Principles of organisational change

What do we mean by change processes?

Research suggests that training individuals has not proved successful in creating more inclusive or diversity-orientated organisations. In order to achieve change at an organisational level, the individuals involved need to go through change processes. These comprise a variety of activities, workshops and meetings with different people in different settings with a view to affecting cultural change.

Collaboration in organisations is a question of trust, and trust between people is established through sensitive dialogue and exchange with each other. This way, organisations – or, rather the people within organisations – create patterns of interaction and behaviour that further evolve into cultural habits, which again influence individual behaviour across the organisation.

Understanding planned and emergent change

Change processes are complex and their outcome or central dynamics are often difficult to predict. While these processes can be planned key issues often change during implementation, and intermediate results or the central focus may shift. Reasons for this experience are manifold: people in central functions change (or change their individual point of view), external or internal influencing factors have an effect, or the dynamics of communication between people involved emerge differently than expected.

This leads to two main challenges in the design of change processes. On the one hand, change processes should be well planned to clarify the major steps and provide at least a basic amount of certainty to those involved. The key to planning is, therefore, reliability: independently from the results, a framework is established which participants feel confident that they can help shape and fill. Secondly, the main challenge during implementation is the open and creative reaction to unexpected developments that can and will arise during the process.

From our point of view, it is a collective responsibility to develop ideas for how these newly created questions can be answered and to contribute to conclusions they imply for the overall process.

The map is not the territory.

The mapmaker knows and can define a direction for development; however, the mapmaker cannot foresee in which way this path will be followed by those who use the map; how the wanderer’s mood, fitness, tempo will play out, who likes to talk to whom or whether they want to explore a side-track. It is also unclear whether the perception of the landscape is coherent or whether people see it differently. The metaphor shows that we do not know how a planned process will evolve when it comes to be implemented.

It would be a mistake to interpret these points as an argument against the thorough planning of a change process. It is, however, a plea to identify, appreciate and integrate newly emerging thoughts, dynamics and ideas instead of denying their relevance if they don’t fit the original plan. This makes the design of change processes more complex and challenging, but in our experience more sustainable and realistic. Change processes, therefore, need as much planning as they need intuitive perception about the appropriate dynamic at critical moments of implementation.

The instruments and tools we introduce in this handbook mostly support change processes based on planning and thorough process design. The recommendation of the moment during a larger process when they are most appropriately used is mostly tentative and based on reflected experience. We encourage readers to experiment and use these tools, ideally in the beginning together with other colleagues and/or in less complex situations. Over time, you will be able to develop a sense for using the ”right” or relevant tools at the right time.

Change processes follow a certain logic regarding their structure, dynamics and the people involved.

Structural Embeddedness

Organisations are built on two relational paradigms. In the so-called formal system assigned

roles, functions and responsibilities are in the foreground. The formal system implies a hierarchy of functions and establishes the working relationship between them. It provides guidance on areas of responsibility and decision-making powers; establishes a reward system and clarifies who can ultimately decide in the case of a dispute. This system often corresponds with top-down strategically planned change processes with a clearly set-out approach.

On the other hand, there are organisations that strive for flat hierarchies or even reject any kind of formal hierarchies and consequently experiment with other forms of decision-making processes in a more lateral or collectively organised manner. This informal approach, often called the emergent or dialogical approach, is less grounded in functions and resulting hierarchies, and more in the personal relationships and communication routines which exist between the members of the organisation.

Both systems exist as realities in all organisations and each of them has advantages and disadvantages in supporting change processes. The predominantly planned orientation of a change process supports a focus which helps to identify concrete goals and pathways to attain them. The emergent or dialogical approach recognises the importance of a relationship design and thus a very different but equally important perspective on change and transformation.

Most of the time it is the integration of both perspectives that best support change processes: a planning orientation that integrates the formal areas of responsibility with open and conversational approaches that creatively support new ideas.

The field of international exchange and volunteering explicitly builds on the creation of international relationships and exchange. Considering the proverb to “practice what you preach” the focus on relationships and iterative communication as an approach to change and, more generally, to enhance the quality of work should be normal practice in this field and be appreciated in similar organisations.

