Do we need to redefine “change strategy”?

change strategy

“Tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war.” (Von Clausewitz, On War)

Are change strategy frameworks strategic enough?

What is commonly called change strategy is not very strategic, because strategy properly focuses on goals, and tactics on how to deliver them. Many publications on change strategy unhelpfully define it as stakeholder management, communications, HR alignment, short-term wins, benefits realization, people development, and organization design. All of those are “how” to deliver a strategy – and in my view are tactical, not strategic. Change strategy, should be at a level above those “how” questions.

Defining change strategy this way leaves a void. Business, market, operational, and corporate strategies are the very highest levels, and change tactics, how we engage and align people and organization, is the lowest. Is there a place in the middle, for change strategy?

In international relations, there will be the highest level strategic objectives (e.g. containing the Soviet Union, or supporting African development); then there will be a portfolio of activities (military, diplomatic, trade) that must be coordinated to deliver those objectives; then there will be the tactical specifics (how we conduct diplomacy and trade). That middle level captures the idea of change strategy: it is making the businesses grand strategy (the whole portfolio of change) cohere and deliver.

Change strategy and strategic coherence

Strategic coherence is a major issue in large, complex organizations where many executives are empowered to launch major change. This often leads to lack of strategic coherence – which I believe is as important as strategic excellence.

In an incoherent strategy the different change initiatives collide. One of Silicon Valley’s iconic companies recently sent an Executive Committee member to London to ask why costs had not fallen in response to a mandatory 20% head-count reduction. The full-time staff had been cut, but another initiative (aimed at rolling out a new product and improving customer service) had hired contractors to fill the void! As this involved more than 1000 workers, it is roughly a $100 million clash of strategies. Similarly, in one of the world’s top-five banks, their digital/ mobile strategy was fragmented across IT, Marketing, Retail Banking, and Operations and several geographies, each with a piece of the pie. (They were falling behind in delivery because some things fell between the cracks, and there were overlaps and conflicts.)

A new definition of change strategy

Change strategy is, by this definition, the way a business a) manages the portfolio of change to make sure that the parts deliver the whole business strategy, b) creates the context for change, c) monitors change risk and change performance across the entire business . The table below contrasts change strategy and change tactics.

Table contrasting change strategy with change tactics

The Science of Organizational Change: How leaders set strategy, change behavior, and create agile cultures is available on this site, and on Amazon.

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