Exploring the Experience of Organizational Transformation:
Contrasting Episodic Change with Continuous Change
Diane K. Norbutus
Organizations are faced with extraordinary diversity, ambiguity, turbulence, information overload, and, in sum, continuous complex change. A distinction in the organizational change and development literature has been made between episodic and continuous change. Episodic organizational change is conceptualized from a macro-level view as periods of equilibrium where organizations, seen as systems, maintain the status quo until a discontinuous change occurs that is created by intention and requires outside intervention (Weick & Quinn, 1999). Continuous organizational change is conceptualized from a micro-level view where change is evolving and continuous. Change is always emerging and requires neither intention nor outside intervention (Weick & Quinn). In this second case, change is conceptualized as endless patterns of emerging social practice and modifications of work processes (Stacey, 2001, 2003, 2007; Stacey, Griffin, & Shaw, 2000). These two perspectives provide different ways to understand change and present different implications for fostering and leading organizational change. This study examined the differences that each perspective presented in describing and understanding the processes of change/transformation in a single organization. It was found that continuous organizational change has greater explanatory power to help in understanding the Joint Warfighing Center (JWFC) 2005-2006 reorganization experience. The continuous change model explains how organizational change happens from a micro-perspective, continuously through interactions. The structure and direction offered by the episodic change model provides a predictable pattern to reach a pre-defined (known) goal thus can provide a blueprint of the macro patterns to be reinforced while insights from the continuous change model can guide moment to moment action. However, when something transformative (new) is the goal and it is not known in advance, the continuous change model is all one has. The structure and direction offered by the episodic model is, in this situation, not applicable. The continuous perspective offers an important new way to think about organizational change and leadership.
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