Understanding Frame of Reference is a Key Factor in Practical Change Management

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, Feb 23, 2017 @ 10:26 AM

Whether you call it a perspective, a paradigm, or just “the way I see it”, Frames of Reference (FOR) are not optional. Everyone has a Frame of Reference, and often they have multiple FORs.  For example, in a healthcare environment, a nurse may have a personal FOR, a departmental or work function FOR, and a professional FOR. The ranking of these FORs in importance varies by individual.  shutterstock_501465274

Frames of Reference serve a valuable purpose, because they enable us to take in a wide variety of information, and process it based on our past experience and values.  In fact, an individual’s Frame of Reference promotes life-stability and quicker decision making. 

Like individuals, groups also develop a collective Frame of Reference over time.  On an organizational level, this is the “culture.”  Collective Frames of Reference (and individual Frames of Reference) are very difficult to change, and can’t be ignored. The fact is, Organizational Change Management is the attempt to manage these Frames of References.


The Human Side of Change

In today’s business world, it is more important than ever for an organization to extract maximum value from the initiatives and projects it elects to implement. That’s why it just makes sense to plan for the human side of a project in the same way you plan for the technical side.

One of the most important human elements to remember during any implementation is that different people will have different reactions to the change.  The truth is that what's positive to you or your senior leaders may not be so positive to the Targets of the change, and vice versa.  The on-going challenge for Change Agents and Sponsors is to understand all the Frames of Reference affected by the change.

That’s why addressing individual and/or collective Frames of Reference is a core tactical element of many of the key steps in the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM).  Below are a few examples of how just some of the elements of AIM take FOR into account:


Define the Change:
When building a Business Case for Action (aka the Definition of the Change) there are four questions that must be commonly understood by everyone involved in the change:

  1. What are we changing?
  2. Why are we changing?
  3. What are the consequences for not changing?
  4. And how will the progress be measured?

But the answers to these questions will be different depending on the different Frames of Reference!  This is why the Definition of the Change must be translated into the Frames of Reference for the various Target groups, so that it is positioned from their perspectives, not from the perspective of management.  You need multiple Change Definitions that go beyond the contextual definition down to specific impacts for the impacted audiences, using their language and their examples.  This is typically lacking in most Change Management Communication Plans!


Develop Target Readiness:
Resistance to change is very simply someone’s attempt to protect or defend his or her Frame of Reference. Therefore, the ability to manage resistance is directly linked to the ability to understand the impact of the change from the individual or collective Frame of Reference. We often use the Individual Readiness Assessment to prospectively predict where we will find sources of resistance.  Valuable information can be obtained by having this measurement tool completed by Sponsors, Change Agents, and/or Targets, and then comparing the results.  The data provides important insights into different Frames of Reference about the specific change so that appropriate strategies and tactics can be put in place.


Build a Communication Plan:
The AIM methodology centers communication efforts on delivering the right message, to the right audience using the right communication vehicles. In our Change Management Training, we emphasize the importance of including a feedback loop to gather reactions to both the content of the change, and how the change is being implemented.  You will get as much resistance to how the change is implemented as you will to the content of the change. Also, it is important to re-cycle your message multiple times, using different language and examples.  People don’t necessarily hear what you are saying the first time!


Develop Reinforcement Strategy:
Every best practice project plan must include a Reinforcement Strategy that helps Sponsors and Change Agents apply immediate and certain behavioral reinforcement at the local level for the implementation-specific behaviors you seek to see for that change.  The “menu” of formal and informal reinforcements should be developed from the Frame of Reference of the Targets. 


While every change project has unique aspects, there are also some "universal truths" across all types of implementations, in all cultures, and in all industries.  Chief among these is that every Target of organizational change (whether they are at the top of the organization or on the frontlines) has two questions about the change:

  1. What does this change mean for me personally? 
  2. What’s in it for me--how will this change impact me? 

The questions are the same, but the answers are very different, depending on the individual’s Frame of Reference.  By employing an implementation management strategy (such as AIM) that takes into account both individual and collective differences in Frames of Reference, you will significantly increase your chances for implementation success.

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Topics: Change Management Methodology, Change Readiness, Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM)