By Fred Nickols

Knowledge workers figure out what to do and then get it done. “Getting it done,” whatever that might be, involves changing things. Managing change, then, is an integral part of a knowledge worker’s job.

Change is indirect. Whatever your ultimate change target might be, the chances are you do not (or cannot) change it directly; instead, you change something else and it changes as a result. You cannot, for example, directly manipulate profit or Return on Investment (ROI) or error rates or retention rates. The same is true of human behavior and performance. You do not (or cannot) change it directly. You have to change something “over here” to realize a result “over there.” Over here and over there can be close by or far removed in space and time. In either case, over here and over there are parts of or places in the same structure, the structure of the system in which you are intervening.

To intervene is to change things with one or more outcomes in mind. The places where you can change things directly–where the effects of your actions are direct and immediate–are usefully thought of as “points of intervention.” Those places in the system where you will assess the achievement of the outcome you seek are usefully thought of as “points of evaluation.”

To manage change responsibly requires us to say that this action will produce that result or, conversely, that that result requires this action. In both cases we must be able to show how the points of intervention and the points of evaluation are connected. To do this, we must already know or be able to map the structure of the system in which we are intervening and show where in that structure the points of intervention and the points of evaluation are located and how they are connected. Only then can we trace the paths connecting the two and show how changes made at the points of intervention will “ripple through” the structure of the system, leading to the desired effects at the points of evaluation.

Figuring out what to change and how to change it is only half the puzzle. The other half is concerned with actually making and managing the change. Far from being a keenly analytical activity, change management is often a hotly political one. The stakes can be high; and among the stakeholders, there can be winners and losers, many of whom will support the change and many of whom will oppose it. Winners and losers, gains and losses, supporters and naysayers–all must be identified and dealt with. Gains must clearly outweigh losses and outweigh them by enough to make the costs of the change worthwhile. (By the way, the costs are not all financial.) Supporters must be leveraged, and the opposition must be brought on-board, neutralized, or removed.

Then, too, there are issues related to the change strategy. Will it rely on persuasion and incentives, a rational-empirical view of things? Will it instead focus on changing culture and beliefs, a normative-reeducative approach? Might it resort to the raw exercise of power, authority, and sanctions–a power-coercive maneuver? Or might it use the built-in ability of people to adapt to new circumstances, an environmental-adaptive move? Or, as is most likely the case, will it use a mix of these four strategies?

Finally, for now, three change management roles are critical: sponsor, champion, and straw boss. The sponsor is the person who owns the change. This is the person who wants the change made, who is willing to fund and support it, and who has the authority to do so. The champion is the person who will oversee the change, who will be the “front man” for it, and who will step in if necessary. This person, too, requires authority and the backing of the sponsor. The straw boss is the person who will lead the change effort “down in the trenches,” so to speak. This is the person who, more than any other, will make it happen. This person requires little in the way of formal authority but does need the unequivocal trust, backing, and support of the champion and the sponsor.

There you have it: change management in a nutshell. For more about all this, see Change Management 101: A Primer. Also see Four Change Management Strategies.

About the Author
Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a former Navy technician who was also trained as an internal OD consultant, an instructor, and a programmed instruction writer. Fred took up a second career in the private sector as a consultant and executive. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted via email at or on his website at