The Underlying Structure of Continuous Change

Managing change does not mean dealing with chaos. In fact, continuous change is a predictable cycle with four phases, each requiring certain resources and a specific type of champion.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic created a new context for the pharmaceutical industry unlike any it had ever encountered. This was not a discrete shock to which the industry could simply adjust through a planned change program, but rather a whole new environment demanding novel and unfamiliar ways of operating. For one thing, the drug companies had to find different ways of collaborating with patients,1 particularly those within the gay community, which had become increasingly politicized, organized and skeptical of the medical establishment. Adapting to such new realities required more than just implementing a single change effort. Rather, it required the pharmaceutical industry to manage cycles of continuous change over the course of years.

The experience of the drug companies illustrates the kind of complex and demanding environment that many companies face. The problem for managers confronting such situations is that the conventional models of organizational change tend to be too simplistic. Most of them present an unrealistic image of change as an episodic phenomenon in which corporate leaders develop and implement elaborate change programs on an occasional basis in response to specific, isolated environmental shocks. Of course, that type of change does occur, but more often the corporate environment is characterized by change that is open-ended, fluid and less closely tied to specific shocks — a continuous process rather than a clearly delineated episode. Thus, today’s managers need a fuller understanding of continuous change — how it works and how it doesn’t. Based on 15 years of studying and observing change in a wide range of organizations, we have developed a framework for understanding the underlying structure of continuous change.2 Core to our perspective is the idea that continuous change occurs in cycles, not in the linear programs associated with planned-change projects, and not in random or chaotic flows. Our research suggests that real, lasting change occurs only when it cycles through four distinct phases, each requiring certain resources and specific individuals. (See “The Cycle of Continuous Change.”) An understanding of those phases can help managers transform their companies into organizations that experience change not as a tumultuous, anxiety-inducing event but as part of an everyday routine. (See “Key Lessons for Managing Continuous Change.”)


1. See S. Maguire, N. Philips and C. Hardy, “When ‘Silence = Death,’ Keep Talking: Trust, Control and the Discursive Construction of Identity in the Canadian HIV/AIDS Treatment Domain,” Organization Studies 22 (March 2001): 285–310; and S. Maguire, C. Hardy and T.B. Lawrence, “Institutional Entrepreneurship in Emerging Fields: HIV/AIDS Treatment Advocacy in Canada,” Academy of Management Journal 47, no. 5 (2004): 657–679.

2. For more academic treatments of some of the ideas presented here, see T.B. Lawrence, M.K. Mauws, B. Dyck and R.F. Kleysen, “The Politics of Organizational Learning: Integrating Power into the 4I Framework,” Academy of Management Review 30, no. 1 (2005): 180–191; B. Dyck, F.A. Starke, G.A. Mischke and M.K. Mauws, “Learning to Build a Car: An Empirical Investigation of Organizational Learning,” Journal of Management Studies 42, no. 2 (2005): 387–416; and S. Maitlis, “The Social Processes of Organizational Sensemaking,” Academy of Management Journal 48, no. 1 (2005): 21–49. Of course, our work also builds significantly on the work of many other scholars, especially M. Crossan, H. Lane and R. White, “An Organizational Learning Framework: From Intuition to Institution,” Academy of Management Review 24, no. 3 (1999): 522–537; I. Nonaka, “A Dynamic Theory of Organizational Knowledge Creation,” Organization Science 5, no. 1 (1994): 14–37; and S.R. Clegg, “Frameworks of Power” (London: Sage, 1989).

3. See Maitlis, “The Social Processes of Organizational Sensemaking.”

4. R. Heath, interview with authors, June 10, 2004.

5. Ibid.

6. F. Tomczyk, interview with authors, July 19, 2004.