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Change Strategy


Disciplines > Change Management > Planning for change > Change Strategy

Forced march Top-down vision | Middle-out | Power out | Bottom-up | Customer-in | Lighting fires | Stealth | See also


When implementing change you are using a strategy whether you plan this or not. It is better to first think of this overall approach and then customize your actions accordingly. Here are some of the strategies that are used.

Forced march

Sometimes, though not often, the best approach is by simple command and control, telling everyone in the company exactly what to do.

This may be essential in times of crisis (which may be manufactured in order to enable this approach) where there is no time for discussion, but otherwise it can result in significant resistance. It is also only possible if the person in charge knows exactly what must be done.

Top-down vision

This is the classic change pattern: the person at the top (or managing team) has a vision of the future and cascades this down through organization.

A good way to do this is by a 'what-how' cascade, where at each step the senior person says 'This is what I want to happen' and the subordinate says 'This is how I can do it.' This approach makes use of operational knowledge and helps promote buy-in.

A risk with this is that the sum of the actions at the front line of the organization does not add up to the original vision. It is also possible that operational realities make the vision impractical or unwise.


In some organizations the middle managers have a particular position of knowledge and influence. They are close enough to the front line that they understand operational realities and are also senior enough to have the trust and relationships with top management.

The principle here, then, is to put particular effort in engaging middle managers in defining and deploying the change. Other managers may still be involved, but the middle is given particular responsibility and authority to make the change happen.


Some organizations do not have a strong middle management yet many have distinct roles which have disproportionate power, such as factory managers and front-line supervisors. The idea with this strategy is to find where power already exists and focus efforts there to get buy-in and engage them in the detail of making the change happen.

This approach has the advantage of 'fishing where the fish are' in terms of using existing power structures rather than fighting this. There is still a danger that this leads to a fragmented approach where individuals think first of their own empire and less of the greater good.


In any company the people who are most hands-on and may well understand realities more than anyone else are the front-line people. You can hence start with these folks, engaging them in discussions of how things are really working and seeking to uncover opportunities and problems.

This may be swimming against the tide of managerial control but it can be particularly effective when there is widespread management resistance to change. It can be enabled with such as large workshops, putting front-line people on change committees and rewarding individual initiative.


An effective way of creating imperative is to start with customers and other key stakeholders. Do a strong 'listening' exercise, with surveys, focus groups and so on to understand the 'customer voice' and what they like and dislike about both you and your competitors.

Then focus all efforts on addressing these concerns. Keep the customer perception channel open throughout, maintaining deep conversations with representative customers and using wide surveys to give a regular metric to show improvements.

Lighting fires

Sometimes when you do not have consistent buy-in of managers the only way is to go around selling the idea for change. This is like lighting fires: some will go out but some will catch and start making a difference. Then as you fan the flames, the fire gradually spreads.

This can be a slow process and there is no guarantee of success, yet it is surprisingly common, particularly when there is no real buy-in from senior management who may be taking a 'wait and see' approach in order to avoid blame should things go wrong.


An even more subtle way of creating change is by not telling anyone about it. Common ways of doing this include changing the policies that set organizational direction and the mechanisms by which people are motivated.

Catalytic mechanisms are levers that interlock to create change. For example if you base bonuses on a customer satisfaction survey, then people will work to increase their bonus by making customers happy through improving service.

See also

Five Levels of Change, Resistance to change


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