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date: 13 July 2020

Organization Change

Summary and Keywords

A “change” is a difference in an entity’s state, condition, or property that occurs across an interval of time and can take place in multiple ways. The scope and variety of organization changes make evident that organization change is a familiar and crucial feature of society’s ecosystem. In this chapter we explore multiple types of changes that occur in and among organizations.

To appreciate organizational change, it is necessary to understand organizations per se. Thus, we begin by summarizing pertinent literature that defines central characteristics of organizations. Following conventional usage, the term “organization” refers to a purposeful hierarchical human system whose members contribute their efforts or other resources to the system in order to acquire valued resources, such as their livelihood. Organizations are created for multiple types of purposes. Our emphasis is primarily on business organizations, which are created for the purpose of generating wealth for their creators and owners.

After discussing organizations, we then turn to our main focus, organizational change. This refers, not only to changes at the organization level of analysis but also at other levels of analysis, ranging from individuals such as the organization’s chief executive officer to populations of organizations. We present topics that address contemporary understandings of organizational change.

That is, we discuss sources of change in external organizational environments and organizational responses to such change. We then discuss varieties of organizational change, including population level changes, and changes within individual organizations, including changes initiated by middle managers, organizational learning and unlearning and top management change. Next we move to planned organizational change. This includes changes in culture as well as forms of organization development and forms of whole systems changes, as well as multiple dimensions, of these types of changes.

Finally, we describe emerging topics in organizational change, including temporal dimensions, radical and continuous change, dialectical and paradoxical change, emergence, and decline, death and rebirth. Taken together, these topics suggest what organizational change research has explored up to the present. The topics also suggest agendas for new exploration.

Keywords: organization, organization change, top management, leadership, decision-making, organization development, temporal dimensions


To understand organizational change, it is necessary to understand organizations. Thus this article begins with a discussion of the foundational characteristics of organizations and related enterprises, and then moves to the discussion of organizational change.

Following conventional usage, here the term “organization” is used to refer to a purposeful hierarchical human system whose members contribute their efforts or other resources to the system in order to acquire valued resources, such as their livelihood. Some organizations, such as fraternities and other clubs, might be designed and maintained to serve no purpose other than providing their members with emotional satisfaction. Other organizations, such as police forces, hospitals, legislatures, and schools are created by society to fulfill its needs for safety, governance, and education. Business organizations are created by entrepreneurs or by other organizations for the purpose of generating wealth for their creators.

The organization theory and organization design literatures attribute the following characteristics to organizations: socially constructed (human entities interact in shaping and changing them), goal directed (although components may have varied goals, each component has at least one assigned activity that contributes to one of the organization’s focal goals), boundary maintaining (routinely distinguishes between members and nonmembers), hierarchically differentiated (one or more components has the authority to assign tasks to one or more subordinates) (Aldrich, 1979, 2008; Huber, 2011, pp. 118–119). Additionally, organizations are characterized as open systems (they interact with their environment) (Scott & Davis, 2007, pp. 87–106). Galbraith (2014) provides an exemplar of the normative organizational design literature that assumes and incorporates these characteristics. The living systems literature (Miller, 1972, 1978) asserts that the hierarchical structure of an organization contains at least two levels of decision-makers with the authority to make decisions for lower-level organizational members to enact (Miller, 1972, p. 5, 1978, p. 595). Therefore, for a human system to be referred to as an organization, it must have at least three levels. Although not as grounded in theory, in an update of his classic work Morgan (2006) provides rich, provocative, and credible descriptions of organizations as machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, and psychic prisons.

Authority and Other Influences as Determinants of Changes in Organizations and Other Enterprises

Authority to create and implement change varies with the specific responsibilities that society directs the organization to fulfill, with the values to which society requires the organization to adhere, with the organization’s circumstances, and with the degree of resistance and/or acceptance from the organization’s members, especially its highly-valued members.

Limitations of Top Management’s Authority to Make Changes to the Organization’s Structure or Actions

Two factors strongly influence the extent of the aggregate of authority, power, and influence that the organization’s top managers and other leaders have to make changes in the organization’s features or the actions of its members. One is the importance to society of the function that society has assigned to the organization. The other is the bargaining power and influence of its key members, those members who are most critical to the functioning of the core purpose of the organization. Thus leaders of military organizations have more authority over the organization’s features and the actions of its members, and thus more power to make changes in the organization’s structure or actions, than do the leaders of other types of organizations. This high level of authority follows from the criticality of the responsibility assigned by society to the organization—to reliably and effectively protect society, and to the lack of bargaining power of those many of its members whose departure from the organization is determined by schedules and regulations.

