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  • Writer's pictureBarb Grant

Adapting to Complexity: Understanding the Definition of Complex Change

Updated: Apr 17

You often hear the phrase 'complex change' bandied about. But what are we really talking about when we refer to a change as complex? In this blog I'll explore the definition of complex change, talk though the differences between simple and complex organisational change, and highlight a range of factors required to deliver complex change successfully.

There's three key characteristics that can be used to determine if an organisational change is complex or not. These are; scope, impact and timeframe. Here's how these characteristics can be examined to determine if the change is simple or complex.

  1. Scope: Simple changes typically involve a narrow scope, such as updating a single process or implementing a new tool. Complex changes, on the other hand, involve a broad scope, such as a reorganisation or a digital transformation that affects multiple departments, functions, and stakeholders.

  2. Impact: Simple changes typically have a limited, more discrete impact on the organisation, such as reducing costs or increasing efficiency. Complex changes, however, can have a profound impact on the organisation's culture, strategy, and operations, such as changing the way people work, communicate, collaborate, and make decisions. The metrics by which complex change success is measured are less tactical, and have a profound impact on the overall outcome the organisation exists to deliver. Say a complex change is made to a not-for-profit organisation that was set up to service health needs in an underprivileged area. A successful complex change for this organisation would mean that health and well-being outcomes in the region had measurably improved, which could be evidenced by metrics such as a drop in the number of cases of rheumatic fever annually.

  3. Timeframe: Simple changes can often be implemented relatively quickly, such as within a few weeks or months. Complex changes, however, can take years to plan and implement, as they require careful consideration of multiple factors and stakeholders. Complex changes are also often delivered in a phased approach and have an associated roadmap spanning across multiple horizons. Specific metrics to measure success at the completion of each horizon are required.

Another test to determine if a change is simple or complex is how many of the 10 aspects of change are impacted. Prosci ADKAR defines these 10 aspects of change as; processes, systems, tools, job roles, critical behaviors, mindsets/attitudes/beliefs, reporting structures, performance reviews, compensation and location. When the change impacts 4 or more of these 10 aspects, then the change can be considered complex. Examples of complex changes can include mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations, digital transformations, and large-scale technology implementations.

The reason why complex changes are challenging is that they require more than just technical solutions. In fact, technical solutions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Complex changes involve people, their habits, behaviours, and beliefs. Such changes affect the way people work, communicate, collaborate, innovate and make decisions. You can change all the IT systems and hardware in the organisation without achieving any real long-term change benefits, if the mindsets aren't shifted to extract the value from these tools. Technology is only ever an enabler, not an end in itself. Therefore, complex changes require a strategic and holistic approach, that takes into account the diverse perspectives and interests of all stakeholders. It takes a truly multi-dimensional approach to deliver complex change successfully.

First cab off the rank to set up complex change successfully, is for organisations to develop a comprehensive change management strategy, followed by a change plan. The strategy should be developed post a change diagnostic that determines the unique change receptivity of the organisation, such as team leader led communications versus senior executive broadcast comms, individual self-paced learning versus group learning, leader led change versus on-the-ground influencer led change and should also take into account the overall appetite of the organisation to successfully adopt the change. The change plan must outline the objectives, scope, timelines, resources, and risks involved to deliver the change successfully. It must also paint a clear and compelling picture of 'what good looks like' to the end user and other key stakeholders, once the change goes live. This plan should also identify the key stakeholders, their concerns, their likely change reaction and the communication strategies needed to engage and motivate them.

Image credit: David Wirzba on Unsplash

Spanning across all of this activity must be strong leadership advocacy and engagement from top-level executives who can set the vision, communicate the rationale, lead by example and celebrate successes. Change agents or internal change management teams can also play a crucial role in facilitating communication, training, and support for employees throughout the change process.

Another key distinction of complex change is that it takes sustained effort to land well and it takes considerable resilience. That's resilience on the part of the change leaders, the change agents and the change participants and partners to sustain the long-term vision and to course correct accordingly as the change journey unfolds. There will be wins along the way but there will also be potholes and pitfalls. How you respond during adversity is equally, if not more important than how you respond when things are going well. When compex change unfolds across more than a 9-month threshold, then real commitment must be made to stay true to the vision of the value the change will deliver, and not substitute this with the accrual of widgets. The watchword of any change, whether it is simple or complex must be 'did we achieve what we set out to do and by what measures do we know that to be true?'.

Finally, it's important to note that when we talk about the distinction of simple change versus complex change it's all relative. This blog is focussed on complex change at the organisational level. An internal change from this viewpoint might well be defined as 'simple', but if that simple change alters the key process that defines an individual's work day, then we have well and truly 'rocked their world'.

THEIR view will be that the change is large and complex. These definitions are all dependent on what level you're playing at. At the micro level 'simple organisational change' will often be viewed and experienced by the individual as complex. That must be understood and honoured, in any effort to get that individual to risk adoption of the new.

In summary, complex change refers to significant and interconnected transformations that require a holistic and strategic approach and involve 4 or more of the 10 Prosci ADKAR aspects of change. Effective change management involves planning, leadership, and engagement from all stakeholders and real long-term commitment to ensure a successful and sustainable outcome.


Barb Grant, the author, is a master change practitioner, who mentors change managers and change agents to deliver change that gets adopted and delivers meaningful results. She is the Director of Encompass Consulting, 'Bold Change' and CM2 change mentoring and author of the #1 Amazon bestselling book for change agents, 'Change Management that Sticks.' Barb is a frequent speaker on topics related to change management and the successful leadership of change.

If you have a change leader, change agent, or change management practice that needs mentoring please use the contact form below or email barb direct at for a free no-obligation chat about your requirement.

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