Unplanned Change and Crisis Management
KeywordsOrganizational Change Crisis Management Organizational Leader Crisis Event Crisis Response
Unplanned Change – Organizational changes that are not foreseen prior to the need to change, often made necessary by shifts in the organizational environment.
Crisis Management – The process of preparing for, mitigating, responding to, recovering from, and learning from emergency incidents.
Organizational crises “forward the awkward dimension of ‘un-ness’: unexpected, unscheduled, unplanned, unprecedented and definitely unpleasant” (Rosenthal and Pijnenburg 1991, p. 1). In both their onset and their impact, crises are inherently unpredictable. Despite the unexpected, unscheduled, and unplanned nature of crises, people in positions of power are expected to respond in a manner that is both scheduled and planned. The general public expects that leaders will have a written response plan to consult, and the ability to offer regular scheduled updates, in the midst of a crisis response. Herein lies a conflict: expectation, scheduling, and planning as a desired response to an event that is unexpected, unscheduled, and unplanned. This conflict – meeting the sudden onset or escalation of a crisis with the general expectation that the crisis will be efficiently managed – requires flexible thinking by those attempting to manage the impact of crises. Essentially, this conflict requires a knowledge of change processes and a willingness to engage in the challenges of unplanned change.
Managing Unplanned Organizational Change
Organizational change processes are typically planned through the gathering and assessment of current data on organizational operations and using the results of that assessment to construct a vision of how to improve or increase productivity. While it is possible to have an overall crisis management plan, the actual occurrence of a crisis does not allow for this type of planning to guide the response phase. Crisis response – the actions taken in the immediate aftermath of a crisis to mitigate further damage and ensure business continuity – is a largely intuitive process that requires fast-paced decisions and knowledge of available resources. It is in this response phase of crisis management that unplanned changes are most likely to occur. A few change management theories are helpful in understanding how the crisis management process can result in unplanned change.
Change Management Theories
Organizations experience three stages during the change process: present state, transition state, and future state (Mayhew 2006). Somewhat intuitively, the present state describes the organization as it exists in a current state; the transition state describes “the structure, processes, people, and environment of an organization as it undergoes change” (p. 108); and “the future state is a destination” that describes the organization as it will exist when “most, perhaps all, of the problems besetting [the] present state are gone” (p. 108). In subsequent change processes, what was once a future state becomes the new present state. A crisis unlocks an organization from the present state and plunges the organization into the transition state. Once the crisis response is complete, organizations can begin to move toward a new future state. These three states suggested by Mayhew may be easily overlaid with a three-stage theory of change proposed by Kurt Lewin.
Lewin (1951) proposes a three-stage change cycle of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing. Although Lewin’s theory is classified as a human processual theory and focuses on the process of changing the attitudes and behaviors of group members regarding an impending change, it is applicable to crisis management. Crisis management is as much about managing the human aspect of an emergency as it is about the organizational aspect (Cintrón et al. 2007; Harper et al. 2006; Hemphill and LaBlanc 2010; Pauchant and Mitroff 1992). The change cycle described by Lewin offers an explanation for the process that happens during the transition state described above. Lewin suggests that unfreezing is aided by the presentation of new information that provokes employees to consider the need for change. In the case of organizational crises, the crisis unfreezes (a) the status quo of organizational structure and operations and (b) the perceptions stakeholders have about the organization and its vitality. Upon unfreezing, an organization is ready to undergo the changes that are characteristic of crisis response. When changes have been made, Lewin’s theory maintains that employees must refreeze into a mode of acquiescence with the newly implemented organizational changes. If a post-crisis organization fails to refreeze after changes have been implemented, it will continue to operate in the uncertainty and high anxiety that characterizes the crisis response phase.
Organizational Change as a Result of Disruption
Two theories on change processes within organizations account especially for change that is propelled forward by a sudden disruption. Michael Tushman, William Newman, and Elaine Romanelli (1986) describe this type of change as a pattern of convergence and upheaval, while Connie Gersick (1991) labels it the punctuated equilibrium paradigm. Both of these follow the idea that major change occurs during a temporary period of deep and far-reaching change that is both preceded and followed by extended periods of organizational stability. In convergence/upheaval, an organization is characterized as having long periods of convergence that are interrupted by the need for change. During the periods of convergence, an organization is experiencing incremental change that is aligned with and reinforces existing organizational operations. Convergence is disrupted by an upheaval or organizational reorientation – a period of discontinuous, frame-breaking change made either in anticipation of changes in the organizational environment or in response to such changes in the environment. This upheaval or need for organizational reorientation can be caused by a crisis (Shaw 2012). Upheaval can be both reactionary and anticipatory, made in response to a recent crisis – either one personally experienced or one that has affected a neighboring or comparable organization – and the anticipation of its recurrence.
Gersick (1991) describes the punctuated equilibrium paradigm as a generalization of the convergence/upheaval theory and others like it that emanate from the scholarship in various fields. Punctuated equilibrium describes the change process that occurs when longer periods of organization stability, known as equilibrium, are punctuated by short periods of major change. When the organizational equilibrium is punctured, it allows change to occur in an organization’s deep structure. Organizations with deep structures are noted to have differentiated parts and contain units that interact with the organizational environment in ways that are based on and maintain this differentiation (1991). For example, higher education institutions are divided into academic and student affairs divisions. Each division is further separated into some combination of schools, departments, programs, functional areas, and offices. The component parts of an institution share information as needed to continually operate individually and to contribute, both individually and collectively, to the overall operations of the institution. Organizational systems with deep structures, such as institutions of higher education, are susceptible to experience the punctuated equilibrium paradigm. Similar to Tushman et al.’s (1986) convergence, the consistency of the equilibrium period is maintained by making incremental changes that help to sustain organizational operations without disrupting the deep structure. Consistent with what happens during the upheaval process, interactions between an organization’s separate units are unpredictable and susceptible to change during punctuation.
