navbar 4Resource papers in action research

Managing change

This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick.

...  in which a description of the overall change process is described as having three phases.  Pre-planning requires negotiating roles and building relationships.  Planning involves setting goals, analysing the situation, deciding what to do, and deciding how to monitor it.  Action has two parts, implementation and monitoring



Anna Chekovsky has provided a French translation here.

There is also a Bulgarian translation courtesy of Artem Delik.




Today is tomorrow's history

With few exceptions, intentional change is future change.  The present is already determined by its past.  As individuals and organisations and communities,we carry much of our history with us.  However, what we do today can make future change easier or harder to achieve.

Today is determined by its history.  Today is part of tomorrow's history.

We are imprisoned in the present.  All we have is "now".  And it turns into the past even while we experience it.  This is the change agent's first dilemma.  For the most part we can change only the future.  We have direct access only to the present.  To bring about change, we need some means to reach into the future.

Planning is what allows us to do so.  Done well, present plans become future actions.

present plans --> future actions

Much of the work of the change agent is helping people plan for the future.


Planning itself has a number of parts.  A plan is a way of getting from the present to the future.  To develop the plan we need some knowledge of the present and of the desired future.

So you can think of a plan as being a "route map" from present to future.  To plan a suitable route, you must know where you are and where you want to be.  Planning change is no different.

present  ---plan-->  goal

Here we encounter the change agent's second dilemma.  The future that happens isn't the future you planned for.  Between plan and action, the future takes off on a tangent of its own.

If your planning is very specific it probably won't fit the future which actually eventuates.  Yet if it isn't specific, it may not be evident who is to do what.

If it is specific, it won't fit.  If it's not specific it may not happen.

The escape from this dilemma is to be found in developing two plans.  One plan specifies who will do what to move forward from where we are and in the direction we want to go.  The other plan specifies who will do what to check that the first plan is working.

    present action plans  -->  future actions
present monitoring plans  -->  future monitoring

The action plans provide the specificity and detail.  The monitoring plans provide the flexibility.

Both plans can be more specific in the early stages than in the later stages.  We therefore also need something else as part of our monitoring plan: details of who will do what to reconsider the goals as well as the plans.

Note, by the way, that a monitoring plan provides for on-going evaluation during implementation.  In this scheme, evaluation isn't something that happens at the end when it is usually too late to do any good.  It happens all the time.  It is what keeps the shifting goals in sight, and revises them if necessary.

Both sets of plans are best developed by the people who have to carry them out.  There is then a greater likelihood that they will actually do so.  For this, action research provides a useful guide.  Alternating between action and reflection, it provides for the actors to review their actions and their achievements at each step.

You can think of a planning process, then, as having four main components

  • goal-setting (in the form of visioning) to define the desired future
  • situation analysis to identify aspects of the present that have to be taken into account
  • action planning, to specify how to achieve the desired future
  • monitoring planning, to build review and flexibility and replanning into the planning.


           present  ----action plan--->  goal
                    --monitoring plan->
              2              3             1
          situation       action         goal
          analysis       planning       setting


This is the order in which it is usually done.  However, it is also possible to carry out the situation analysis first, and then the goal setting.

You can do quite effective consulting just by asking four repeated questions

  • what do you want to achieve in the long term?
  • how is it different now?
  • how will you achieve it?
  • if you try to do it that way, what is likely to go wrong and how will you know?

and then by encouraging people to adopt a cycle of action and reflection as they implement the plans.

In partial summary, it can be said that change occurs when in the future people behave in changed ways.  In the present, one prepares for this by clarifying the desired future, analysing the present, developing plans for achieving the future, and building adequate flexibility and responsiveness into the plans.

Action follows planning

Desirably, action follows planning.  The planning is intended as a catalyst for action.  Because plans will not fit the future, action can be expected to develop a life of its own.  The action phase can therefore be regarded as having three components:

  • arising from the goal-setting, a shared vision to provide overall direction to the actions
  • arising from the action planning, agreement on who will do what to begin to move towards the vision
  • arising from the monitoring planning, and guided by an action research methodology, continual review and adjustment of the actions.

In other words, planning need not be precise beyond the early steps.  Effective plans are those that are specific for the present, and are guided by a distant and shared vision.  Between these extremes there is too much unpredictability for clarity.


Yet clearly this is not enough.  You cannot, starting from scratch, involve people in goal setting and situation analysis and planning.  Why should they follow your dictates, especially if you are stepping outside your usual role with them?  Or especially if you're an outsider who doesn't understand their situation?

Something else has to happen first.

Entry, contracting and preparation

I said earlier that the present, already determined by its past, is hard to change.  One important exception to this is your own behaviour.  By act of will you can change your own behaviour.  If you change your behaviour in interaction with others, you then change the relationship and the processes which characterise it.

You can't always predict with certainty what effects this will have.  You can confidently assert that if you change, so will the relationship.

Ultimately, as change agent what you depend on is yourself and your capacity to manage your own behaviour.  Using this, you can influence processes and relationships.  You can negotiate a constructive role for yourself.  You can exhibit and encourage the openness and critical reflection that a change program can depend on.

In this context, I might mention that my favourite metaphor for change agent is court jester.  In mediaeval courts, telling the truth was a health hazard -- people were known to lose their heads, literally, for telling even truths we might today find innocuous.

The court jester, however, had a licence to tell the truth.  If the change agent can negotiate a similar licence, those things that need to be said can be said.

The building of relationships mostly happens with one person at a time, or perhaps a small group of people.  Add together this influence on individuals and groups, however, and you can begin to influence a community or an organisation.

Part of this relates to participation.  In most instances you will want to involve the people in the community or organisation, at least as informants.  How will you do this?  Mechanisms for participation are an important early duty for the change agent.

If these are to work, the style of interaction within them is important.  Leave people to their own devices and they will usually import the prevailing local culture into their groups.  That culture may or may not support change.  For example, if that culture is averse to taking risks you are unlikely to achieve much change.

In short, you are going to have to work with processes and relationships.  In a sense, that is all you have.  But through them you can in turn influence the mechanisms for participation, and the culture which pervades them.

Pre-planning for planning for change

Change can be viewed as a three-stage process consisting of overlapping phases of pre-planning, planning and change.

In the pre-planning phase, the consultant or researcher or change agent sets out to build and maintain constructive, healthy and clear relationships with the members of the client group.  Having done this, the change agent then builds on this foundation by creating the pre-conditions for change -- appropriate mechanisms, and appropriate culture.

The planning process typically consists of three sub-processes.  Goal-setting and situation analysis are done first, usually (but not always) in that order.  Then follows action planning, which incorporates its own plan by which it will be reviewed and critiqued.

Finally, after all this, implementation using action research takes place.


       PRE-PLANNING  |     PLANNING     |     CHANGE
                     |                  |
       relationships |                  |
         processes   | now -plan-> goal |  future actions
        mechanisms   |                  | future evaluation
         culture     |                  |




Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1995-2000.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1996) Managing change [On line].  Available at



navbar 4  


Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.07w last revised 20140628