Capacity development and change management

January 27, 2015 by Jana Repanšek

In my previous blog I discussed theoretical ambiguity of capacity and capacity development.  Understanding of how change comes about, and of strategies how to manage change, is important in this regard (Senior and Fleming 2006). Various academics and researchers, including Beckhard and Harris (1987), Tushman et al. (1988), Wilson (1992), Pullen (1993), Grudy (1993), Dunphy and Stace (1993), and Belogun and Hope Hailey (2004) have proposed a number of typologies of change.  Looking from a policy perspective, Binkerhoff and Morgan (2010) identified three CD strategies or types of change:

  1. planned in advance and supported by an outside intervention;
  2. emergent and therefore largely undirected process of collective action; and
  3. incremental, based on principles of adaptiveness (Lindblom’s “muddling through” (1959)).


Typologies of change as a theoretical framework significantly influence policy perspectives and understanding of CD processes.  In this regard two models seem applicable:

  1. a standard model of change management as a planned model of change (Beckhard and Harris 1987), and
  2. an alternative approach, an emergent or “discontinuous” change model that incorporates an element of environment and context (Pullen 1993).


Among strategies for managing change, Senior and Fleming (2006) distinguish between two approaches to manage change processes:

  1. change approaches that are based on rational-logical models of change (these deal with situations of “hard complexity” where “people issues” are low), and
  2. change approaches where politics, power and leadership take a prominent role (these deal with situations of “soft complexity”).


These two different approaches inform two systems models of change: hard and soft.

The hard systems model of change is based on methodologies for change of the Open University (1984, 1994, 2000), Flood and Jackson (1991), and Paton and McCalman (2000). It has its roots in systems engineering and project management that emphasize “means” and “ends.” According to Senior and Fleming, ‘it provides a rigorous and systematic way of determining objectives (goals) for change; this is followed by the generation of a range of options for action; the last step is testing those options against a set of explicit criteria’ (2006, p.312-313).

The soft systems model of change addresses “messy” situations. It therefore relies more on experiential common sense of what might work and not work and in some degree on trial and error. Critics of this system claim that it lacks analytical rigor in its setting of objectives and focus on evaluation. However, its proponents (Johnson 1990; Kirkbride et al. 1994; Carnall 2003; Stacey 2003) are of opinion that rational models do not take into account political, cultural, and cognitive dimensions.

It is important to note that both critics and proponents are still seeking a solution to this challenge. One important and much discussed soft model of change is the approach called organization development (OD).  Although there are different definitions of OD (French and Bell 1990; Cummings and Worley 1993; Beckhard 1969; Porras and Robertson 1992), they all emphasize the importance of behavioral sciences (including sociology and psychology) and planned change.

Hard and soft systems approaches to managing change processes (each encompassing a number of methodologies) are applicable theoretical frameworks for analyzing CD approaches. While the hard systems model of change is in line with the reductionist analytical approach to CD, the soft systems model of change supports a systemic perspective to CD.

In my next blog I will therefore discuss the reductionist and systemic perspectives to capacity development.



This text has been adjusted to a blog format and mostly taken from Repanšek J., 2011. Application of the “Capacity Development Results Framework” to the “Building Capacities for Policy Design and Implementation” Programme. London: University of London.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the CEF.



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