Three Types of Change

These are exciting times for HR Technology offers many new insights and new ways of working throughout the business. How can you help new ways of working get started effectively? But, first, what kind of changes are we witnessing?

A technical change might be a new tool or simple change in the system (e.g., in HR, new ways to screen or interview job candidates). An organizational change might be a change in deliverables, affecting roles or structures. A purpose-led change might go to the heart of the organization, questioning the entire organization design.

Can we isolate the less complicated changes, and say they are mere technicalities? My aim here is to suggest that a People and Purpose approach has implications for planning all levels of change.

"Change is inevitable-except from a vending machine."

Will Change Always Be Resisted?

“Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” - Robert C. Gallagher

As management theorist Peter Senge said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” Change is fine if it comes from the individuals themselves; it is tough if it is imposed downwards. “Change Management” sounds too much like “Change by Management.” So is it possible for management to help change to happen in a participative way at each level?

First Level Change: Technical

Technical change occurs when altering the process, the tools, or the clustering of activities to produce more of the same deliverables. In the past, technical change was planned by process analysis done with brown paper and post-its. Today, you can calculate how activity change will affect the team headcount. To plan the change, you need:

- Clear aims
- Experts in the room, understanding the business now and in the future
- Baseline
- Planned outcomes

Technical change can be delivered most effectively when driven by employees’ own desire for change. The baseline of data is: time spent, activities that are frustrating, the ‘receiver’ of each activity is, and what value they perceive each receiver got. The output is a set of change recommendations at the activity level.

Second Level Change: Organisational

Organisational change extends beyond the tools, most often when deliverables change. In a system, changing the organization from one dimension has effects in many. Significant changes in the customer journey, for example, with cascading consequences on activities, roles, and headcount, these can all be calculated.

Can this be participative? Of course! The same principles apply as before: drive the change from employees’ desires to be successful, to have meaningful work, and to serve customers well.

Historically, many organizations asked for staff participation as an alternative information gathering device or to try out complex consequences. Especially in high-trust environments, it made sense to move forward with an incomplete design and to use the experience to resolve the details of running the new system.

In more complex environments or at a larger scale, you need a structured way to think about the new system. This leads some organizations to have specialist transformation (or ’OP&A’) functions, and these may move from the HR function to report into the Director of Strategy.

When an organization is scaling very rapidly—think, for example, of a fast-food brand like Subway rolling out franchised operations across the world or the organisation of 100,000 volunteers in an Olympic games— the calculations of how many people are required and when to do what is clear, and can be modeled flexibly. To deliver this scale of organizational change effective tools and data accuracy are very important, while to ensure the design stays open to new information and new possible solutions, employee participation in the change process remains important.

Third Level Change: Purpose-Led

Can even more fundamental change happen in the business landscape? If so, how can it be achieved reliably? The third level of change integrates people and purpose into design and delivery. This is necessary because many large businesses are now considering re-evaluating their business models. The CEOs of the US Business Roundtable recently stated that businesses have responsibilities to groups extending beyond their shareholders.

Environmental pressures are not the only reason this is happening. It is also partly because the more that basic needs are met, the more that higher levels needs—meaning, self-expression, and creativity are valued by customers and employees.

How Does The Need For Purpose-Led Change Impact Businesses And HR?

At Buurtzorg in the Netherlands, a 10,000 person care organization with less than half the management cost of its competitors has grown from nothing in 13 years. In the US, Barry-Wehmiller has grown into a 12,000 employee-strong engineering giant by balancing ‘People, Purpose, Performance’ with People distinctly first. For example, it applied a ‘no redundancies’ rule in all of its >60 takeovers of other companies; it goes beyond ‘Lean’ by eliminating frustration, not waste, and it uses a key question: ‘how did it make you feel?’

How has this worked? Purpose-led change has some useful parallels with Agile IT methods.

Agile is a quasi-purpose led approach, because you commit certain resources, and to an overall direction, but not to specified deliverables. IT uses Agile approaches because technology changes fast, and developers must convert novel methods into reliable solutions. No detailed calculations are possible of the organization’s future, only a commitment to the team, and a purpose-led approach.

Why do they work? The Agile approach, the Buurtzorg approach, and Barry-Wehmiller’s ‘Everybody Matters’ approach are all committed to their People and are focused on a purpose, giving a psychological safe space for change to happen.


This article has set out three levels of change: technical, organizational, and purpose-led. To help deliver change, employee participation has appeared at each level. In an increasingly affluent society, creative engagement by stakeholders is a key differentiating factor, and that means that at every level of change, I would argue that People and Purpose have to be included to deliver a great outcome.