From our experience in the facilitation of change processes, we often use two basic instruments that acknowledge the need for guidance while at the same time maintaining openness for what might emerge during the process. These two elements are: the design of a broad process architecture and the establishment of a process group.

Process Architecture

A clear process architecture helps on the planning side to develop the necessary understanding of and guide to a change process. What we mean by process architecture is less a detailed content-heavy plan on how and when to deal with the different aspects of a change process, but more a clear design specifying at which point and in what way topics are discussed, as well as who needs to be involved in the process and when. In the following sections, we present such an ideal architecture, which of course can and should be adapted.

What is important to us is that the participants in a change process, despite all the advantages of a pre-defined framework, are given the opportunity to adopt all the steps of this architecture to changing circumstances.

1. Inquiry: Identify background and central interests

In order to collect information about the status quo, various inquiry methods can be used and combined. These might be in-depth interviews with different people or groups within the organisation, foundational documents (such as values, relevant strategies and policies) and

documents relevant to the area of change. This information is compiled and used to provide a detailed overview of the perceived problems and potentials.

2. Kick-off event: Create Ownership

At the official start of a process, all more or less affected people in the organisation (and perhaps further relevant ones) are brought together. Here, the background of the process, its goals, approaches and planned steps are presented to the degree of precision that exists at this point. This ought to involve everyone in the process and create ownership.

3. Workshops and Sub-projects: Develop ideas

This is one of the most common and flexible elements of a change process. Within workshops you can work intensively on the issues of the change process: evaluate, plan, debate, process, envision, discuss, learn or experiment together. Important questions here are about who needs to take part in the workshops and who facilitates the workshops.

When small and intermediate targets are decided upon and need to be elaborated further, small groups or individuals can organise themselves in sub-projects. They usually tackle a specific issue in the overall process and feed their findings and ideas back to the whole group during the next gathering/workshop.

4. Iterative Workshops, Coaching etc: Experiment with solutions

Change generally implies that those involved can feel a certain motivation and urgency about the overall direction. As well as adopting new ways of thinking and doing it involves un-learning of old behavioural patterns and practices of thinking and doing.

These are personal and collective development processes that are usually not achieved easily or fast. It often needs exchange and interaction between those who are affected and with those in a position to account for the planned change. It also needs experimentation and joint reflection. Often, additional support is provided in the form of coaching, peer group consulting or team supervision.

Some of these instruments are more effective when facilitated by externals, since they do not share the organisation’s blind spots. However, if external or professional support cannot be used, it is helpful to experiment with ideas for how to organise and assist reflection and support from internal sources. In general, some form of support is needed.

A major milestone in these iterative events is the moment when agreements are reached. To realise these ideas during the challenging daily work routine procedures should be established how these agreements can be and sustained. Possibilities could be: regular reviews in working groups; specially-introduced focus groups or advisory persons or boards; regular checks about the topics and the agreements achieved etc.

5. Closing event

At the end of a change process, a closing event brings together all people who participated at the start. This step needs a recap, where achievements are recognised and put into perspective and gratitude is expressed towards those who were engaged in the process. Eventually, it is important to mark the end with a celebration of what has been done.

This rather general architecture can be adapted to the desired goals or given contexts of the change process, e.g.:

  • Open-ended large-group events (e.g. Open Space formats – see tools) often bring personal identification, ownership and creativity to the process. At the same time, they can increase a mixture of uncertainty and expectation regarding how the outcomes of the meeting will be handled. However, from our point of view, inclusive and participating activities should always be part of change processes – especially when they are organised around this topic.
  • Uncertainty and worries about change processes, which can arise for different reasons (“How will my job/volunteer work change?”; ” Can I still influence what is going on?”; “What do I have to re-learn now?”) can be addressed more adequately in smaller groups. Confidence usually correlates with group size. For example, if the process of change involves the introduction of new working mechanisms that might trigger worries and fears (for example, the introduction of new mechanisms for performance assessment, such as regular staff talks or in non-hierarchical organisation the introduction of mechanisms to jointly determine salaries), smaller groups offer a more helpful forum to address these worries than a large group where focus and rigour in discussions are more difficult to achieve.
Process Group