Next in its possession and use of authority to make changes to the organization’s features is the top management of large religious organizations in the Western world, religions such as Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Judaism, the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, and the large Protestant Christian churches. However, in the second decade of the 21st century, the top management of the Roman Catholic Church in America became “divided” and “polarized” (“A Widening Schism,” 2018). Because not all members of most nations are religious, or adhere to the same religion, the responsibility of a religious organization, “to reliably and effectively protect society,” is not a cultural feature of most countries. Relatedly, the upper-level managers of religious organizations cannot control the actions of their mid- to lower level managers as effectively as can the upper-level managers of military organizations.

The top managers of business organizations are primarily responsible for providing wealth to the organization’s owners. They generally have a high level of authority, even to the point of selling or dismembering the organization and thereby possibly harming organizational stakeholders. Society is accordingly watchful over its business organizations and creates governmental agencies to serve as overseers. The extent of the power that an organization’s top managers have to make changes in the organization’s features, or in the actions of its members, is sometimes curtailed by the threat that many dissatisfied organizational members would engage in a walkout or strike, or that highly-valued members would abandon the organization.

Burke (2018a, pp. 13–19) provides a basis for reasoning about the limitations on authority that confront top managers seeking to change organizations that serve multiple constituencies. For example, government agencies, non-university schools, and some non-profit organizations are responsible for reliably and effectively performing specified functions for specific societal components. Top managers of these entities have a moderate to high level of authority over their employees, curtailed somewhat by governmental regulations and societal norms. Top-level managers of universities, medical-care institutions, and other organizations facing tight labor markets for highly trained employees have only a modest level of control over the actions of those employees who provide the organization’s focal service. This situation follows from two circumstances: (a) the professional norms of many of these employees often compete with economic concerns and (b) the labor market demand for the talents of such employees provides them with negotiating strength to engage in what they see as appropriate actions.

Circumstance-Based Variations in Power Versus Non-Hierarchical Influence

An organization’s chief executive officer (CEO) and top management team (TMT) have considerable authority and influence over their organization’s members, subject to social norms and legal constraints. Whether they are initiating an organizational change or the organization is confronted with a changing situation, these top managers typically generate an interpretation of the situation and choose the response actions the organization is to take. In either of two circumstances these top managers are influenced by organizational members with non-hierarchical influence over the organization change.

Consider first the circumstances where the top management decision-makers are choosing organizational responses to threats or opportunities, or are otherwise considering initiating significant changes. In such situations, these decision-makers often become aware that certain members of the organization (e.g., technical experts or boundary spanning personnel) have expertise that these top management decision-makers need, but do not have. These expertise-possessing members have a scarce and needed resource, information, and therefore, from strategic-contingency theory (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1977), they are likely to influence top management’s choices.

A second form of non-hierarchical influence surfaces when the organization is involved in a circumstance-induced major change. In the context of such a change, all of the organization’s members potentially have some degree of unspoken influence. This influence follows from the fact that, when confronted with circumstance-induced change, such as the loss of an important market or a governmental directive to make a change in the organization’s practices, a significant proportion of the organization’s members are likely to feel threatened or otherwise dissatisfied and may consider either abandoning the organization or making other adjustments to previously anticipated futures with the organization (Fugate, Prussia, & Kinicki, 2012; Oreg, Bartunek, Lee, & Do, 2018; Oreg, Vakola, & Armenakis, 2011). If any of these actions begins to evolve and is considerably adverse to the interests of the organization, the organization’s top management will be motivated to consider which of its preferred actions must be modified, and how, if the concerns of the threatened members are to be alleviated and the organization’s adversity is to be avoided.

Business Structures Different From Organization Structures

Late in the 20th century, businesses with network structures began to appear. One such structure is a network of generally unrelated subcontractors organized by an entrepreneur or prime contractor in order to produce goods or services without investing a great deal of its capital. Another network version is a value chain, a company’s network of linked processes (each process is generally associated with an independent organization and adds value in the form of components—broadly defined—until a product for end-users is created). A third version is a network organized by a business that seeks to focus on a few management functions and subcontract out all other functions. For example, Nike, the sneaker and athletic wear company, focuses on design and marketing and contracts out its other functions (cf., Davis, 2016a). Prime contractors change their network by adding or deleting subcontractors.

