Developed in a bygone era, traditional business models—such as change management—are trailing the era in which we live today. To succeed at change within the modern organization, we need to shift from a process-driven, mechanistic model to a more human-centered approach that appeals to the wants and needs of individuals. Here’s why.

The entire practice of change management needs a transformation itself. Designed to serve organizations of the past, current change management methodology considers the organization to be like a machine—a tops-down, hierarchical structure that can be programmed in a certain way.

We now need to evolve our change methodologies to meet emerging needs of the modern organization. This requires us to look at the challenge from a human-centered perspective and reconsider the organization as a vibrant organism of free-thinking, empowered individuals.

The Old Way

Our current approach to leading change in organizations didn’t happen by accident—it was the product of the era in which most management thinking developed.

The modern organization is rooted in military history—at the time, the most efficient model for coordinating large groups of people to achieve strategic objectives. Though groups of humans have been collaborating throughout history, warfare hatched the first large-scale mobilization and coordination of resources united in an organizational structure. It has been present as a model for at least 10,000 years.

As we entered the Industrial Age, which required large groups of people to work in a coordinated way, it was natural to leverage the military model as the most efficient template for corporate organizational structure.

As a result, we’ve been trained to think of organizations as homogenous and mechanistic, with a clear set of rules, a command-and-control structure, and the ability to leverage hierarchy to get things done quickly by issuing top-down directives to reallocate resources to meet objectives.

The metaphor of the organization as a machine becomes apparent—an easily programmable structure that will run the “program” we define and then pivot in a new direction as soon as we provide new instructions.

By and large, this was true up until the end of the 20th century. The corporate structure and the needs of the organization were tantamount, and the individuals in the system were seen as “human resources,” in effect a cog in the wheel of the machine, easily replaceable when they wore out.

The systems we live and work in were designed in the past. They were created to serve the Industrial Age, which valued productivity, efficiency, and return on capital above all. The systems did the job they were supposed to do, but they didn’t anticipate where we were headed: into an age where human creativity is the most valuable resource.

The Shift

The very basis of competition has shifted in the modern world: from productivity, efficiency, and output to creativity, innovation, and purpose.

As we look at the evolution of business over time, it becomes apparent what’s happening: The business models we’re operating under are trailing the era in which we live today. Our structures have remained largely remnants of the Industrial Age, even as we’ve been living in the Information Age. And while we’re catching up to that shift, we are yet again already moving into the next age: Purpose.

To meet the needs of the Information Age, our organizations needed to nurture increased creativity and innovation, which required us to encourage empowerment, entrepreneurial thinking, and risk-taking. To be competitive, the very structure of the organization needed to shift to create an environment in which empowered and creative employees will thrive.

As the Purpose Age emerges, we’ll also need to support employees’ ability to find meaning in their work, align themselves with people and projects of shared interest, and elevate communication and collaboration through increased empathy and co-creation.

This begins to look more and more like independent bodies aligning themselves in constantly changing structures to achieve common outcomes, like atomic particles organizing to form a molecule, or molecules forming an organism—an organism actively and collectively sensing changes in its environment and adapting itself and its reactions in response.

An icon of a grey pyramid in a black circle versus organic seedlings sprouting from the earth in a light blue circle

In his book The Living Organization, Norman Wolfe posits that organizations are now more like organisms: living, changing beings that adapt to new environments and shift in response:

Like people, plants, and other living organisms, corporations are born, grow old, and die. They are governed by the same laws of life as other living beings and follow the same hierarchy of need fulfillment as people do. They are an intrinsic part of life, particularly in our post-modern society. They marry through mergers and give rise to offspring (or spin-offs). When they mature, they have the choice of rebirthing, of branching off in new directions (new markets, new products, or totally new business models), or withering away and dying.

This makes intuitive sense—organizations are groups of humans united to achieve a common goal. In fact, the word “corporation” comes from the Latin corpus, meaning body.