Both the convergence/upheaval and punctuated equilibrium models describe processes by which major changes may be made quickly to an organizational structure that has previously been considered stable and sustainable. A crisis can send an organization into a period of upheaval or punctuation; during this period of disruption, change happens to an organizational system. This is different than the convergence or equilibrium states, during which incremental change is occurring in an organizational system, rather than to the system itself.
Organizational Change in the Midst of Crisis Management
Leading Major Changes After a Crisis
An understanding of how organizations change can assist with handling the changes that are embedded in the management of a crisis. The change theories described above are those that focus on large-scale change – the types of change that “destabilize the organization and elicit fundamental changes in operations” (Bess and Dee 2008, p. 811). Large-scale change has been called by several names in the research literature: frame breaking (Tushman et al. 1986), radical (Simsek and Louis 2000), comprehensive (Kezar and Eckel 2002), transformational (Bess and Dee 2008), and revolutionary (Gersick 1991; Simsek and Louis 2000). This type of change is defined as discontinuous by several researchers (Gersick 1991; Simsek and Louis 2000; Tushman et al. 1986). It is characterized by “simultaneous and sharp shifts in strategy, power, structure, and controls” (Tushman et al. 1986). Working through large-scale changes that are sparked by crisis, and thus unplanned, requires leaders with a willingness to engage in the mental exercise and physical practice of deconstructing organizational norms.
Deconstructing organizational norms is a difficult process for every member of the organization, from the leaders down to the employees on the lowest levels of the organizational chart. Organizational leaders who are typically charged with developing and maintaining norms may have a difficult time unfreezing their vision that guides this process. Depending on the changes required, lower-level employees who are not directly involved in the crisis management process may have a difficult time unfreezing their understanding of either how their positions fit within the organization or how their typical strategies for fulfilling their responsibilities need to shift. For this reason, the process of deconstructing norms is both a mental exercise of envisioning a different pathway toward organizational goals and a physical practice of bringing organizational employees along the pathway to change. In order to guide organizational members through this process, leaders must first be willing to participate in the mental exercises of abandoning norms and considering revised pathways toward achieving organizational mission and goals.
The second step in guiding this process is for leaders to make decisions and take actions that will move the organization from Lewin’s unfreezing phase firmly into the change phase. Leadership competencies most used in the crisis response phase are decision-making under pressure, effective communication, and risk taking (Wooten and James 2008). After a crisis, there is often limited information available. Thus, leaders are unlikely to have all of the information desired or needed to make a sound decision; nonetheless, decisions are necessary and integral components of any change process. During crisis management, the need for innovative solutions may more readily lead to decisions that involve some amount of risk. Any decisions that may influence organizational status and processes should be communicated as early as possible to organizational stakeholders, including all employees, constituents, clients, and any others with a vested interest in the organization’s viability.
Employees often find it difficult to adapt to changes in organizational processes and strategies (Eckel et al. 1999). Resistance is a typical response to organizational change; however, unplanned change after a crisis may evoke different responses. The uncertainty that exists after a crisis can make it easier for employees to absorb the unplanned changes imposed by organizational leaders during crisis response (Shaw 2012). Adding the element of emergency operations to a change process can encourage organizational commitment and loyalty, resulting in employee support of the crisis response process and thus the changes that are made during that process.
Crisis events unfreeze an organization’s operational and procedural norms, making it necessary for organizational leaders to consider and implement changes that can be refrozen as the organization approaches a new period of equilibrium/convergence. During the period that the operational profile is unfrozen, an organization must implement changes that allow for an effective response to the crisis event and the insurance of organizational viability. Organizational changes made during crisis response are often unplanned and directive, guided by the foresight of organizational leaders. It is after the immediate threat of harm to organizational resources is absolved that planned changes can be made through participative processes.
- Bess JL, Dee JR (2008) Understanding college and university organization: theories for effective policy and practice. Stylus, SterlingGoogle Scholar
- Cintrón R, Weathers ET, Garlough K (2007) College student death: guidance for a caring campus. University Press of America, LanhamGoogle Scholar
- Eckel P, Green M, Hill B, Mallon W (1999) Taking charge of change: a primer for colleges and universities. American Council on Education, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
- Harper KS, Paterson BG, Zdziarski EL II (eds) (2006) Crisis management: responding from the heart. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
- Hemphill BO, LaBlanc BH (eds) (2010) Enough is enough: a student affairs perspective on preparedness and response to a campus shooting. Stylus, SterlingGoogle Scholar
- Lewin K (1951) Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers. Harper & Brothers, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Mayhew E (2006) Organizational change processes. In: Jones BB, Brazzel M (eds) The NTL handbook of organizational development and change: principles, practices, and perspectives. Wiley, San Francisco, pp 104–120Google Scholar
- Pauchant TC, Mitroff II (1992) Transforming the crisis-prone organization: preventing individual, organizational, and environmental tragedies. Jossey-Bass, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
- Rosenthal U, Pijnenburg B (eds) (1991) Crisis management and decision making: simulation oriented scenarios. Kluwer Academic, NorwellGoogle Scholar
- Shaw MD (2012) Crisis begets change: hurricane recovery at gulf coast institutions. Doctoral dissertation, Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses databaseGoogle Scholar
- Simsek H, Louis KS (2000) Organizational change as paradigm shift. In: Brown III MC (ed) ASHE reader series: organization & governance in higher education, 5th edn. Pearson, Boston, pp 550–565Google Scholar