P. (1987). Doing Participatory Research: A Feminist Approach. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, Center for International Education.

Morgan, G. (1997). Imaginization: New Mindsets for Seeing, Organizing and Managing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Pfeiffer, J.W. & Ballew, A.C. (eds.), (1991). Theories and Models in Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 4. San Diego: Pfeiffer & Co.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday.

Wheatley, M. J.(1992). Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Williams, R. (1993). Implications for School Systems or The Research on Change. Oxford, Ohio: National Staff Development Council.


About the Author

Marcia Drew Hohn, Ed.D., is Director of Northeast SABES (System for Adult Basic Education Support) located at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence, MA. She has been working in the field of adult education for more than 25 years in a variety of environments, including business, health, municipal management, and basic education. Her present research and writing is focused on the integration of health and literacy education.