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ADKAR + Narrative Dynamics

In this article, I want to talk about change. Specifically, I want to discuss change within organisations from the perspective of the ADKAR framework, and placing that in the context of my narrative dynamics approach to business transformation.

ADKAR is a commonly referenced business change “framework” which is reasonably widely implemented, but not fully understood by many of its practitioners. ADKAR breaks down to “Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement.” It is used as a model which provides a business spin on the capability maturity model approach, in which each of the member terms in the ADKAR acronym represents a capability maturity level (or thereabouts).

Technical people will generally think in terms of capability maturity, as they also include the technology capability in their thinking. By contrast, ADKAR’s focus is on tracking progress towards the implementation of changes that have already been defined, rather than providing a way to identify and implement business change. The first thing you need to understand about ADKAR is that it starts at the point where management has already made its decision on what it wants to change. It then proceeds as follows:

  • Awareness – the organisation is made aware that a change is going to occur.
  • Desire – members of the organisation are convinced to participate in making the change happen.
  • Knowledge – members of the organisation become knowledgeable about the change to be implemented and (ideally) become change champions.
  • Ability – members of the organisation demonstrate ability in the areas impacted by the change.
  • Reinforcement – the organisation provides ongoing support to those responsible for ongoing maintenance of the change to ensure that its benefits continue to be delivered.

I have issues with this approach, however, as it’s more a set of mile-stones than it is a true framework that provides a set of narratives for change. At best, ADKAR defines a set of business outcomes that require strategic and tactical intervention to foster the achievement of those milestones. But I’ve worked with organisations in the past that “use” ADKAR and achieve few of the outcomes expected, purely because there is no actual wisdom about how to achieve the outcomes espoused by the framework. There are dozens of writers who have taken the milestones that ADKAR represents and tried to fill in the gaps in understanding that it leaves in its wake. But if you look at such writings they tend to focus on the following disciplines:

  • Communications Management
  • Stakeholder Management
  • Organisational Design
  • Human Resource Management
  • Project Management

As a result of this, ADKAR practice tends to become a strange competition over whose jargon is most meaningful whilst the goals of ADKAR remain the same – to take an organisation through the five stages (without the how).

I’ve been around large enterprises long enough to know that the one thing organisations hate is change:

  • Change is hard.
  • Change is disruptive.
  • Change creates uncertainty.
  • Change creates opportunities for both success and failure.

In the dozens of projects I have been involved with, I have seen change be fought aggressively by those who identify themselves as the losers arising from the change. I have seen it be subverted by people continue to do things the same way they always did and fudging the systems that track compliance. I have seen change embraced by people who see it as a pathway to rise through the hierarchy at the expense of others, then used as an excuse to bludgeon the resisters as punishment for past slights.

As I said: Change is hard.

So what can we do about this? My approach would be to start with my story-approach and identify the characters involved and their contexts and conflicts. By surfacing these we can identify the kinds of choices people will make and the consequences that will arise from them. As a reminder:

Character + Context + Conflict + Choices = Consequences

By understanding the first three and finding ways to alter the organisation in a way that supports better choices, consequences can be bent to a savvy manager’s will. ADKAR can still be used to track progress in this respect, but it takes a back seat to narrative intervention as a means to get there. Let’s break down these terms:

  • Character – Character is who a person is; their core identity; the things they like, love and loathe. Understanding the characters in your organisation is not only a means to an end, but it should also be a core competency for any manager. Character is the who, and it will vary widely with the bag of individuals in your organisation. Character also defines the values of the individual, along with the constraints they impose upon themselves, and those imposed by others. Characters can have internal narratives (e.g. values) and external narratives (e.g. things they tell other people).Note that organisations are also a special kind of character. They have their own sets of motivations (e.g. corporate mission statement), narratives and values that are set for them by the people who lead them. They can also have internal and external narratives, although the internal narratives tend to be shared with the people who have created the “character” of the organisation.
  • Context – Context is the circumstances that bring the character into focus. Why are they part of your organisation? What are they they trying to get out of it? A lot of people show up for a pay-check, but that’s not the only reason people work. Even the pay-check could also be a key to unearthing other motivations, such as:
    • Meeting the educational needs of their children
    • Paying their mortgage
    • Paying hospital bills for their sick mother
    • Paying their way through further education

On top of this, context could also include less tangible motivations, like access to a laptop they can use for study; access to ongoing skills development; new things to add to their resumĂ©; the opportunity to work with other people; and constraints that the person may be under (e.g. having to pick up kids from school at a certain time; or having a weird body-clock setting). These are what narrative analysts call “internal context”.

