What’s the “Right” Way to View Organizational Change Types?

Organizational change types differ depending on your big-picture model.

That model then informs your change management frameworks, methods, and approach.

One view may define all changes as processes.

Another view may look at change entirely from the perspective of people.

Below, we will consider a few different perspectives on the types of organizational change.

Organizational Change Types

Different practitioners, professionals, scholars, and individuals will have methods that reflect their underlying perspective on organizational change.

Rather than subscribing to a particular viewpoint, let’s look at some different ways people view the types of organizational change:

Reactive vs. Planned

According to this view, there are two main types of change:

  • Reactive – These are organizational changes that occur in reaction to outside forces, such as competitive pressure, digital disruption, and so on. They are not premeditated.
  • Planned – Planned organizational changes are intentional and directed. They are proactive, rather than reactive. They are designed to achieve a specific aim.

These attributes certainly can apply to different organizational changes.

But when it comes to methodology, there isn’t much to go on.

Strategy, People, Processes, and Tools

Here is another perspective, which essentially divides changes into “hard” changes – tools, technologies, and systems – and “soft” changes – people, culture, and strategy.

  • Strategy and Mission – Changes to the business strategy or its mission are also a bit “soft.” That is, they do not directly involve process changes or procedural shifts. But these changes certainly can and do result in “harder” change types, such as those covered next.
  • People and Culture – People operate businesses. A change that focuses on people can include cultural change initiatives, employee experience management, customer experience initiatives, and so on.
  • Processes and Procedures – A change to business processes and procedures can include new workflows, new protocols, new rules, and so forth.
  • Tools and Technology – Digital adoption, the implementation of new physical equipment, IT modernization, and other such changes are centered around the tools and technology a business uses.

In most cases, organizational changes will impact multiple business areas.

A business that implements new digital software, for instance, may also choose to initiate new employee training plans.

A new organizational strategy may call for restructuring, new business processes, cultural changes, and so on.

Organic vs. Intentional

From this perspective, we have two types of change:

  • Intentional changes are deliberate. Like the proactive, planned changes mentioned above, intentional changes are directed, strategic, and purposeful. These can be short-term transformations or long-term organizational developments. But what they have in common is a specific aim – they have a goal or a set of goals.
  • Organic changes are natural. They occur over the course of time, without anyone’s premeditated effort. Culture, for instance, often evolves naturally over years and decades. This happens as new people are hired, new leaders enter the business, and new generations enter the workforce. 

We could also include accidental changes in “organic change” category. That is, transformative changes that happen as a result of natural circumstances (such as the BP oil spill).

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

Similar to the above two categories, we can also see change categories based on their source.

  • Bottom-Up – A bottom-up change would be one that is driven from the bottom of the organization. If a grassroots movement begins among employees, then that would be considered bottom-up. It is worth noting that some people call this type of change “organic.”
  • Top-Down – Top-down is, of course, the opposite. It is led, directed, and managed from the top of an organization. 

And, as with every other change mentioned here, there can be variations on these themes.

A change may originate at the bottom of an organization, for instance. Frontline employees may push for a particular change.

But if that change gains support from the top, then this would be a hybrid change project – fueled by employees but managed by business leaders.

Why We Should Understand Organizational Change Types

Organizational change is important, but it’s also complex.

One change may cause one or more subsequent changes.

Or a single change initiative may involve several change projects of different types.

The better we understand the different types of change, the easier it is to compartmentalize and manage these different projects.

For instance, imagine that an organization is undergoing digital transformation.

Such a long-term organizational development could involve many changes, such as:

And so on.

Final Thoughts

How change professionals view change management affects their methods, approaches, and ultimately their results.

The change manager who can differentiate between different types of organizational change will better be able to execute each one.

A manager, however, who treats them all under a single umbrella will have a harder time dealing with obstacles, articulating the various aspects of the change project, and meeting objectives.

In short – this understanding helps managers treat and manage each one differently.

In turn, they will be more effective and efficient at change management.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.