At the beginning of the 21st century, businesses began to exploit advances in communication and transportation technology to create platforms. A platform is a nexus of rules and software which enables enterprises to link entities that seek information, goods, or services with other entities that will provide other information, goods, services, or funds (Davis, 2016a; Parker, Van Alstyne, & Choudary, 2016; Spulber, 2019; Van Alstyne, Parker, & Choudary, 2016). As of this writing, prominent examples of platforms are eBay, Amazon’s online retail sales of products, and Uber’s matching of customers who need transportation with drivers who provide transportation. Currently less well known is Airbnb’s temporary housing platform that links seekers of short-term housing with owners of rooms available for short-term rentals. Less well known than its retail sales business is Amazon’s labor platform, which enables Amazon to obtain work from the lowest-wage-bidding work seekers. Having explored (a) the organization construct, (b) the effects of variations on top management’s ability to change the organization, and (c) the structures of businesses not using the typical organization structure, the article turns now to examining the organization change construct, the circumstances that lead to organization change, and the changes associated with specific circumstances.

Organization Change and Its External Impetuses

A “change” is a difference in an entity’s state, condition, or property that occurs across an interval of time. In the organization change literature, “organization change” refers not only to changes at the organization level of analysis; it often refers to changes at other levels of analysis, ranging from individuals such as the organization’s chief executive officer (CEO) to populations of organizations. The organization change literature, especially in the global west, which is our primary focus, deals with business organizations more than it does with any other particular type of organization. Accordingly, this article deals with changes in business organizations more than with changes in any other type of organization. Nevertheless, changes in other types of organizations and in non-organizational business enterprises are also examined. Organizational changes prompted by sources of change in the organization’s external environment are examined first; then examined are organizational changes prompted by sources in the organization’s internal environment. For each locus of change, a variety of organizational responses is described. It is worth noting that, even though something is changing in almost all organizations almost all of the time, organizations do have strong inertial tendencies.

Sources of Change in External Organizational Environments

The external environments of organizations have long been changing rapidly (Bell, 1976; Gates, 1996; Huber, 1984). A driving force in these changes has been the ongoing advances in technology, particularly communication, manufacturing, and transportation technologies, and especially the advances in information processing technologies (Kelly, 2016). To note that external organizational environments have been changing rapidly actually describes the phenomenon inadequately; the rate of change in the technology-related environments of organizations has not just been changing rapidly, it has been accelerating (Huber, 2004; Powell & Snellman, 2004). There are good reasons to believe that these environments will change even more rapidly in the future (Kelly, 2016).

This acceleration in the rate of environmental change is primarily a consequence of the following reciprocal relationship:

  1. 1. Advances in technology are likely to continue their accelerating rate of change because an underlying driver of these technological advances (i.e., advances in science), continues to progress and to prompt and facilitate advances in technology, and

  2. 2. These advances in science are likely to continue their accelerating rate of change because three underlying drivers of these scientific advances (e.g., advances in computing technologies, scientific measurement technologies, and communication technologies), serve as tools in the conduct of science and thus enable scientists to be more productive (Huber, 2004, pp. 31–34).

Organizational Responses to Changes in External Environments

Changes in markets or government policy or strategic changes by competitors are changes in the organization’s external environment that generally require organization change and that can be threats and/or opportunities. In recent decades, attempts to control the adverse effects of using fossil fuels or to employ sources of renewable energy have been sources of change in business environments. Changes in human populations (such as migrations, changes in birth rates, and changes in societal norms) are sources of change in the natural world that occur infrequently and sometimes slowly, but which can frequently affect the circumstances of business organizations. Many sources of change in the external environment prompt decision-makers to consider changing the organization’s strategy, such as initiating changes in product lines, pricing, or market image. The choices and characteristics of these possible changes generally lead to further searches for information about the environment. An example of such a search is March’s (1991) description of an organization’s exploration of its environment (a search to identify new opportunities) versus exploitation of its current strategic practices (a search for ways to capitalize on the organization’s current features and practices). Other sources of change in the external environment, such as changes in the economy or in the availability of relevant employees, might not require changes in strategy but rather may require only changes in the organization’s form or features, such as downsizing, eliminating layers of hierarchy, or changing the organization’s compensation system. In practice, in order to avoid taking costly or risky actions, organizational decision-makers often choose a “wait and see” tactic, either to gather information or to see if the threat regresses (Arrow, 1974, p. 49; Gilbert, 2005, p. 746, 2006, p. 153).

Threat-rigidity theory (Staw, Sandelands, & Dutton, 1981) describes a common organizational response to an adverse change in the organization’s external. This theory predicts that an external threat to the vital interests of an individual, group, or organization, will lead to forms of rigidity in which the threatened entity will continue enacting, or even intensifying, existing actions—rather than searching for different actions that might reduce or eliminate the potential harm associated with the threat. Associated with continuing their ongoing actions, threatened organizations tend also to adapt to threats by intensifying three features of their structure. They increase centralization of authority, increase formalization, and increase the scope or intensity of efficiency-enhancing practices (Staw et al., 1981). Staw et al. do not explain this centralization of authority, but gathering and using power follows from executives’ disposition to fulfill their social role of protecting the viability of their organization and the interests of its stakeholders (Fiske & Taylor, 1991, pp. 119–121). Although, as Staw et al. (1981) observed, adverse changes in an organization’s external environment prompt the organization to modify its structure and communication practices, favorable changes might also prompt such changes. For example, newly available advances in information technologies might enable an organization to make performance-enhancing changes in its structure or decision processes (cf., Huber, 1990).

