The Dynamics of Change
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The Dynamics of Change

The importance of strategic framing when selecting routines for change


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There can be many external pressures that trigger the need for organizations to change – be they market disruptions, new technological advances, moves by competitors or shifts in customer preferences. And at the heart of any organizational change is the need to change internal routines those recognizable, repetitive patterns of interdependent action that govern work processes.

To deliver positive, successful, change it is important that leaders pay attention to the process by which their organization selects some routines for change rather others and how they then determine alternative courses of action.

In their recent research Professor Brian Golden of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and colleagues Amit Nigam of Cass Business School and Ruthanne Huising from EMLYON Business School explain the dynamics behind the selection of routines for change and consider the importance of ‘organizational search’.

The selection of which routines to change and why is a critical determinant of the direction and ultimate success of any change initiative. Consequently, understanding how routines are selected for change is an important first step in managing the process of connecting external triggers for change, change in individual routines, and broader processes of organizational change and adaptation.

Organizational search, the process by which organizations seek out new ways of operating they believe will best achieve performance goals, is the method used for selecting routines for change. The drivers and influences behind organizational search can have a significant effect on the selection of routines for change. In one of their key findings the researchers identify what they describe as “role-based politics” as a source of structural inertia in search and show how this can be countered by the active use of strategic framing during search to make a more balance selection.

The search process is ‘political’ in that it is shaped by the extent to which elites people who occupy roles with authority to make decisions about a routine supported change. The elites’ goals and their frames of how changes to a routine affect their goals will shape the search process and which routines are selected to be changed, although their initial goals and frames can be influenced by ‘strategic framing’ during search.

This highlights the fact that organizations accomplish their work through a large number of interdependent routines, which interact in complex and often unpredictable ways that make it difficult to identify which routines should change to respond to some external trigger.

The way ‘elites’ frame a decision is constrained by their role-specific knowledge. Despite the fact that routines are interdependent and changes in one routine will have implications for related routines, elites often do not see the connections and ripple effects, having only a narrow partial experience of the organization’s system of interdependent routines in their day-to-day work. In some cases this stops them seeing that a routine negatively affects their goals, even if others in the organization can.

While the framing made initially by elites may have only a partial view of routines and their interdependences, the direct and indirect impact of an existing routine on their goals can be captured by a big-picture strategic frame that integrates the viewpoints of diverse organization members.

The researchers found that coaches (the external facilitators) were able to draw on their conversations with a range of people in the organizations surveyed to develop a big-picture frame, approximating the routine’s true impact on elites’ initial goals. In highlighting the role of strategic framing, including strategic framing by the coaches, they show how a broader range of influences, such as the vicarious experience of others, can influence individuals’ understandings of a routine.

This research into the dynamics by which organizations select routines for change focuses on the importance of role-based politics, role based frames, and strategic framing processes in shaping selection. And provides an important guide for practitioners. The application is clear. When undertaking change rather than allowing elites or politics to unduly influence the routines for change, organizations should seek a broader view to develop a strategic frame.

Access the research paper Explaining the Selection of Routines for Change during Organizational Search, Brian Golden, Ruthanne Huising and Amit Nigam, Administrative Science Quarterly, 2016, Vol. 61(4)551–583.

Brian Golden is the Vice-Dean of Professional Programs; the Sandra Rotman Chair in Health Sector Strategy at the University of Toronto and The University Health Network (joint appointment Faculty of Medicine); Professor of Strategic Management at Rotman; and Executive Director for Collaborative For Health Sector Strategy. Brian's conducts research and teaches in the areas of strategic change and implementation, health system integration and funding, governance, organizational strategy and leadership. He also teaches in numerous Rotman Executive Programs including the Advanced Health Leadership Program, Community Health Leadership Program, UHN-Rotman Leadership Development Program and customized programs for organizations.

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Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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