On the flipside, “external context” is the expectations and needs the organisation imposes on the characters within it. Is the person concerned an individual contributor? A team leader? A manager? Is the person expected to be at work at a specific time? Is there a reason for that? Or does the organisation simply value homogeneity? Roles and responsibilities as well as organisational policies impose an external conflict on employees.

  • Conflict – conflict is what happens when the multiple narratives for a given character require choices to be made. Those narratives could be internal and external to an individual; internal to an individual and internal/external to another individual; internal to an individual but and external to an organisation, and so on.Conflict is particularly stressful to individuals and organisations when it involves values and constraints that are diametrically opposed. E.g. a person’s context might include a constraint that they have to pick up kids from school at 3pm, but the organisation’s work hours policy might say that office hours are 9-5 with no exceptions.
  • Choice – Choice is what happens when conflict occurs and the existence of that conflict is unsustainable. A great example of choices would be when an organisation requires of the person who needs to leave early are that they might need to work a 5 hour day so they can leave at 2:30; or the organisation can make an exception to their 9-5 rule to allow that employee to work a normal working week but starting earlier than usual. If the employer doesn’t make the latter accommodation and the employee’s context is such that they can’t afford to lose 10-12 hours pay a week, then they may well leave the organisation, taking their organisational knowledge and skills with them. Choices can be multi-layered, and yield multiple consequences.
  • Consequences – Consequences can be good or bad, depending on the context and the character to whom they apply. What might be a good consequence for an organisation may not necessarily be a good consequence for an employee; although that might create ongoing second-degree consequences that need to be addressed by the organisation. Consequences can be negative for everyone concerned in a given conflict. Consequences can be good for everyone concerned.

The objective for delivering successful change is ensuring that EVERY stakeholder in a change (from the most junior individual in the organisation to the Chief Executive Officer) is a recipient of positive consequence as a result of that change. How do you do this? Well… ADKAR gives us some starting points about the milestones we want to hit, so let’s start with the basics.

  1. AWARENESS: Find a narrative that paints the change as something positive for all individuals. That’s not just about finding marketing spin that TELLS the individual what’s in it for them. The change has to address their character and their context. If the change doesn’t put them in a position of conflict, then they will be supportive of it.
  2. DESIRE: Be careful about selecting change champions. You don’t want them to become change tyrants. Some ADKAR advocates suggest picking the people least likely to support the change concerned, then making champions out of them. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but you need to ensure that the change addresses their values, constraints, needs and context. You also have to ensure that those people go on to become advocates for the change, not for themselves.
  3. KNOWLEDGE: Once the change champions are in place, they need to ensure that there is an open line of communication between those designing the change, and those who will be affected by it. A big part of that will require that they build a narrative that puts the change and its benefits at the centre of the discussion, rather than themselves. Anecdotal evidence is potentially compelling, but only when the audience has the same narratives  and context as the change champions. Ensuring knowledge requires that those who will be required to work with the change have their context and narratives properly addressed, and that they understand that the consequence of the change will be positive for their specific context as well.
  4. ABILITY: Once the change has been prepared, the change implementers need to ensure that the cutover to the new process is as seamless and free of disruption as possible. This means ensuring that appropriate training is delivered, that questions and concerns are properly addressed, and that a narrative has been constructed and delivered to every set of stakeholders having common external contexts.
  5. REINFORCEMENT: This is somewhat of a non-sequitur to me – if the previous stages have been delivered effectively, reinforcement is a moot concept. If you have synchronised the organisation’s narratives about the change with all of the stakeholders characters and contexts, it should not need reinforcement. I would personally replace reinforcement with REPORTING. I.e. Ensuring that the positive results of the change are realised, and providing quantitative value recognition figures not just to the powers that be, but to all members of the organisation. There’s nothing that reinforces a change like success. Again – this is something that I have seen few organisations do well. The outcomes of a change programme are typically only reported to executive stakeholders.

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Categories: Business Articles Process

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Jemma Hooper

IT Professional, Writer and multimedia producer

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