From their review of empirical works that dealt with organizational responses to threatening situations and also from their use of upward extrapolation, Staw et al. (1981) induced hypotheses to the effect that, when faced with threats to their vital interests, organizations are highly likely to undertake any or all of three actions that change their structure. They tend to (a) increase centralization of authority, (b) increase formalization, and (c) increase the scope or intensity of efficiency-enhancing practices. Each of these three actions contributes to rigidity. Staw et al. (1981) explain how outcomes of these changes can have either dysfunctional or functional effects—dysfunctional effects if the threatening situation is unfamiliar to the organization or functional effects if the threatening situation is familiar. Using this same database, the researchers also induced the hypotheses that seriously threatened organizations tend to generate and exhibit three information-processing behaviors to an extent greater than that manifested before they encountered the threatening situation. They (a) generate communications that tend to be simplified rather than complex, (b) rely on prior knowledge rather than searching for new interpretations of the situation or new coping actions, and (c) exhibit symptoms of dysfunctional communication or information overload. Staw et al. (1981, pp. 512–513) argue that these behaviors can also contribute to rigidity and can be dysfunctional. These six hypotheses, three concerning actions and three concerning behaviors, exemplify rigidity in the context of T-R theory at the organizational level and are the essence of the theory at the organizational level. (Here and elsewhere, let us view actions as those behaviors that are intentional.)

Population-Level Organization Change

In its early formulation (Hannan & Freeman, 1977, p. 939), population ecology theory posited that (a) the diversity of organizational forms in a population of organizations is isomorphic to the diversity of environments in the population, (b) that isomorphism can result either because non-optimal organizational forms are selected out or because organizational decision-makers learn optimal responses and adjust organizational behavior accordingly, and (c) that as a population’s environment changed, in circumstances such as the availability of a needed resource, those organizations which were unable to adapt would disappear, causing a change in the content of the population. The theory has been substantially altered or substantially modified in response to contrary theorizing (Child, 1972, 1997) and research findings (Barnett & Carroll, 1995; Dobrev, Kim, & Carroll, 2002) and the incorporation into the model of ideas from other theories, particularly neo-institutional theory (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Meyer & Rowan, 1977).

Population-Level Learning as a Form of Change and Homogenization

Miner and Haunschild (1995) define population-level learning as “systematic change in the nature and mix of organizational action routines in a population of organizations, arising from experience” (1995, p. 118). They conceptualize population-level learning as “the result of repeated variation-selection-retention processes. Variation occurs when different types of routines are enacted by different firms (either individually or in clusters), or by the population as a whole. Selection occurs when one routine, cluster, or stable menu of routines (Suchman, 1994) persist while others drop out. Retention processes include the ongoing mechanism and factors that sustain the presence and execution of routines once they have become widespread in the population” (Miner & Haunschild, 1995, pp. 119–122). What has just been described is a homogenizing process. Another homogenizing process occurs when organizations of the same type change to adopt the current or evolving “dominant logic” (Bettis & Prahalad, 1995), the current belief about an organizational property such as structure or a practice (Prahalad, 2004; Westphal, Gulati, & Shortell, 1997). This adoption process is referred to as “mimetic isomorphism” by Aldrich and Ruef (2006, p. 176), who note that “mimetic isomorphism implies that firms will adopt the practice, regardless of its efficacy” (2006, p. 176).

Changes in the Distribution of Size, Power, and Number of Business Organizations

In the last few years of the second decade of this century, the media and the scholarly community addressed the adverse effects of the domination of giant companies on the economies and policies of the United States and, to a lesser extent, the world. A giant problem; the superstar company (2016) noted that “The giants . . . deploy huge armies of lobbyists. . . . superstar firms are gaining control of entire markets and finding new ways to entrench themselves.” (See also Mayer, Wright, & Phan, 2017). These phenomena are interpretable as instances of population level learning (Miner & Haunschild, 1995), via either copying or experience. Davis (2016a, 2016b) also described changes in business organizations, but looked at different variables—focusing not on growth in size and power of already huge organizations, but on decreases in the number and size of business organizations caused by changes in technology (e.g., platform enterprises) and decreases in number caused by the acquisition activities of the corporate giants.

