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Intended strategies can lead to unanticipated outcomes

Managed change in an organisation can result in unpredictable outcomes. This has led to the growth of prescriptive approaches to design change to raise the success rates of change programs. All these approaches do not tackle the reason why these unintended results arise. Balogun (2006) published a research which provides details on why this happens and what can be done about it.

First of all, change has to be seen as an emergent process according to Balogun. Change, as such, is a context-dependent in which the process leads to intended and unintended outcomes. Change is not only dynamic, but also frustrating. Interventions executed in such a program can increase the desired outcome, but also lead to counter effects. Well meaning gestures as open and transparent communication about uncertainties could lead to senior management being perceived as not having a plan.

Balogun argues that it is important to make sense how the top-down strategies of senior management are being perceived. It is the understanding of middle-managers and the change recipients that will effectuate the desired change. Individuals all have their own schemata - the mental maps or memory models that individuals have about their organisation. It is this schemata that is being addressed in the organisation's change initiative.

The model that Balogun states that during change the recipients need to make conscious sense on the change and the behaviour that is expected from them. Let's say when moving from a Scrum approach to a Kanban. This requires new behaviour and actions that people need to adjust to and feel comfortable with. Balogun states;

Through these interactions individuals try to make sense of the event or behaviour that triggered the conscious sensemaking and then act on the basis of their interpretation. From such a perspective intended and unintended change outcomes, both those that facilitate and hinder the intended change direction, can be explained in terms of the interpretations that recipients develop of the change interventions. Subsequently, the behaviours and actions people engage in as a result of their interpretations feed back in as further sensemaking triggers. This cyclical sensemaking process continues until new common ways of working are developed and ways of interacting once more become taken for granted.

Key factor to sustainable change is to make use of these conscious sensemaking triggers to guide the change. It is these moments that can be used to reinforce the change. Whether it is gossip, discussions, negotiations or stories. What is being discussed and displayed between the change recipients have a tremendous effect on the sensemaking process of the recipient. It is clear that using sensemaking changes assumptions provided by literature.

Implications for practice

Assumptions from the researchImplications for practice
Senior managers can initiate & influence direction of change, but not direct change. Practice is determined by interpretation of plans and actions by those on receiving end of planned interventions.Monitoring change is about understanding what interpretations are developing and why. Needs to be continuous. Requires specific monitoring mechanisms to capture recipients developing responses to change interventions.
Lateral and informal communication between peers as influential in the development of interpretations of what change is about than formal and vertical communication.As change moves from design to implementation, senior managers need to move away from a reliance on more formal and vertical communications, and engage with lateral, informal interrecipient communications e either by taking themselves to the sensemaking, or by bringing the sensemaking to them through events designed to do this.
Communication seen to be about both conversational and social practices (actions, behaviours, words), and to include formal and informal mechanisms such as rumours, storytelling, gossip, discussions. Communication more to do with generating new knowledge and shared meanings.Greater investment required in change conversations, with recognition of the multiple conversational vehicles that exist. Senior managers/change leaders need to live the changes they want others to adopt e avoiding inconsistencies between their actions, words and deeds.
Aligning interpretations: a two-way process of sharing and developing interpretations through many different communication genres.Requires a more active involvement by senior managers. More explicit attention is required to discussion and storytelling. Senior managers need to work with the reality of change recipients, responding to their issues and interpretations. Focus should be on obtaining understanding of higher level principles, rather than the detail.
Change recipients actively translate and edit plans to create changeRecipients mediate the outcomes of planned changes. For the other recommendations to be adopted, senior managers need to acknowledge this and accept the need to engage more actively with recipients. In larger organisations, this may need to be achieved through the use of a number of change ambassadors.


Balogun, J. (2006). Managing Change: Steering a Course between Intended Strategies and Unanticipated Outcomes. Long Range Planning, 39(1), 29–49.

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Intended strategies can lead to unanticipated outcomes