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Styles of Change


Disciplines > Change Management > Styles of Change

The collaboration spectrum | Matching style to situation | See also


Depending on the style and scope/size of the change, different approaches are likely to be taken. This is often a matter of management preference, although the style used should be more about the situational factors.

The collaboration spectrum

There are several levels of collaboration that may be used along a spectrum that starts with full consideration of the people involved in the change and ends up with little or no concern for the people.


<==== Pull ==== === Push ===>
Collaborative Consultative Directive Coercive



A collaborative approach to change means involving the people affected, creating the change with them rather than doing the change to them. This works by creating pull and gaining commitment through getting people to invest in the change.

A big dilemma with collaboration is the extent to which you allow people to make decisions vs. make recommendations about the change. Risks with giving away too much power include people making sub-optimal, self-oriented choices or the devolved decisions across the organization do not align with one another and hence create more problems than they solve.

A way of making collaboration successful is the What-How approach. In this method, the senior team still control the strategic decisions and work out what needs doing. They then devolve how this is to be achieved to the organization below them -- in which more What-How deployments may occur.

The problem with collaboration is that it takes time and effort, which relatively few organizations are either willing or able to give. When speed is important and resources are thin on the ground, then investing in collaborative efforts can seem wasteful.


A compromise to the full-on collaborative approach is to show that at least you are listening to the people affected by the change. This may take the form of interactive real-time 'town hall' meetings, directors' tours, and so on. It can use technology for web-enabled discussions and so on. It may also use suggestion schemes and the Request For Comment (RFC) approach, where plans out to people for comment, although what you do with comments received is entirely up to you.

Care must be taken during consultation to ensure that people know the process, and that they perceive it to be fair. As you move away from collaboration, greater trust is required of the decision-makers and thus more trust-building activities may be required.

Consultative approaches provide a degree of balance between the engagement of collaboration and the push of direction and coercion.


In a directive approach, there may still be a high level of communication, but it is now largely one-way. The organization is told how it will change. This is thus using the principle of push to drive through change. With the control of what happens in relatively few hands, the risk of variation in the plan is essentially removed.

What will happen and when is laid out in a schedule that may or may not be publicized. The problem with this is that there is often a fear (which may or may not be well-founded) that there will be greater resistance to change if people know what is going to happen. Resistance comes particularly from those who hold power (and it is surprising what power even the most junior person can have).

To help reduce the problem of resistance, very high levels of communication may be required and a paternal-maternal approach may be used ('father knows best' + 'mother cares'). Thus, for example, there may be generous severance packages for those who lose their jobs.


At the furthest extreme, a coercive approach pays little attention to the people, their ideas or their needs. Changes are implemented in a relatively mechanical way

Typical of a coercive approach is the shock and surprise that people encounter as change is thrust upon them. A not unusual situation is that people arrive at work one Monday morning and find that they no longer have a job. They may alternatively be told that they are going to have to move far away across the country, a tactic sometimes used to legally reduce the workforce. Another variant is to bankrupt the company and then re-start as a new company with everyone having to apply again for their jobs (this has been used to get around Trade Union issues).

Not all coercive approaches are unethical and some are simply born of the need for urgency. Ethics lie in the values of the people who are planning and implementing the change, rather than the fact that a coercive approach is being used.

Matching style to situation

The collaborative style used in any situation is often dictated more by the values and beliefs of the managers involved. A better approach is to consider various aspects of the situation before you choose the approach.


Collaborative approaches are particularly important when you have a high level of professionally qualified people whose brains may be usefully engaged in the planning process and who would be particularly dismayed at being left out. This becomes even more so if you are in an employment market where your people can easily leave to work in other companies.

Collaboration also may be the only approach when power is distributed across the company and you simply are unable to implement change without the full buy-in of large groups of people.

Collaborative approaches can require significant amounts of time and effort, and so may be restricted to situations where you have the foresight to change before it is thrust upon you.


Consultation is, in many ways, a watered-down version of collaboration. The views of people are elicited, which does take some time, but any protracted period of debate is eliminated (achieving an acceptable decision with a lot of people is often very time-consuming).

Consultation thus works as a compromise and may be the only options when you have a lot of professionals and talent that can easily walk if they do not know what you are doing.

Electronic media can be very usefully used in consultation to engage a geographically dispersed organization, for example by using email or web-based responses.


Directive approaches flip over in approach from pull to push and you thus need the power to be able to make this work, particularly getting people all going in the same direction rather than scattering as they run away from the push.

Direction thus needs to be done firmly and quickly and suits situations where time is of the essence. Strong planning is essential to make it work, as you seldom have time to go back and try something else. You also are leaving out the thoughts of a lot of other minds so you need to take time to get it right first time.


Even more so than direction, coercive approaches suit only those situations where you need people to move particularly fast or where human relations have broken down to the point where nobody listens to anyone else and the only option is force. Of course this is not a desirable option, but when the alternative is total failure, it may be the best (or only) choice of action.

See also

Scope of change, Situational Leadership

Investment principle, Pull, Push principle

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