Sources, Types, and Effects of Common Changes in Internal Environments

Many changes in an organization’s internal environment are adaptations to changes in the organization’s external environment. Many others are associated with the facts that upper level managers are motivated to improve their organization’s performance or circumstances, that middle level managers often “sell” ideas for change to top management (Dutton et al., 1997; Dutton, Ashford, O’Neil, & Lawrence, 2001), and that organizations are living systems that are continuously evolving.

Changes Initiated by Middle Managers

Everyday observation makes clear that middle managers are often more aware of issues of interest to customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders than are upper-level managers. In order to call attention to these issues, and thereby enhance the circumstances of the organization’s stakeholders, middle managers often engage in issue selling, “an interpersonal process involving individuals of different status” (Dutton et al., 1997) and “an early part of a more general change process” (Dutton et al., 2001). The issue-selling perspective directs attention to managers not part of the top management team as potential change agents and portrays organization change as a more pluralistic process than is portrayed in the upper echelons perspective (Finkelstein, Hambrick, & Cannella, 2009; Hambrick, 2007).

It is not unusual for top managers to initiate change whose implementation must be led by middle managers (Huy, 2002). Thus, middle managers’ judgments of the legitimacy of a particular organizational change at various times during a change process has considerable impact on the success of the organizational change (Huy, Corley, & Kraatz, 2014). So do the emotional reactions of the middle managers not only to a change itself, but also to the top managers who initiated it (Balogun, Bartunek, & Do, 2015; Vuori & Huy, 2016). When their emotional responses are negative the likelihood of the success of the change will be decreased.

Intentional and Unintentional Organizational Learning

Organizations experience events in their ecosystems. Those events that are significant or strange provoke attempts to learn about, understand, and learn from them, and such learning is a form of change. It is often and simplistically assumed that organizational performance must be enhanced in order to claim that organizational learning has occurred. However, to the contrary, learning does not always lead to veridical knowledge that could enhance performance, as sample data may be misinterpreted or misrepresentative (e.g., Levitt & March, 1988). Thus learners can incorrectly learn (by misinterpreting information) and can correctly learn that which is incorrect (by correctly interpreting incorrect or otherwise misrepresentative data). In view of these observations, Huber (1991, p. 89) concluded that “An entity learns if, through its processing of information, the range of its potential behaviors is changed.”

Senge (1990) advocated the importance of organizations becoming learning organizations in which “employees excel at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge” (Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino, 2008, p. 110). However, Garvin et al. acknowledge that it is difficult to create effective learning organizations, due to frequent lacks of supportive learning environments, concrete learning activities and leadership behavior that fosters rather than impedes effective learning. Edmondson (2002), focusing on learning within teams within organizations, found that team members’ perceptions of how power is distributed within the organization and how safe it is to take risks also affects their learning.

Organizational Forgetting and Intentional Unlearning

“Organizational forgetting refers to ‘the loss, voluntary or otherwise, of organizational knowledge’ (Martin de Holan & Phillips, 2004, p. 1606)” (Mariano, Casey, & Olivera, 2018, p. 169). Accidental or inadvertent forgetting encompasses both knowledge loss and knowledge depreciation, where knowledge loss refers to failure to maintain knowledge and knowledge depreciation refers to the gradual decay of organizational knowledge (Mariano et al., 2018, p. 169). Organizational unlearning has been viewed as including (a) changing acquisition processes and possible retrieval processes in the organization memory, (b) disruption or recreations of the organization’s memory, (c) purposely eliminating memories, and (d) disintegrating the community’s collective infrastructure of routines (Akgun, Byrne, Lynn, & Halit, 2007, p. 797; see also Fiol & O’Connor, 2017a, 2017b).

Change Effects of Immigration or Emigration on Organizational Members’ Values or Competencies

Changes in the organization’s membership as a result of immigration or emigration can lead to a change in the post-change membership’s values or competencies in two ways. One way is that the post-change membership will reflect values or competencies in accord with the post-change proportions of members who possess these values or competencies (March, 1981, p. 565). The other way that a change in the membership’s values or competencies occurs is that new members may influence the values or competencies of the organization’s pre-immigrant members (Levitt & March, 1988, pp. 319–340).

Stakeholder-Forced Turnover of Top Management

That stakeholders force replacement of top managers who do not cause the organization to perform well is common knowledge. Occasionally poor organizational performance follows from executives taking aberrant actions to advance their personal circumstances rather than the organization’s circumstances, a phenomenon that is explained by agency theory (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Eisenhardt, 1989; Wowak, Gomez-Mejia, & Steinbach, 2017). Somewhat less frequently executives engage in narcissistic behavior (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007) or other behaviors that reflect extremely high levels of core self-evaluations (Hiller & Hambrick, 2005) and which disgrace or otherwise stain the organization’s image or reputation. These violations of adherence to the executive’s organizational and social roles (Fiske & Taylor, 1991) constitute a significant departure from the expectations of owners and boards of directors, and provoke these entities to replace the executive. These matters have received no noticeable attention by scholars regarding organization change. Further, the turnover of such top managers likely causes organizational change in itself and may affect the implementation of already planned changes (e.g., Ginsberg & Abrahamson, 1991; Wiersema & Bantel, 1993).

