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Change Agent

Tool: Architecture of change

Typical use (type of issue/project)

To use when planning a change initiative – to ensure all the components needed for success are present and have been considered. This can also be used at review points within a change programme, as a test and challenge to ensure that you remain on track.

Ease of use rating

Used by

HR practitioners working as part of a change programme team.

Tips for effective use

Be aware that the process is not linear – different components will be most important at different stages of the change journey. Ensure that you revisit the model at key decision points. Share the model with colleagues to help them appreciate the different components that must be considered.

Signals of successful use

Regularly returning to the four areas of the model to check that they are in balance; Achieving sustainable change through rigorous application of the model.

Signals of unsuccessful use

Paying insufficient attention to one of the four elements of the model resulting in more difficult implementation of a change programme.

Links to other tools

Why we resist change, CORE, Transition curve


Architecture of change

There are four primary architectural components of change that HR practitioners can check are understood, tested and satisfied to ensure there will be a meaningful and sustainable impact on the organisation and its performance:

All four components are equally important, but they do not necessarily all receive equal attention from the designers and implementers of change. In our fast-moving world, action is often valued more highly than careful and thoughtful planning.

Decision-makers can become intransigent when challenged to expose and re-examine their reasoning. Leaders often believe they can force their plans through, regardless of known problems with previous efforts at change and prefer to plough ahead, rather than enquire into and anticipate foreseeable resistance, problems or blocks. Attention is frequently centred solely on the technical aspects which, although crucial, will not in themselves deliver easy or lasting change.

All too often impatience, desire for action and belief in hierarchy result in leaders ignoring the human impact of the change, believing people will ‘do as they’re told’ or ‘just have to get on with it’. Paying insufficient attention to one of the components will not necessarily cause an entire change project to fail, but it is extremely likely to make it more painful to implement and more difficult to sustain.

There is a natural sequence of when to focus on each of the components, although the process is not linear by any means.

  • Examining and getting very clear about the relevance must precede all else: if people are unable to understand why there is a need to change and if that reason is not meaningful, traction will never be gained. This is the pre-planning stage.
  • Once a clear and compelling need for change has been established planning can begin on two fronts simultaneously:
  • Planning how the change will be managed: taking account of the readiness of the organisation and its component parts to change
  • Planning what will change: the design of robust solutions.
  • As concrete plans begin to form and knowledge of the impending change becomes more wide-spread, attention must be paid to the emotional impact it will have on those affected.
  • In complex change situations, the entire process is often iterative. As the change unfolds in microcosms of the larger system, all four components must be proven true again for the smaller entity.

Whatever role the HR practitioner is playing, they can use their influencing, communication, planning and diagnostic skills to ensure the architecture of the change is rigorously tested and applied.

The four stages are outlined in more detail:


Relevance is about deeply understanding the reasons behind and the business case for change.

It involves asking questions that test the soundness of the thought processes that have led to the proposal of change now. Why are we undertaking this change? What do we want to achieve? What will happen if we don’t? What current problems will it and won’t it solve? What potential new problems could it create? Why is now the right time for this change? Done well, this deep inquiry leads to a shared understanding among key stakeholders of what the long term goals are, how important this is, what the potential benefits to the business are, realistic understanding of the limitations, and a sense of urgency to act now. This later becomes the ‘story’ that is told as the change begins to be communicated to a wider audience and ultimately can become the motivating rallying cry to keep people engaged when times get hard ahead.

We have all seen the effects of a lack of attention to relevance. The new initiative that is introduced because it ‘seems like a good idea’, ‘everyone else is doing it’ or ‘an organisation our size should have it’, that consumes enormous time and resources and is never used. Try introducing a new Child-care policy in an organisation that is struggling for its economic survival and notice how hard it is to get people’s attention, never mind their support. Or recognise that a new all-singing, all-dancing system will only be used if it provides something of what the business wants in less time than they can currently get what they need.

If change is already underway and it is proving hard to get support or attention, revisiting the question of relevance may provide some answers.


Readiness is about understanding what in the organisation’s leadership thinking, its culture and its history of change will help or hinder the successful implementation of what is proposed.

Questions here examine the accelerators and the brakes on change in general and on this one in particular. They also look at how similar or disparate these are across the organisation, since not all parts of the business may have the same levels of readiness at the same time.

