‘I wouldn’t have started from here’ - The Challenge Of Bringing Emergent Change Insights To Planned Change Projects

Planned Change - The good and the bad

When organizations decide they need to make changes in the way they work, their culture or their IT system they often default to a planned change approach. Typically LEAN specialists and programme managers if not already present are hired and the process of organising a top-down driven change process begins.

This approach has its strengths. It often reveals scope for improved efficiency, but more tellingly, it presents change as a problem of data and logic and makes change look manageable, sequential and what I can only describe as ‘tidy’. Unfortunately it also leads straight to the ‘how to get buy-in’ and ‘how to overcome the resistance to change’ conversations.

Planned change approaches inadvertently encourage people to give up trying to contribute to the change conversation or to influence how it happens. They can become passive, demotivated and demoralised, waiting to be told what to do. It is when the downsides of this approach become apparent that people find their way to me, presenting their challenge as a problem of dis-engagement, poor morale, people needing support during change.


Bringing in Emergent Change

We know that emergent, dialogic, psychological, and co-creative approaches to change such as Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, and Open Space act to motivate, engage and energise people and connect to their desire to influence their own future, to be part of the change process. The challenge is how to bring them to the party when the planned change process is already in full swing: when one’s first thought upon engagement is, ‘well I wouldn’t have started from here’ – but here we are.


How To

There is an art to bringing value from our perspective under these circumstances. We need to work at the interstices, in the gaps that emerge in the planned change process. In working with this challenge, there are some principles for engaging that I have found useful.


  1. Work with who you can, where you can

You may not be able to get ‘the whole system in the room’, that doesn’t mean you can’t work in these ways with the bits of the system you can gain access to. Use all opportunities to help people start to understand change as an emergent phenomena that they can influence, even as planned change is unfolding all around them. Bring your appreciative questioning style and your positive focus on strengths and good affect to all opportunities. Work wherever you can, with whoever you gain access to the move the focus to: what we can do, what we can influence.

     2. Adapt processes to fit the opportunities

I have used Appreciative Inquiry approaches working with parts of the system over a series of events, pulling it all together through another series of events (multi-events for one process); with one group in small chunks of time over time (one event split over time); and have developed one-day ‘roadworthy’ Appreciative Inquiry processes when unable to negotiate the longer time I would have desired. I have found Appreciative Inquiry to be an incredibly robust process that acts to re-energise, re-motivate, re-engage the disillusioned, disengaged and demotivated time after time.

    3. Encourage awareness of possibilities of local influence and control

Help people and groups focus on what they can influence. Usually the idea that top management ‘has got it all planned out’ is a myth. Top management don’t have brain space to attend to every last detail. If people want good decision making in their own area they need to seize the initiative and start presenting ways forward. Help groups focus on what is important to them in the change and on how they can influence the wider system. Once again Appreciative Inquiry is great for this. It is these conversations that start to rekindle hope, optimism, motivation to engage.


     4. Keep bringing key ideas to the fore

These are some of the ideas that need encouragement and reinforcement as planned change swings into gear, and that you can bring to any conversation or situation you are able to negotiate entry to:

  • Volunteerism - people are being pushed around enough already, try to make any specific events you are able to run optional (and very attractive!).
  • Co-creation – always ask ‘who else can we usefully involve in this?’ Encourage leaders to take questions to their teams in a co-creative (e.g. not just consultative) way. I find the notion of ‘drawing on the collective intelligence’ often helps with negotiating more involvement by lower level staff.
  • Positivity – focus on creating positive affect, it really helps create resilience during a difficult time. Encourage others to recognize the continuing importance of positive mood boosts. Many ‘rewarding’ experiences disappear during change as people go ‘heads down’ and pleasurable interactions can lessen.
  • Strengths – people are more energised, engaged, motivated etc. when they can use their strengths to achieve their objectives. Help groups focus on identifying these and working out how to draw on them: individual strengths, group strengths, organisational strengths.
  • Hope and optimism - In my experience these can be early casualties of planned change. Using appreciative techniques helps people focus on the best of the past and their hopes for the future. Hope is also part of the ‘building resilience’ challenge.
  • Pro-activity – encourage people to take responsibility for how they are engaging with the change and the effect they are having on others around them. It’s the antidote to the ‘being done to’ feeling that can be so strong during planned change
  • Leaders’ face – be mindful always of leaders’ face. They are (usually) doing their best to do the best for the organization, and they are doing it the only way they know how. As we help people make sense of what is going on, we need to help them recognize this.
  • Story and Choice – Unhelpful stories often emerge during change about the motivation for change in general and to explain leaders’ behaviour in particular. These are often stories of blame, inadequacy, deficit and deceit, nefarious motives and so on. We can remind people that there are many truths about a situation, and situations are often paradoxical. We can remind them that they have a choice about the story they choose to tell, both to themselves and to others and that the telling of stories has impact for action.
  • Amplifying success – in change people get so focused on what isn’t working they lose sight of the fact that they are still achieving things. Bringing these to the fore helps with morale, pride etc.


See Case Studies of how introducing emergent change into planned change can work in practice

Case Study - Making The Virtual World Visible

Case Study - Cultural Change

More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.

Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at the tools we use to foster Emergent Change.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715