Planned Organizational Change

Many changes come about in organizations as a result of ongoing evolution in external or internal characteristics. Sometimes, however, there are planned efforts whose intent is to create change in organizations. Many of these aim, at least in part, to transform an organization’s culture. This section of the article thus includes a discussion of cultural change; organization development (OD), which has been a primary means of achieving such change; and participant responses to change. All of these changes are receiving considerable contemporary attention.

Changes in Organizational Culture

Aside from external stimuli that affect their culture, organizations may become cultural characterizations of themselves; organizations become less culturally flexible as members who are prone to deviate from the cultural norm in terms of beliefs or actions leave the organization, either of their own accord or under duress. This pattern intensifies the organization’s culture, an organization change that leads to further departures of cultural deviants and reinforces the organization’s cultural homogenization. On the other hand, new members may potentially foster cultural heterogeneity if they are able influence the values of the organization’s prior members (Levitt & March, 1988, pp. 328–320).

It is common to speak of the need to change an organization’s culture whenever there are problems with organizational functioning. Thus, organizational culture has often been the primary focus of organizational change attempts, even though the term “culture” has sometimes been used very sketchily and loosely when such attempts are undertaken.

The most influential definition has been Schein’s (2010) tripartite one of culture as including artifacts; values; and, at root, unconscious assumptions. Schein’s model treats culture as a given throughout an organization, developed out of early, especially founding, experiences in the organization. Given this, it is difficult to change an organization’s culture.

Recently, however, Swidler’s (1986) conceptualization of culture as a toolkit that provides resources on which individuals and organizations can draw when formulating change has become more influential (Hatch, Schultz, & Skov, 2015) in organizational circles. Swidler’s approach suggests that organizational culture reflects a social construction process in which organizational members draw on cultural tools in order construct their understandings of themselves. Culture change largely means constructing new understandings. Thus, culture is not a given, but something quite malleable.

Organization Development and Its Forms

The term “organization development” (OD) has been used since the 1960s as a means to intervene in organization processes in order to increase their effectiveness (cf. Burke, 2018a; Cummings & Worley, 2015). It originally was defined as an organization-wide effort that was managed from the top and aimed at increasing organizational effectiveness and health through planned interventions into an organization’s processes, based on behavioral science knowledge (Beckhard, 1969). Its initial planned interventions were intended to improve work practices, especially in work teams, and they were based on action research approaches that involved consultants and participants jointly diagnosing problems and then determining together how to address them (e.g., Pasmore & Friedlander, 1982).

Planned organizational change efforts based on the general rubric of OD have expanded in scope considerably since their beginnings (cf. Bartunek & Woodman, 2015). Starting in the 1970s, OD developed greater attention to socio-technical systems approaches, which focused in particular on the recognition that an organization is simultaneously a social and technical system (Pasmore, 1988). This was reflected in studies of the quality of work life interventions (Macy & Izumi, 1993); in high-involvement workplaces (Lawler, 1986); and, more recently, in discussions of the importance of employee engagement at work (Axelrod, 2010).

Beginning in the 1980s (Bunker & Alban, 1997), OD started to include what came to be called, first, large-group interventions and then system-wide interventions, in which members of a “whole system” (Holman, Devane, & Cady, 2007)—top decision-makers, other leaders, and stakeholders in the organization—came together in short bursts of time (usually two to three days interspersed between extensive planning and implementation times) to create their “desired future.” Among the most popular methods for accomplishing this are open space, future search, and world café (all of which are described in Holman et al., 2007).

Over the course of the years, the philosophy of OD has evolved considerably. It has moved away from an emphasis on diagnosing problems toward a more social constructionist approach and a growing emphasis on narrative approaches to knowledge. This approach has come to be called “dialogic OD.” Bushe and Marshak (2009, p. 361) summarized the new perspective, arguing that “dialogic OD practice is a conscious intent to engage the whole system in dialog and synergistic relationships in such a way that: mental models are surfaced; new knowledge, structures, processes, practices, and stories are collaboratively created and shared; and diverse stakeholder voices and perspectives are heard.”

