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MPA 8002
Organization Theory



Reflective practice and envisioning self-change:



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Self-change as the foundation
for organizational change

Organization theory is intended to explain and predict how organizations function as well as to provide "mental models" for mangers/leaders to contemplate as they consider how they might improve their organization's functioning.

Each day, an overwhelming number of problems confront managers/leaders and oftentimes they will look to organization theory for tools that provide "sure fire" ways to ameliorate the problems confronting them and improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness. However, the people-dependent nature of daily reality in organizations requires managers/leaders to expend large proportions of time dealing with problems that are, more oftentimes than not, caused by people.  Yet, as any experienced manager/leader knows (and knows perhaps all too well), solving these problems does not necessarily mean that they are solved once and forever. Instead, these problems have a pesky way of re-emerging time and again, making problem solving look more like placing band aids on gaping wounds or putting out the fires that are emerging all over the place.


The fundamental premise of the theory of organizational change found in Creating Pathways of Change (McWhinney, Webber, Smith, & Novokowsky, 1997) is that, if managers/leaders are to solve these problems, managers/leaders need to direct their time and attention more towards the issues which fuel these many problems that crop up daily and cause organizational dysfunction. Conceptually, this requires leaders/managers to function more like doctors who treat a disease rather than simply attending to the symptoms of the disease. Likewise, this approach to organizational change challenges managers/leaders to consider their role as one of engaging in long-range "fire prevention" rather than constantly "putting out fires." Or, to borrow another metaphor, to function as a "referee" in an "arena" rather than as a "participant" in a "streetfight" (Bolman & Deal, 1997, pp. 198-200).

According to this theory of organization change, success is not an either-or proposition. That is, organization change does not mean that managers/leaders should neglect problems and attend only to the issues underlying the problems or, conversely, to believe that by attending to the issues at the heart of organizational dysfunction, the problems will disappear. Rather McWhinney et al.'s theory requires managers/leaders to initiate change first, by conceiving of the importance of self-change as laying a solid foundation for organizational change, and second, by enacting a culture wherein manager/leaders resolve organizational issues as the members of the organization solve their problems.

Thinking about organizational change as a process of self-change requires considerable work on the part of managers/leaders, including:

1) to understand one's own antecedents and theories of practice
    (Sergiovanni, 1986) and attitudes toward change (McWhinney
    et al., 1997);
2) to search for the resources (human, situational, and financial)
    it will take for the manager/leader to "work the issue";
3) to engage in an examination of their antecedents and theories
    of practice and, in light of that, to assess the situation by
    pressing beyond boundaries imposed by various theories of practice;
4) to define the issue implicit in the organizational problems
    and to organize resources into a coherent force for
    organizational change through follower self-learning (Senge, 1990),
    team building, forging organizational culture (Schein, 1992)
    and engaging in organizational learning (DiBella & Nevis,
    1998); and,
5) to formulate an intentional path of change for which managers/leaders
    take personal responsibility.

This process of organizational change also assigns the manager/leader an important role in the organizational change effort, namely, the role of "change agent" (or, "functioning as a catalyst for organizational change"). However, this role is not grounded in organizational change theory; instead, this role is grounded in the personal and professional self-change which enable the manager/leader to focus upon how one's antecedents and theories of practice shape how the manager/leader defines what is and is not "real," to consider alternative views of reality, and to adapt/adopt a view of reality that will facilitate the organizational change process.

In addition, by becoming alert to one's preferences and avoidances (that is, to identify one's dominant and avoidant modes of reality), managers/leaders develop the capacity to identify tools of change best suited to them, the tools of change the managers/leaders will need to hone if they are to engage followers in organizational change, as well as the tools that are out of the range of one's effective range of use.

Arguably, of greater importance is how the awareness of one's dominant and avoidant modes of reality enables managers/leaders to appreciate and to understand others' preferences and avoidances as well as how managers/leaders can best utilize the tools of change, given the members of the organization.

The goal of this process of organizational change, then, is for managers/leaders to learn about themselves in order they might appreciate how others will experience the personal and professional change that is the precursor to substantive organizational change.  The challenge involves developing the capacity to anticipate, prepare for, and manage the conflicts that managers/leaders will unleash as they implement an intentional path of organizational change.

Catalyzing organizational change...

One fundamental lessons managers/leaders must learn if they are to be effective in catalyzing organizational change is to be intentional about choosing a path of organizational change because, by doing so, managers/leaders are also intentionally unleashing conflict within the organization. Any change induces conflict and by engaging in change—even self-change—one natural byproduct is conflict. So, rather than shying away from conflict or, worse yet, denying one's role in unleashing conflict, managers/leaders must learn to accept responsibility for the conflict they purposely unleash within their organizations as they intentionally embark upon an intentional path of organizational change.

To this end, managers/leaders must recognize that there is a panoply of organizational change choices available. Then, managers/leaders must select a path offering the promise to address the substantive organizational issue(s) evident in organizational dysfunction. By embarking upon this intentional path, managers/leaders will be prepared to manage the conflict purposely unleashed within the organization, to press forward in solving issues, and enable others in the organization to solve their problems.

For McWhinney et al. (1997), managerial/leadership effectiveness, then, has more to do with one's ability to work with others in the group through which organizational change is to be created than it has to do with one's particular leadership style. At the same time, however, managing/leading people becomes an increasingly more cognitively complex and difficult task because people view the organizational reality from a variety of perspectives.

Four views of reality...

According to McWhinney et al. (1997), people in organizations—including leaders and followers—assess what is transpiring within their organizations through one of four perspectives, namely, the unitary, sensate, social, and mythic perspectives.

