I started my change management career in 1991, as the research director for ODR, a company founded by Daryl Conner that trained many of the senior change agents practicing today. The tools and concepts developed by ODR, and the ideas proposed in Daryl’s first book Managing at the Speed of Change, have influenced a number of the major change methodologies in the market today, including ProSci’s popular ADKAR model.

In going through my old files, I’ve continued to rediscover models, concepts, and tools that still have value today. In this blog series, I plan to focus each post on one of these elements, with the goal of helping the current generation of change agents continue to build their knowledge.

Some of the material shared here was originally copyrighted by ODR, and I am using it with permission, augmented by my own perspectives and experience.

Today’s Focus: Strategic Risk Areas

One of the models that has continued to stick with me articulates four strategic and four tactical areas of change risk. This model can be helpful in thinking through the areas you most need to focus on in preparing your organization for change.


Strategic Risk Areas: Classic Model

Here’s how the four strategic risk areas were originally articulated:

Critical Areas of Risk When Implementing Strategic Change

  • Resilience—not having enough individual, team, or organizational resilience to sustain the change.
  • Knowledge—not having managers and employees who understand how change unfolds in organizations.
  • Decisions—not having managers who are able or willing to make the tough decisions about how many change projects will be pursued at a given time.
  • Architecture—not having managers and employees who can apply the skills, tools, and techniques that permit change to be executed in a disciplined, structured manner.


Quadrant I: Developing Strong Resilience

A person’s baseline level of resilience can be raised by learning concepts and applying techniques that reinforce the five key characteristics of resilient people: being positive, focused, flexible, organized, and proactive. These same attributes are critical to understanding the resilience of teams and organizations.

Quadrant II: Increasing Change Knowledge

Key indicators of general readiness for change are the knowledge and skills people possess regarding the fundamental dynamics of organizational transitions. This kind of change knowledge can be measured by determining the degree to which people have a practical understanding of the structure of change [note: I will address the structure of change model in a future post] and can apply this information to maximizing resilience for themselves and those they manage.

Quadrant III: Managing Assimilation Resources

The capacity an organization has to assimilate change should be treated as any other strategic resource (e.g., capital, technology). In this regard, resources must not be wasted or misused. Instead, it is imperative that the capacity to absorb change be skillfully acquired and carefully protected.

Key decisions involving major change should, therefore, be considered in light of the available assimilation capacity of the organization. When the demands brought on by transitions exceed an organization’s capacity to adequately assimilate them, the changes may occur, but they will be accompanied by costly dysfunctional behavior that reduces the actual value of the final results.

Quadrant IV: Building Implementation Architecture

For each change initiative, there are certain elements from the structure of change that must be managed well for the project to succeed. These unique combinations of elements are called landscapes and can be identified by determining which of the patterns and principles will have the greatest impact on the effort.

Once these key leverage points for a particular change are identified, a specific architecture can be developed that encourages people to:

  • Disengage from the present state
  • Navigate through the ambiguity of the transition state
  • Be motivated and prepared to successfully assimilate the desired state


Linda’s Commentary: Strategic Risk Areas

So often in the world of change management, we focus our attention on one initiative at a time. What I like about this model is that it reminds us that there is work we can do to prepare the organization for whatever changes might come. One of the things you will find if you continue to read my posts is that I have moved away from purely “risk-focused” language to emphasize a balanced perspective on risks and assets/opportunities. With that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on each of the quadrants in this model:

  • Developing Strong Resilience When we hire and develop resilient people, and build the resilience of key teams as well as the resilience of the organizational system as a whole, we create a significant competitive advantage by enabling the organization to move more efficiently, effectively, and confidently through every transition. We have continued to refine our understanding of resilience, and our ability to measure and teach it, over the past 25+ years. We’ve incorporated emerging understanding of the brain, advances in positive psychology, and experience in helping people learn to build their change muscles to increase our ability to influence this strategic risk factor.
  • Increasing Change Knowledge The more that people throughout the organization know about the predictable patterns in change—how humans typically respond to change, what leaders need to do as they manage change, the natural discomfort that accompanies the unknown and what to do about it, etc., the better prepared they are to succeed when they go through transition. They are able to share a common language, recognize normal emotional responses, identify and perform key change roles effectively, and collaborate to achieve results. I have observed that many organizations include change leadership training at executive and middle-management levels. There is somewhat less focus on building change knowledge at supervisory and front-line levels. When a large change is underway, it presents a great opportunity to provide education that will both help people navigate that transition and prepare them for additional changes.
  • Managing Assimilation Resources The idea that people have a limited supply of energy and that too many changes can overwhelm them and lead to stress and burnout is not new. Many good practices have been developed to evaluate the impact of changes and gather data to help leaders make informed decisions about how much change the organization can absorb. What I have not seen, however, is much increase in the willingness of leaders to make the tough decisions to actually reduce the change load they are placing on the organization. I have recently written several blog series on related topics, including change overload, energy sustainability, and evaluating energy demands.
  • Building Implementation Architecture This is probably the area that has come the farthest over the past few decades. Many organizations have built or adopted some form of change management methodology to standardize their approach to implementing major initiatives. Training in change management tools and models is readily available.

There is still work to be done in this area. Even the best implementation approach will fail if leaders delegate to implementation teams the things they should be doing themselves, such as high-stakes communication, modeling new ways of operating, and holding people accountable for shifting their mindsets and behaviors. Many change agents are doing significant work on initiatives without much relief from a full-time “day job.” And the experience and wisdom that allows change teams to tailor their approach to the specific landscape of the situation at hand takes time to develop.

To read the next installment in this series, click here.