Managing Change – Kotter, Senge, or something more complex?

Author: Simon Caudwell


Kotter‟s (1996, p21) eight-stage change process sounds convincing. It encourages management-led change that sets a clear vision, and uses pragmatic techniques to drive change and make it stick. Change must be pushed towards completion, otherwise (p144), „without sufficient leadership, change stalls.‟ For Kotter, the leader is outside of the process, and change can be initiated, directed, and brought to a conclusion at a new place of equilibrium.
Senge‟s (1990) „systems thinking‟ challenges the possibility of this kind of local control and looks at the „dynamic complexity‟ (p72) of interacting components of a system. No longer viewing organizations in isolation, but as acting in „circles of causality‟ (p73), he suggests how organizations adapt to one another. This „learning organization‟ model initially seems to open up new possibilities for guiding change through influencing system-wide behaviours (p101), but ultimately, the goal of comprehending the „indivisible whole‟ (p368) seems unreachable. More problematically when Senge asserts (p10) that „teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations,‟ he falls foul of Cooke-Davies et al‟s (2007) warning:
Research that takes ideas and treats them as if they were objects […] is built on shaky foundations. Unfortunately […] there is a tendency in practitioner literature to reify processes, and in literature derived from organizational theory to reify social groupings and organizational units. This results in a blurring between objects and ideas and a lack of methodological integrity.

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