The second central element at this point is the process group. The diverse composition of this group should represent the different perspectives of the organisation. The members should volunteer for this group, although some positions are required (e. g. representative of the organisation’s leadership). Especially in organisations working in the field of voluntary service, the process group can make sure that those volunteers and co-workers that work part time are represented adequately. The group usually consists of 4–6 people and meets regularly to collect feedback from within the organisation (how do people currently feel about the process?) and discuss the consequences for the process. The group can be understood as serving the organisation and the purpose of change.

This results in three core tasks:

  • It collects coordinates interim results from existing subgroups and workshops and forwards them to the larger attendance in respective group-settings. It keeps and communicates an overview of the entire change process when it is decentralised.
  • Due to its diverse composition it integrates the different perspectives on the change process, helps to identify and deal with questions and concerns from within the team and takes process-related decisions if necessary (and mandated).
  • The process group is the central point of contact for external cooperation (e.g. with experts and consultants etc.) and for internal coordination of different activities supporting the change process. Due to their work the members of this group often accumulate a certain amount of knowledge regarding the topic and the process. It is important that the group is as transparent as possible about this knowledge.

The role of the process group is easily underestimated. As membership is spread across hierarchies it is a central factor to make sure that all stakeholders are actively involved in the change processes. This diversity of membership legitimises the decisions the group takes – members of the process group communicate informally with their colleagues elsewhere, this group often influences change processes on the formal and informal level. Both approaches have impact on the process and should be considered carefully.

Additionally, we have also noted how process groups act as the energy centre which ensures the change process stays in the focus of relevant groups and people. A change process is work. It needs invested time for reflection, as well as meetings to discuss, share experience or decide about strategy and plans of implementation. It also needs room for collective learning and dialogue. It involves a variety of emotions, some of them difficult and distancing. Very often change processes take place parallel to the normal work within the organisation, whether for volunteers or employees. Meetings and working groups compete for valuable time allocated to daily work. It is often the process group that reaffirms the reasons for the change process and the importance of doing this often additional work with equal passion.

When volunteer co-workers are involved it is especially important to consider why they commit themselves to the process. Face to face discussions about their expectations at different phases could be helpful. The planning of the change process should respect co-workers’ and other volunteers’ time limitations. These are some pragmatic signals from which volunteer co-workers can sense that their participation is meaningful and has an impact on the process.

Central Dynamics in Change Processes

Change processes often meander between open and creative phases of idea development and decisive “closing” stages of decision-making and mapping out the subsequent implementation.

Here we present a relevant basic pattern often existing in the dynamics in change processes. Within these fundamental dynamics, deeper layers of agreement, resistance, and misunderstanding find their way into the process. They in turn influence each other’s dynamics and adapt their course to the given reality.

Patterns to take decisions – defining openness and limitations

During your change processes, you will identify certain topics and issues that you decide to work on more closely. Since these topics will be individual to every process and organisation, we cannot provide specific ideas for how to deal with them. Yet, whenever you approach a certain topic, work with it and then come to a conclusive end, there is a certain process that reoccurs.


When starting to explore a topic, people will need to reveal what they know or need to know about content and process. From a personal perspective it is important that there is enough time connecting with the other people involved. Participants need time to delve into something new, maybe unfamiliar and also the openness to try out different ways to approach this topic. Therefore, you can plan to use methods and situations that allow people to get to know and experiment with different perspectives.

This phase is overall about exploring both the topic as well as any differing perspectives and opinions. Use the practical tools you find in this handbook and recall those methods that you already know.

Consider which ones might be helpful to work on a topic (maybe with some alteration to the method).