Do our leaders share a common vision for the change and its full business potential? Do they have important personal gains to be made or conflicts of interest? How does our leadership model fit with the change? What aspects of our culture will help support the change and what will hinder it? What has our history of change been; do we tend to embrace or resist it? Where or when does change tend to get stuck here, and why? What are the major threats to success and how can we mitigate them? Do we have uniformity or do we need to adapt our approaches to take account of differences around the organisation? Realistically assessing the organisation’s readiness for the change enables the project planners to take account of foreseeable obstacles to successful implementation. If, for example, the leaders are not all aligned to the change, one work-stream can be specifically focused on creating alignment and personal incentive for each of them. If projects have typically lost momentum after six months’ work, re-engagement interventions can be planned as that time approaches. If businesses or departments usually operate very independently, cross-functional teams can be established from the outset and given common and interdependent goals.

Lack of attention to the state of readiness creates blind spots and asks for later problems that could have been predicted from what is known about the present or can be learned from the past. HR has a valuable role to play in examining and naming the known facts that could potentially derail the change if left untended. If change is already underway and is derailing or gaining variable degrees of support in different parts of the organisation, it is worth going back to see how much investigation of readiness was done at the start.


Robustness is about designing strength into the nuts and bolts of the change and this usually attracts the most effort and energy in projects.

It involves understanding the changes we are making to the systems, processes, structure, roles, location, suppliers, contractual arrangements and all the other inanimate aspects of the plans and designs.

Have we got the structure right? Is our design fit for purpose? Do the systems deliver what is needed? Do our people understand what they and others have to do in the changed environment? How will it all work together? When implemented, will it achieve the goals of the change?

Getting it right on the technical front is very important and it is appropriate that this should be a central focus. Well-thought through physical changes that prove their value in increased efficiency, productivity or ease of use will naturally replace their predecessors. When solutions work and there are seamless joins between them and other structures and systems, transition into the new state glides smoothly. Poorly designed solutions, or those superimposed on existing structures without taking a holistic view are doomed to failure. If it is harder to perform a task or get information, or it takes longer or costs more after the change than before, not surprisingly resistance occurs. People work around the new systems or processes, for example by keeping their own records, or revert to the former way of doing things in pursuit of an easy life.

It is relatively rare that attention is not paid to technical robustness, although solutions are often sub-optimal for a range of reasons from insufficient funding to practical incompetence. However the biggest risk is that the focus on the technical side overrides all else, resulting in the other three necessary components of successful change being ignored or under-valued.

If the implementation stages of a change are proving arduous, or people quickly revert to old ways of working, reviewing the robustness of the technical solutions and how they fit into the whole may provide insights.


Responsiveness is about acknowledging and dealing with the human impact of change and is often the least attended-to factor in unsuccessful change projects. It involves understanding and responding to the emotional journey that we all experience when faced with change, regardless of whether we perceive it to be positive or negative.

How are people reacting to the changes and the implications for them? What do they feel they are losing and what might they gain? How clear is it to them what will change and when? How and when will they stop what they used to do and start what they are going to do? How will they deal with the ambiguity in the transition? How can we support them until the new order is business as usual?

There is a natural cycle people go through in change, though most are oblivious to it and are conscious only of a series of internal emotional reactions to what is being asked of them. Bringing these to light, putting them in a larger context, acknowledging them as important and equipping managers to anticipate and deal with them constructively pays enormous dividends in winning the hearts and minds of the people affected by the change. This smoothes the path of change and greatly increases its chances of succeeding and lasting.

When people have been helped to understand why change is happening and been allowed to explore their sense of loss or anger at the upheaval, when they have been helped to manage the confusion or anxiety they feel and been encouraged, when the time is right, to see the positives in the new order, they become ready to embrace and work creatively with the vision of the future.

If the emotional impact of the change is ignored and people are left to deal with it in their own way, dissention, active or passive resistance and negativity usually result. Good people will leave, malcontents will disrupt and the change will stand a high chance of failure.

If there is negative ‘noise’ surrounding a change being implemented, morale is low or good people are leaving, it is never too late to look at what is actively being done to manage the emotional side.