The unitary perspective defines organizational reality based upon immutable truths or principles believed to guide the unfolding of events. Things that occur in organizations are not happenstance; instead, they are a consequence of a form or order that imposed upon the organizational reality. Change, according to the unitary perspective, falls into one of two categories.  Some members will accept change because the change "fits" the truth as one defines it. Other organizational members will resist the change, firm in the belief that the change does not reflect reality as they define it.

The sensate perspective uses facts to define reality.  From this perspective, what is true is true because evidence suggests that this truth is eminently reasonable. Precedence provides the context for understanding how things happen, that is, previous events have caused the outcomes currently being experienced. Sensates view change, then, as an inevitable element of organization as the confluence of people, process, technology, purpose, and environment interact in a wide variety of ways to advance an organization beyond its previous achievements, especially as that progress can and must be measured.

The social perspective views reality primarily—though not exclusively—through the prism of "feelings" rather than "facts." Whereas the sensate perspective is based upon rationality, the social perspective accords value to peoples' sometimes irrational penchants.  What transpires within an organization, then, is absolutely not happenstance nor is it planned; instead, these things happen because people intend them to happen based upon various purposes. From the social perspective, acceptance of change depends upon how people feel and, then, respond to the change.

The mythic perspective focuses upon ideas as providing the foundation for organizational reality. This nonrational and more intuitive perspective is based upon the closely-held belief that things happen because as individuals express their creative possibilities and potential. Change, then, occurs within the context of a dynamic environment and acceptance of change is based upon how an individual seizes the moment (in Latin, carpe diem).

Like managers/leaders, awareness of one's predominant mode of reality as a member of an organization enables followers to recognize the strengths and limitations of how they view the organizational reality as well as their preferences and avoidances. In addition, knowledge of their followers' predominant modes of reality provides managers/leaders insight into which modes of change offer the best promise of success. This knowledge and the self-change it can engender serves as the basis for organizational change through a process called "organizational learning" (DiBella & Nevis, 1998).

The six modes of change...

While many believe that leadership is a matter of a "style" expressed in a leader's behavior, McWhinney et al. (1997) assert that leadership is more of a matter of intellectual and behavioral change, namely, a matter of engaging in the self-change that enables managers/leader to access six modes of change.  The ability to weave appropriate modes into a major or minor path of change that "works the issue" underlying organizational problems is the fundamental task confronting managers/leaders. In addition, when managers/leaders model the intellectual and behavioral changes that make it possible to access the six modes of change, they can assist followers to engage in the same kind of intellectual and behavioral change that will enable them to solve the problems arising in practice episodes.

The analytic mode of change is steeped in logic, conjoining the unitary and sensate perspectives. In organizational disputes, it is the merits of an argument and how they will help the organization to achieve its established goals is what counts most when deciding about what path of change to adopt. In this sense, unitary truths can be tested and facts can be established through research as truths. The crucial matter is that data not feelings interpret situations.

The assertive mode of change emphasizes the long-term view, judging the worth of things upon how they authoritatively communicate what provides meaning and purpose.  This mode of change can be autocratic or bureaucratic in orientation, because this mode originates subjectively from within a person's deepest being.  What is important in this mode is that energy is mobilized around a belief system or vision and this energy is then translated into organizational policies, rules, and procedures that reflect a shared belief system or vision.

The influential mode of change is a more politically-oriented mode. That is, this mode of change endeavors to preserve the current power balance within the organization but, at the same time, evidences a willingness to negotiate, mediate, and build a power base to effect the desired path of organizational change.  For a manager/leader, the goal in the influential mode of change is to get people to inculturate the "truth" in their behavior or, conversely, for group to get a manager/leader to change the organization's policies to reflect the group's goals.

The evaluative mode of change is functional and responsive to the members of the organization and their feelings. At the same time, these feelings do not rule roughshod in the decision-making process. Instead, the focus of organizational change is upon increasing efficiency, establishing "win-win" values, and using data to assess progress. In this sense, the goal of the evaluative mode of change is to elicit from the group what matters factually in a situation (to elicit values based upon data) or for responsibility and resources to be allocated in a fair and equitable way.

The inventive mode of change involves materializing a cherished vision.  This vision defines the change to be undertaken and hierarchically arranges tasks needed to implement the change. Change, then, can be accomplished by engendering ideas from facts which bring clarity and meaning to a situation (e.g., through research and development). Or, conversely, the inventive mode of change can be used to translate an idea into actions (e.g., practical solutions).

The emergent mode of change involves co-creating shared visions and symbols based upon a vision of what could be.  This mode of change involves the exploration of possible solutions and the reframing of organizational problems rather than engaging directly in problem solving.  This change can be championed by an activist, for example, who creates a shared value (e.g., a facilitator) or by a group which evokes images symbolizing shared values (e.g., storytelling).

These six modes of change emerge from the four ways that people view organizational reality.  These modes provide managers/leaders a panoply of tools offering the promise of maximizing of one's skills and resources when "working the problematic situation."  Then, through proficiency in using a variety of these modes, managers/leaders can expand their capacity, power, and freedom "to work the organizational issue" embedded in organizational problems as followers expand their capacity, power, and freedom "to work the problems" confronting them and requiring their attention. Absolutely crucial in the organizational change process, however, is that managers/leaders and followers be capable of moving beyond their dominant mode or active focus to a more balanced view of reality, given the organizational context and its requirements.


DiBella, A. J., & Nevis, E. C.  (1998).  How organizations learn.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

McWhinney, W., Webber, J. B., Smith, D. M., & Novokowsky, B. J. (1997). Creating paths of change: Managing issues and resolving problems in organizations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication, Inc.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1986). Understanding reflective practice. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1(4), 353-359.

Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. M.  (1990).  The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization.  New York: Doubleday.