#538  Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 10         October 2001

A New Paradigm for Change
by Richard Axelrod

Mr. Axelrod is president of The Axelrod Group, Inc. (Chicago, Illinois; www.axelrodgroup.com). The following is reprinted and excerpted with permission from his book Terms of Engagement: Changing the Way We Change Organizations (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2000).  ©2000 Richard H. Axelrod 

Ask business leaders why their recent change effort did not live up to its promise and they invariably answer not that they got the strategy wrong, but that they were unable to develop sufficient organizational support for the needed changes.  What they often fail to recognize is that the very change management process they employed is the root cause of the problem. 

Rather than engaging the organization in critical change, the current change management paradigm disengages the very people whose support is essential to success. Unfortunately, many leaders, failing to recognize that the paradigm they are using is the problem, redouble their efforts to make it work, resulting in increased frustration on their part and increased alienation on the part of the employees.  It is no accident that Scott Adams has become the voice of the disengaged.  His Dilbert cartoons symbolize the frustration of people who do not believe that their voices count.

Today, leaders are under tremendous pressure from markets, customers, and competition to bring needed changes to their organization.  These leaders do not intentionally go about creating more material for Dilbert.  They desperately want to engage people in the issues that are vital to the organization’s success.  They want willing partners.  They want people who are engaged rather than cynical, people who are ready to put their wholehearted selves into bringing about the required changes rather than people who sit on the sidelines and take the attitude that “this too shall pass.”

Ask anyone who has participated on steering committees or design groups about their experience, and they will respond by saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could have the experience we had?  Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could have learned what we learned?”  In these responses is the key to moving beyond the change management paradigm, an application of four key principles: 1) widening the circle of involvement, 2) connecting people to each other, 3) creating communities for action, and 4) embracing democracy.

Widening the Circle of Involvement

Mere buy-in is no longer an acceptable goal.  We must move toward deeply engaging people in the change process itself, creating a critical mass of energetic people who design and support necessary changes.  This means going beyond the dozens who are typically involved in current change practices and involving hundreds, even thousands, of employees. 

In practical terms, widening the circle of involvement means expanding who gets to participate in the change process in two critical ways.  The first is by including new and different voices.  The second is by expanding the number of people in order to create a critical mass for change so that the few are no longer left in the position of deciding for the many.  In addition to creating a critical mass for change, widening the circle of involvement also enhances innovation, adaptation, and learning.

Connecting People to Each Other

When people connect with each other and to powerful ideas, creativity and action are ensured.  Barriers to the flow of information and new ideas are lowered as people forge links with others.  Work also flows more smoothly, because people learn how what they do fits into the large whole, and how to access needed resources.

When people connect with each other, they become known to each other.  They stop being stereotypes, roles, functions and members of that hated “other.”  They become human beings with their own real-life issues and concerns.  People who are doing the best they can to get the job done.  People with unique talents to share.  People with mortgages and families, who are trying to manage their lives. 

Connection begins with matching a name with a face, but it evolves to understanding who that person is, how they think, and what matters to them.  Connection doesn’t require sharing your deepest personal feelings; however, it does mean getting to know people beyond the facades of role and title.

Creating Communities for Action

Meeting today’s challenges cannot be done by any one person single-handedly.  We need a community of people who willingly provide their talents and insights to address increasingly complex issues.  Community is important because one person no longer has the answer.  Answers reside in all of us.

When we create community, we move beyond a group of people who may have personal connections with each other to developing a group of connected people who have both the will and willingness to work together to accomplish a goal that has meaning for them.  Creating a sense of community in organizations is not easy because the requirements of mechanistic structures run contrary to what it takes to build community.  Nevertheless, we cannot ignore this task.

Embracing Democracy

Democracy is the best form the human race has developed for people to come together, discuss and resolve issues, and act.  It is through the democratic process that issues of self-interest versus the common good and minority versus majority opinion are dealt with in a way that ensures support and follow-through for the chosen course of action.  Internationally today, there is more democracy, more freedom of information, and more freedom of expression than there has ever been.  In this world, imposed change is no longer acceptable.  Change grounded in democratic principles has the best chance for success.

Democratic principles provide an ethical foundation and a moral fiber for the change process in business as well as political life.  They produce trust and confidence in both the change process and those who are leading it.  They are universal principles that speak to the human spirit, the desire to be free, the desire to have a say, and the desire to shape one’s own destiny.


In order to apply these principles to change (I call it the Engagement Paradigm), I recommend that leaders:

  create opportunities for people to grasp the big picture so that everyone fully understands the dangers and opportunities

  instill a sense of urgency and energy as people become aligned around a common purpose, embrace the organization’s mission, and create new directions

  establish accountability that is fully distributed throughout the organization as people come to understand the whole system

  encourage increased collaboration across organization boundaries because people are connected to the issues and each other

  foster broad participation that quickly identifies performance gaps and their solutions, which improves productivity and customer satisfaction

  spark creativity in people from all levels and functions, along with customers, suppliers, and others who contribute their best ideas in order to help the organization achieve its mission

  expand the organization’s capacity to accommodate future changes as people develop the skills and processes to meet both current and long-term objectives.

Leaders who successfully apply these principles will attract and maintain talent, as well as reap the benefits of creating organizations that are able to respond effectively to the chaos, confusion, and complexity of the ever-changing New Economy.

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