The largest implication of our redefinition (or realization) of the nature of organizations is that the systems we’ve used in the past to operate and manage organizations also need to evolve, and in some cases be completely replaced.

To activate change, we need to reconsider our approach to change. Just as organizational design was built around the concept of organizations as machines, the field of change management was designed to fit that paradigm, and its mechanisms were designed to work well in a homogenous, hierarchical, command-and-control structure.

Language indicates the model for which change management was designed, and we can see this in the words used in its practices. We are told to drive adoption by cascading information, and that we can generate buy-in by building coalitions. These words feel familiar and comfortable in the old model, don’t they? But how about now? Even the idea of driving adoption by cascading information assumes a hierarchical structure of people who can be coerced through the ranks.

We also see this to be true in how most change management programs are organized: as a linear process, made up of a series of cumulative, ordered steps, targeted at the level of the organization, not the individual. Whether the change program we use has four steps, five steps, seven steps, or eight, they all follow a similar, methodical process that assumes we move the organization along as one. The object is still the organization as a machine, not the individuals in the system.

But do these assumptions apply now? In a world where the organization looks more like an organism and the elemental unit in the system is a mindful, empowered human being, how must our very notion of change management shift?

I don’t want to suggest we should abandon change management, but rather we should upgrade it to meet the needs of the modern organization. If you’ve been trained in any of the most pervasive change approaches, whether ADKAR, Kotter’s Eight Steps, McKinsey’s 7S Framework, or another time-tested approach, keep reading. Each of these models is research-based and field-tested, with great wisdom that still applies. Each can provide a solid framework for the design of an effective program for change.

However, we need to evolve our change methodology to meet the emerging needs of the modern organization. That requires looking at the challenge from a human-centered perspective and reconsidering the organization as a vibrant organism.

The Future of Change Management

In the modern organization, change shifts from a process-driven, mechanistic model to a more human-centered approach, appealing to the wants and needs of individuals and following a more flexible set of principles to adapt to circumstances.

XPLANE's Activation Curve showing a curved line over three tabs. The x-axis reads "Time", the y-axis reads "Degree of Support". The bottom light blue category is titled "Heart It", the middle medium blue category is titled "Believe It", and the top yellow category is titled "Live It". Each category has an off-shoot describing what you might be looking for at each stage of activation

As the balance of power has shifted toward greater employee empowerment, the mindsets and behaviors of the collective define the organization at least as much, if not more, than the organization defines the behaviors of its people.

If we begin thinking of organizations as organisms, some clear implications emerge, and required shifts become apparent:

  • From program to persuade: We can’t just push a new program or strategy—we need to generate excitement and create pull around a shared vision.
  • From command to engage: When control is distributed, we need to persuade more people to gain alignment. We can no longer drive adoption or force buy-in; we need to authentically engage employees to participate in the change.
  • From cascade to co-create: The smartest person in the room is the room. We can’t throw ideas over the wall—instead, we need to honor the intelligence among our teams by inviting them to co-create better solutions.
  • From processes to principles: Every organism is unique and dynamic, and we need to adopt methods to context by creating guardrails instead of rules.
  • From homogeny to diversity: People, like cells in our analogy, are each living beings nested within the whole. Both individual people and teams have their own wants and needs. We need to consider the whole spectrum of stakeholders and address them individually. No more “one size fits all” change programs!

Suddenly, we find that the old ways don’t work on the new structures. To accomplish change, we can’t just reprogram the machine. We need to persuade and engage empowered, thoughtful humans to move in a new direction, at scale. Therefore, we need to rethink how we organize, manage, and lead them.

To do that, we need to redesign our understanding of change management to create a new model better suited to meeting the needs and characteristics of our modern organizations, and most importantly, the differing wants and needs of the people within them.

Additional Resources

We invite you to explore these posts, which reinforce the value of human centricity in processes and change efforts.