Once you have introduced the topic and people have gained and shared their insights, there will be a time when new ideas, creative syntheses and new perspectives will emerge. This phase includes the initial stage of developing solutions while there is still room for a variety of ideas and suggestions before they are sorted, assessed and filtered. This is both the most valuable and volatile phase of working with a topic. Here, you can make good use of creative methods (for instance including craft materials) that aim at co-creating something new out of the gathered perspectives and opinions from the divergence phase. You might take up a specific difficult case that you had in your organisation and experiment with ideas, what you could do differently in similar situations.

The Groan Zone

The Emergence Phase is sometimes also called the “Groan Zone”: at a certain point you might feel that the topic and the search for creative solutions or their assessment has been exhaustively discussed or find that the conversations peter out. Experience has shown that sometimes the most valuable perspectives or ideas emerge when you stay on a little longer in the emergence phase and not start closing up too quickly.


Now that you have come up with a multitude of ideas, perspectives, solutions, new approaches etc., it is time to bring all of that together. What are the precise learnings from all those outputs and outcomes? What is a common base which people agree upon, which is at the same time precise enough to not be vague? Using different sizes of groups (triads, other small groups) you can focus on the essence of your work and define what you want to take with you for the future in your organisation. At the end, you will have very concrete outcomes, broken down so it is clear what follows next and who does what. During the phase of convergence, you will have to make sure that no entirely new topics are opened and that the group focuses on common agreements and prioritisation.

Regarding the tools in this handbook there are some that can work with all of these dynamics, for example Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry or Future Workshop. Others can be used particularly as a decision-taking tool or to support the creation of ideas in an emergent sense, like analytical tools etc. Some others are used solely for a named purpose, for example creativity tools or biography-work which are clearly grounded in the emerging phase or decision-taking instruments as part of convergence. In the method part of this handbook we have identified the contexts (not exclusive) where we see the best potential use of the tools.

Working with Resistance

Even with the best planning of a process and the prediction of unforeseen dynamics, moments which throw a change process off course are a common experience. For example, there is often resistance to the change from the members or volunteers, participants, users, or other stakeholder-groups (or individuals) involved in or affected by the process. This resistance manifests itself in various forms: it can be expressed in passive form by “working to rule” and will often reduce social contact. Or it will be more proactive such as deliberate contradiction of prevailing opinions or failing to turn up to meetings. Resistance is often grounded in one of three elements:

  • An emotional and often unclear reaction that is difficult to explain cognitively. This reaction is less directed against content than the protagonists who represent this content. Therefore, resulting conflicts quickly become personal. The emotional response is often also related to aspects of the process, e.g. not enough transparency regarding the background, not enough involvement, too many sudden steps to be carried out with great urgency etc.
  • Factual reasons e.g. that the adopted ideas or concepts are, from the perspective of this person, “professionally wrong”. Often there is a grain of truth in this. A helpful strategy is therefore to review the criticised ideas and to appreciate (to a certain extent) divergent opinions.
  • Issues of power, status and influence. These questions or interests mostly aren’t expressed openly (especially because power issues in many organisations in the fields of international exchange are taboo). Consequently, other topics dominate discussion and the resistance usually lasts until space is given, within the framework of the change process, to addressing issues related to power and interests.

As in many other social settings, we suggest that “disruptions take precedence.” Resistance is important; in particular, relating to the second element above, it can help recognise mistakes in the phase of developing and shaping ideas. When we talk about organisations working interculturally and creating a more diversity-sensitive approach, the backgrounds of resistance need to be considered.

Different cultural perspectives can lead to completely different levels of conflict and resistance, which – if not addressed – significantly reduce confidence in change processes.

People Involved

Leadership and Teams in Change Processes

Leaders often play an important role in the shaping of a change process. Yet to support the feeling of ownership we recommend sharing this responsibility with members of the organisation who can represent, integrate and facilitate different perspectives (as already discussed in regard to the formation of a process group). A change process always requires individual but also collective responsibility.

Leaders in change processes

There are different directions from where the initiative for change can come, as was mentioned before. This can be from somewhere at the grass-roots level of the organisation or the top decision- makers, or anywhere in-between. However, for change to successfully be implemented, it is essential that those in leadership positions are on board and fully committed.

