Why We Change | Understanding and Leading the Driving Forces of Change within a System

It is early Monday morning at Any+Company, Inc. and you make your way to your office with a great burden weighing heavily on your mind. The company has struggled since the market crash of 2008 and it is becoming painfully clear that business as usual is no longer. You know change must come to the organization if it is going to survive. The lingering question on your mind is how do we make those changes? The culture of the organization worked prior to the crash, but now with tough competition and tight margins, you are faced with doing more with less human capital than ever. As you ponder the need to structure your organization for the realities of the 21st century, you remember a conversation you had with a colleague on social change. If anyone can give insight into your conundrum, it has to be him. With a few keystrokes, you send him an email asking for insight into how a leader can effect positive lasting change within their organization. Little did you know at that moment you were about to embark on a journey through the complex world of social change theory.

Later that morning the phone rings and it is your colleague. He begins to explain that change and more specifically social change is complex and requires tools and models to make better sense of the world around us. Whether change is required within an organization, a community or the world at large we must consider the working theories as explanation of the dynamics and characteristics of our changing world. Unfortunately we find that it is not as simple as one tool or idea but many different theories that begin to construct the understanding of change. As a leader you may be struggling with questions like: what motivates human action; how do things change; or what will be the most significant change over the next 10 to 20 years? To create change, we must consider all the driving forces present within a given system.

But what are those driving forces, you ask? This is where it gets complicated. Driving forces can be viewed through the lenses of any of the ten sociological theories: progress, development, technology, culture, cycle, conflict, market, power, evolution, or emergence.


Diagram 1: Bishop and Hines (2012) Social Change.

To assist you with understanding the process of change theories, your colleague sends you a diagram from a text he has been reading on Social Change by Bishop and Hines. He explains that:

  1. Progress theory assumes that today is better than yesterday and the future will be better than today. So you might ask how progress theory will play into the changes within your organization. How is today better than yesterday and how will the future be better than today?
  2. Development theory assumes society will grow increasingly complex and moving in a consistent direction over time. You might begin to ask how society has increased in its complexity since the crash of 2008 or in which direction does society appear to be moving and what you should do about it as a leader or organization.
  3. Technology theory assumes there is a primary driver and that technological development proceeds on its own and is indefinitely capable of supporting individuals at a higher standard of living. You may begin to ask how technology is driving the changes being created in your industry. Can that technology sustain a higher standard of living?
  4. Culture theory assumes that a society is based on its culture more than on its material environment or its technologies and that ideas are the key component that gives the culture the ability to drive change. What influence does the culture have on the organization and what challenges will the organization face as it seeks to make necessary changes? What is the makeup of worldviews within our system? Our worldview is a set of ideas we hold related to the basic makeup of our environment.
  5. Cycle theory assumes there is no specific directional change and that change can be experienced in terms of peaks and valleys; that change eventually reverses over a long period of time. You may begin to ask yourself if your organization or even your industry experiences cycles of business. You might need to identify time frames for those cycles and then begin to examine what forces are at place and when will the cycle move from a peak to a valley and back again.
  6. Conflict theory assumes there are different groups in conflict with each other, working to achieve their own goals and implement their own agendas. Conflict binds people of a given group more closely together and conflict amongst groups motivates individuals to work harder for their own goals and increases the rate of certain social changes. You may want to know which groups within your organization are in conflict with other groups in the organization. What is motivating the groups to work harder and are those groups in conflict with the overall goals of the organization?
  7. Market theory assumes there are no limits to our wants and that conflict and competition will be the motivators for our actions. Market theory believes that the production of goods and services are the most important mission of its society and economy and that investment is the mechanism for progress. You may ask what influence the market and competition plays on the changes the organization is experiencing.
  8. Power theory assumes that people are free to influence the future as they wish and that they make conscious choices to influence the future so that they can achieve certain goals for themselves and for or despite others. This theory believes that some people are more able to get what they want than others. You may wish to consider how the individuals in your organization are able to influence the future of the organization and to what extent the individuals will be able to make choices about that future that will render certain goals for themselves.
  9. Evolution theory assumes that there are three elements required for it to work: 1) differences among the individuals in the evolving entity; 2) a higher probability that some of the individuals will produce based on the fitness of the environment and; 3) there is an ability to pass traits from one generation to the next. You may wish to examine the differences within the individuals, the fitness of the organization and the probability that the individuals will produce based on the environment as well as how well the individuals are able to pass the successful traits on to others in the organization or system.
  10. And finally,The Emergence theory assumes social change rises from the bottom rather than the top-down. It assumes that the system consists of multiplicity of agents, each operating to achieve goals in an environment of other agents. This is much simpler form of conflict theory. No one knows yet how these patterns manifest themselves. You might consider the idea of an Emergence theory as encompassing all of the theories. You might begin to ask question such as, what changes in the system currently are seen as rising from the bottom up.

By now your head is spinning and you realize more than ever that change really is a complex matter. You begin to wonder why you can’t just pick on over another. Your colleague cautions you. To consider only one theory, void of any others, will render your view of change and your organization with bias. Once we begin to understand the root causes of change and we consider the basic assumptions, we are able to understand the dynamics of change itself. Your colleague warns you to avoid the trap many researchers fall into over change. They will choose only one theory and its assumptions without thinking about or considering that each theory results in a differing image of the future. As the future is altered by choosing one theory over another so will your choices be altered any scenarios you may wish to consider.

As you prepare to leave your office that evening you begin to realize that change is contingent on both internal and external forces. You think back over the ten theories your colleague provided you. You have your work cut out for you, but now that you have the basic structure of theories, you begin to evaluate the organization along these theoretical lines to create a picture of not only where your organization is but where it could be headed. You hear your friend’s final remarks as you close and lock the door. “Your ability to consider as many alternative scenarios and approaches as possible will depend on your ability to apply as many of these theories as possible and that will help you affect change in your organization.” As you get into your car and start the engine you begin to think through the ten theories and how each of them applies to your organization and the individuals within. Much work is needed but at least you have direction. The heavy mental weight you felt that morning begins sliding away and you begin to see the most logical path to developing answers to how you will compete in the 21st century. You know that your ability to compete is locked in your ability to anticipate and plan for the change necessary.


Philip A Foster, MA is Founder/CEO of Maximum Change Inc. Maximum Change, Inc. is a Leadership and Business Consulting firm located in Middle Tennessee offering business & leadership consulting, speaking and training. Philip Foster is a Thought Leader in Business Operations, Organization, Strategic Leadership, Planning and Strategic Foresight. Facilitating change through the design and implementation of strategies, strategic foresight and strategic planning

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