The dialogic OD approach overlaps considerably with positive organization studies (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003; Cameron, Mora, Leutscher, & Calarco, 2011), which turns research and practice attention to how organizations create positive, value-based processes and outcomes. This is particularly true of its signature initiative, Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 1999). This method starts by discovering the positive and life-giving aspects in even dire organizational situations, under the assumption that exploring what is positive is more likely to give life to a system than is exploring what is negative. It then progresses through phases of creating results-oriented vision, designing possible ways of accomplishing it, and then strengthening the capacity of a system to accomplish its desires. Among the places where Appreciative Inquiry has been implemented was a 2004 Global Leaders Summit, at a meeting involving then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and nearly 500 business leaders from around the world.

There have been some differences of opinion regarding the contemporary success of OD. Some, such as Burke (2018), believe that it is not keeping up with changes in the world, so might not endure. Others (e.g., Bartunek & Woodman, 2012) suggest that the kinds of organizational issues OD addresses are so crucial that it will continue to evolve and exist. Still others (Stouten, Rousseau, & De Cremer, 2018) suggest that OD has considerable potential but that its evidence base has not been adequate. Stouten et al. summarize evidence that can foster its ongoing improvement.

Resistance and Other Responses to Organization Change

It is often taken for granted that resistance to change will be the response of recipients to planned change initiatives undertaken by change agents and other organizational leaders (e.g., Battilana & Casciaro, 2013; Hon, Bloom, & Crant, 2014; Oreg & Bergson, 2019). Further, it is assumed that resistance contributes considerably to the failure of change. However, in recent years it has become clear that recipients of change do not automatically reject it, that there are multiple types of recipient responses to change. Thus, it is important to attend to the variety of emotional and behavioral responses to change exhibited by recipients of change.

Recently, Oreg et al. (2018), building on the circumplex of emotions originally developed by Russell (1980), suggested that recipients’ affective and behavioral responses to change may be both positive and negative, and activated or non-activated. They may take the form of resistance, but they may also take forms of proactivity, disengagement, or passive acceptance. Further, these various responses will depend at least in part on how relevant the goals of the change are to change recipients, as well as the congruence of the goals with their own aspirations.

Importance of Temporal Dimensions of Planned Change

Although this is usually not recognized, a number of temporal dimensions of change play important roles in its progress. The most common image used to describe temporal dimensions of planned organizational change over time has been Lewin’s (1947) dictum that change unfolds in three steps that he labeled unfreezing, moving, and freezing. These steps give a sequential image of the process of organizational change, one that includes the ordering of events over time (e.g., Amis, Slack, & Hinings, 2004; Langley, 1999). In Lewin’s depiction, the ordering of change is linear.

However, since Lewin’s time there has been considerable development in understanding the complexities of time and temporal dimensions in and among organizations (e.g., Albert, 2013; Bartunek & Woodman, 2015; Bluedorn, 2002; Kunisch, Bartunek, Mueller, & Huy, 2017). This has led to the recognition of how organizational change is intertwined with multiple temporal dimensions in addition to sequence, and that these dimensions may affect how it takes place.

One temporal dimension that likely affects the course of change is timing (Ancona, Goodman, Lawrence, & Tushman, 2001; Langley, 1999), which is reflected in, among other things, the presence of deadlines, timetables, timing norms, and windows of opportunity, all of which suggest that some times are more appropriate than others to initiate particular actions. Another is pacing (Amis et al., 2004; Ancona & Chong, 1996), which refers to the speed of change at particular times in a change. Yet another is rhythms, the types of cycles that occur during change. Klarner and Raisch (2013, p. 168) note that organizational changes likely occur in one or more of four types of rhythms: focused (long periods of change and short periods of stability), punctuated (long periods of stability and short periods of change), temporarily switching (alternating stability and change), and regular (in which intervals between changes are relatively equal). Finally, an important temporal dimension is whether a change is monophonic (carried out by one actor or set of actors in one sequence) or polyphonic (Albert, 2013), carried out by multiple actors in multiple settings and involving differing sequences, rhythms, and pacing. How these different patterns mesh with each other often affects the course of change.

In other words, organizational change is highly unlikely to unfold along straightforward, linear pathways. Rather, how it unfolds will depend on its timing. Further, its pacing will likely shift during the course of change, and it will follow some type(s) of rhythmic pattern. Its success will depend at least in part on how well its timing, pacing, and rhythm mesh with those of others on whom it depends.

Emerging Distinctions in Types of Organizational Change

Over the past decades there has been an increasing awareness of the multiple forms organization change might take. In particular, there has been increased recognition of radical and continuous change, dialectical and paradoxical change, emergence and decline, death and rebirth. These types of change extend considerably the recognition of the types of events and processes that characterize organizational change, and show why it cannot always be fully planned.