Mainly from an informal perspective leaders have a special role to function as role models for the rest of the organisation. Thus, when it comes to new ways of doing things, such as testing new ways of behaviour or communication, leaders will be carefully observed by the rest of the people to see how far what they do matches with what they say. If they act congruently in this, they create a major drive for the change to be successful, since people will begin to follow them.

This applies particularly in the field of diversity. Change in relation to diversity is still emerging as a new field in organisations and does not yet have established rules or procedures of communication. If leaders only announce changes or call for diversity-embracing attitude in the organisation, but do not follow the call themselves, they will be considered insincere. This results in a diminished chance for the desired change to happen, to say the least, and it could also decrease the overall likelihood of them being followed by the people they lead. And with regard to the effective implementation of change processes, it is the leadership’s task to communicate the different steps of the process back into the organisation and to be transparent about what is happening. Thereby, leaders already let new agreements and ways of behaviour and communication shine through – so they have both the responsibility but also the honour of letting people see what is changing.

When the change involves questioning one’s own power (which is often the case when reflecting about diversity and discrimination in organisations), leaders are expected to be open for self- reflection. It may become emotional to question one’s own authority in connection with subconscious patterns of discrimination, so sometimes it might be necessary for the leadership team to speak about these topics in their own group. Such self-reflection, however, definitely benefits from external support, such as involving somebody in a coaching role.

With regard to the integrity of the change process, leaders – together with the process group – have the special responsibility of ensuring a transparent and fair process. This does not mean that they must always play an active role. Yet they should develop sensitivity towards what they observe and how they themselves effect and are affected by the process and the changes.

Teams and their involvement in Change Processes

Often in facilitation work we see leaders and teams standing opposed “against” each other – especially in hierarchical organisations. We would instead argue for a shared responsibility, drawing on different opinions and creating something collectively. Regarding diversity and change processes we think it is important to facilitate clear and understandable rooms within which members and participants of change processes can communicate their questions and contributions.

We want to highlight three settings that could be framed.

1. Safe spaces and structures.

Change processes or, more generally, any form of organisational development are accompanied by feelings of uncertainty and sometimes fear of the unknown. In order to support peoples’ creative involvement a process structure should provide possibilities where this uncertainty can by communicated. “Safe spaces” include:

  • A reduction of number of participants to a reasonable number that encourages confidential talk – we suggest a maximum of 15 people as a working-group.
  • Establish, if necessary, clear rules of conversation; first of all to agree that everyone is heard until finished. Try to get everyone to contribute – at least in an introductory and in a closing circle, but better also of course in-between.
  • Create an atmosphere of appreciation and curiosity. Most important here is that the group shouldn’t prematurely dismiss or undervalue statements of others.
  • Accept emotions and other impressions as valuable source of information that could help you better understand the situation; let participants talk about their impressions not only from a cognitive but also from an intuitive or emotional point of view.
  • Clear room for decision taking. All participatory approaches have a framework within which the room for collective decision-making – as opposed to the decisions taken by leadership or top management – needs to be defined. The definition of this collective responsibility is not trivial: too much responsibility can lead to disorientation and disempowerment; too tight a framework can lead to disappointment and lack of ownership. Furthermore, it is important not to limit the authority for collective decision-making during the change process itself e.g. by management decision. This would again lead to severe disappointment and – understandable – resistance to the whole process. Trust in the process can also be built and sustained through agreement on intermediate results and how they will be used.

2. Space for informal conversation.

Creativity doesn’t always follow the predefined schedule, nor does the energy of people. Although there are tools that integrate creative approaches into change processes (like future workshop, biographic work etc.) just a space for informal conversation (small kitchen space, a part of a library, garden etc.) often evolves into a space where ideas are generated and new interpretations can be discussed.

  • Download the full handbook (PDF) – coming soon!

We love feedback!

If you would like to give your feedback on specific methods, please use the comment section available. Or if you would like to give us your thoughts on the project as a whole contact us.