A Critical Review of “The Change Handbook” (first edition)

A good introduction to the field of participatory change implementation and an overview of known methods, but not enough detail to actually implement anything.

The change handbook: Group methods for shaping the future
Editor: P Holman , T Devane
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
San Francisco, CA Copyright 1999

The first edition 1999 textbook gives basic descriptions of 18 different methods for getting many people to collaboratively make a plan for system wide change in their organization. The language and examples are written mostly from a Western business management perspective, although they do include references and useful insight for community organizations as well.

“The Change Handbook” begins with a brief discussion of the nature of change and some general points to consider when planning a change process. It continues with 18 chapters each dedicated to a different method, written by the model’s creator or leading practitioners. Models are presented with standardized sections that include: success stories, basic explanations, how to start, roles and responsibilities, impacts on authority, conditions for success, theoretical basis, sustaining results and biographies. It concludes with several synthesized implementation suggestions, interesting predictions for the future, a great list of resources and a pull-out “Comparative Matrix” chart of all the models.

The text provides a birds eye view on the variety of organizational change models, which is is a much higher level of perspective than your typical manual of ‘101 Meeting Facilitation Techniques’. In fact, it does not include any specifics for how to practically structure or facilitate the various meetings called for by each model, or how to address potential problems that are likely to pop-up. The self congratulating format of the success stories lacks the critical and independent perspective of academic case studies. Many of the how-to type sections and advice from experienced consultants are useful for leaders looking to support change, although you will have to sift through many paragraphs of ‘promotional speak’ and repeated advice.

Peggy Holman and Tom Devane do a great job in selecting experienced contributors, but unfortunately it reads more like a catalogue of consultants and their approaches than a practical handbook for practitioners and organization leaders to use in the field. The reader gets a taste for each method, but is never satisfied with enough details of how to fully implement any process. This is not so much a fault of the editors as it is of the reality of trying to survey a field that is filled with consultants each selling their own slightly different magic approach and each wanting you to buy their own books and services.

With names like “Future Search”, “Search Conference” and “Conference Model” it is not easy to clearly identify the differences between models, besides the names of the consultants, their particular focus and their preferred jargon. Across all the methods there is a common process of getting dedicated support from leadership and including representatives from all types of roles and stakeholder groups related to the organization in a series of meetings where they discuss to understand their situation and deliberate to plan for a new common future that generally includes empowering workers and improving communication. Most of the differences between the models seem to be concerning what topics and approaches to address at each meeting. Other differences in applications can likely be attributed to the philosophy, style and skill of the consultant, and the culture and situation of the organization.

As a consultant, manager or board member this book provides you with many useful nuggets of insightful advice and suggestions for innovative approaches to organizational change, but you will probably find the lack of specifics to be frustrating, the redundancy to be tiresome and the stories and academic sections of little value.

For those who need to lead a system wide change in an organization or community you would be better served with a facilitators manual for participatory meetings and an in depth book on one method of choice. If you are not sure what method to choose, the recently released second edition of the “The Change Handbook” with 61 models, might be worth purchasing first.

– Written by Jason Diceman (jd AT cooptools.ca) who is yet another consultant promoting his own magic approach to collective decision-making: Advanced Dotmocracy (www.dotmocracy.org)

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