Radical Versus Continuous Change

Starting in the 1980s, there began to be considerable discussion of organizational transformation, or radical change. Although the discussions have had a variety of meanings (e.g., Bartunek, 1984; Tushman & Romanelli, 1985), they have shared the general acknowledgement that radical change is not linear; the organization is not getting better at what it is already doing. Rather, there is a drastic shift in key components of the organization, sometimes in its mission, often in strategy, structure, power, and culture; and the change must be led from the top. Further, the assumption has sometimes been made that radical change must be accomplished in a short amount of time if it is to be accomplished at all (Romanelli & Tushman, 1994). However, results of a 12-year longitudinal study by Amis et al. (2004) made evident that radical change does not necessarily occur in short bursts.

Radical change has been contrasted with continuous change, (e.g., Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997), which describes ways that organizational change can take place more or less continuously through a number of sequenced steps or microprocesses (Reay, Golden-Biddle, & Germann, 2006). Those who emphasize continuous change also sometimes use a geological metaphor that indicates that organizations contain multiple layers of history, and even a radical change may shift only the top layers (Cooper, Hinings, Greenwood, & Brown 1996).

Dialectical and Paradoxical Change

In recent years there has been increased attention to the roles of tensions and contradictions in organizational life (e.g., Hargrave & Van de Ven, 2017) and their importance for change. (Such awareness has always been more present in the Global East than the Global West, cf. Jing & Van de Ven, 2014; Marshak, 1993). Tensions and contradictions can be treated as dualisms in which the sides are in competition with each other and in which one side of the tension must “win” over the other. Or they may be treated as dualities in which the need for both sides of the tensions is acknowledged (e.g., Seo & Creed, 2002; Seo et al., 2004).

Dialectical change illustrates dualities. It occurs when the tensions are treated as equivalent to a thesis and antithesis, and allowed to inform each other through productive conflict in such a way that together they culminate in a new synthesis. Bartunek (1984) and Seo and Creed (2002) have shown that this kind of pattern may lead to organizational and institutional change associated with radically new understandings.

Paradoxical approaches to organizational life also focus on dualities. However, contrary to treating them as theses and antitheses to be resolved in some way, members of an organization may treat them as simultaneously valid; inherently interdependent; and, as such, the foundation of organizing (Smith & Lewis, 2011). Further, Smith and Lewis have identified four paradoxical tensions at the root of organizing. These are learning, belonging, organizing, and performing.

From a paradox perspective, change often takes the form of organizational members moving from seeing contradictions as dualisms—as fundamentally in competition with each other with one winning over the other—to recognizing their joint interdependence. This new view is considered to lead to considerable creative energy, in which organizational members are able to re-examine their assumptions, develop new and more complex visions for what they are about Andriopoulos and Lewis (2009), and lead more complexly.


Most approaches to organizational change have been based on an implicit assumption that change is planned by and led from top management. However, advances in complexity theory, beginning with the work of Lorenz (1963), who showed ways that small changes in one area may generate large changes in others, have challenged that idea and led to new perceptions of how radical change may take place absent the initiation of top management.

Lorenz identified that novelty may emerge in living systems when small parts join together to create a whole that is more than the sum of the parts (Ablowitz, 1939). This type of pattern may occur in organizations when very small changes culminate in larger ones. Lichtenstein (2014), in particular, has described generative emergence in organizations as the creation of new social entities, such as new projects and social innovations, from their preexisting elements.

One example of this pattern in organizational settings comes from the creation of an emergent change in a church that was initiated by apparently small changes that together became radical over time (Plowman et al., 2007). Another is the creation of musical theatres in Branson, Missouri, over the course of a 100-year span that began with fluctuations in “a lake, a book, and a train” (Chiles, Meyer, & Hench, 2004, p. 503) that were amplified by self-reinforcing processes over time.

Decline, Death, and Rebirth

In early scholarly approaches to organizational change, the implicit, if not explicit, assumption was that organizations keep developing over time (e.g., Greiner, 1972). Since the 1980s, there has been increased recognition that this assumption does not correspond with the real situations of organizations. In fact, organizational decline is a common experience of organizations, especially in times of external economic scarcity (Whetten, 1980). Further, most organizations eventually die (Sutton, 1987).

However, organizations may be very resilient. Seasonal organizations, such as summer camps, may come back to life every year after months of dormancy (Birnholtz, Cohen, & Hoch, 2007). Some organizations that decline may experience a renaissance (Siggelkow, 2001). Some organizations that die may stimulate new organizations that carry out their legacy (Walsh & Bartunek, 2011). In other words, death may be a form of change in organizations, not solely an ending.


The scope and variety of organization changes described here make clear that organization change is a familiar and important feature of society’s ecosystem. The scope and variety of the literature also elucidate that organization change is an area of considerable interest and importance to society and to the research community.


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