Wilco Bontenbal

Slow change

In this article, Wilco Bontenbal pleads for a lasting way of changing: Slow Change. His experience is based on developments in change management over the last 50 years and multiple cases in his experience.

Imagine you're getting the question; 'How can we now ensure that the desired change really sticks?'. It happened to us in a semi-government organisation that had tackled change in the traditional way.

Is change management growing?

In the past, the field of organisational change has strongly developed in the last fifty years. With this, the profession of change management has been developed and grown more mature. However, in recent years only about 30% of the change programs have been successfully implemented. In other words, 70% of these change processes do not achieve the desired result (Ten Have, ten Have and Janssen, 2009). Although there is some discussion about the exact percentages, it is generally agreed that (too) many trajectories fail. This is a sad conclusion after all those years of change management. But how could you improve this?

The organisation made changes with major change programs and a lot of effort. Again and again, however, they concluded that the change was not permanent and did not follow through in the expected behavior.

Integral and 'slow' approach necessary

In a change process there is a tendency to focus on the actual change; for example the system technical side when implementing a new IT structure. However, this is not enough for the organisation. To embed a change in all facets of the organisation, an integrated approach is necessary. If we follow the example of the implementation of a new IT structure, there are more aspects to take into account. Work processes, employee training and the general cultural aspects are just a few examples of this.

We often look for faster gears in change management, often to comply with short-term planning. However, maybe it is better to just take a step back and see how we can really perpetuate change. Therefore, it often is more sensible to take the time to think out the long term. Followingly, you can use this to give the changes a direction. It would be even better to not only pay attention to long-term behavioral change, but also to take the right translation of the desired change into the daily work bit by bit.

After a number of sessions with the management, we jointly devised a so-called ‘slow change program’, in which six design principles were identified that together form an integrated approach. These design principles are the result of a new strategy in which matters such as operational excellence, result-oriented work, but also culture and behavior-oriented issues have a clear description.

What do you face in daily practice?

In practice, we often see that organisations do not have the necessary time, capacity and/or means to implement a change according to the right approach. In practice this leads for example to:

  • Tunnel vision by only focusing on the project objectives.
  • Wrong choices or prioritization due to speed and pressure.
  • Decrease in quality due to early delivery of a part of the project, reducing for example capacity or budgets.

By adhering every step to be taken, project and the daily process against the appointed principles, we have been able to translate the principles into concrete actions in practice. Not a large theme-based approach, but rather the translation directly into daily work, both for management and employees.

Then what?

Only when we assume that we have the right approach, choose an integrated approach, are aware of the context, but also recognize the limitations of the organisation; we can anticipate this. Think of it:

Making restrictions visible
Despite the fact that naming restrictions is a difficult issue, it is essential for change. Making both the limitations of those who implement a change and the organisation as a whole visible, creates transparency and prevents surprises. Instead of showing weakness, this visibility provides a basis for trust and the entrance for others to make improvements.

Mitigating risks
The recognition of limitations also offers the possibility to identify possible risks and to subsequently also mitigate them.

It might sound crazy, but constantly dwelling upon the right approach, daring to change and investing in real understanding among managers and employees pays off in the long term. Continuing to make the transition to daily practice increases the level of success. Moreover, it has become self-evident that you create guaranteed moments of success together.

An example: a client’s assessment cycle required renewal. During the development of a new form of assessing we have used these design principles. As a result, we have changed the traditional assessment cycle to a form in which continuous feedback is leading. This happened within two months, causing that all the design principles were directly embedded in the developments of the coming year. From the moment we started it, every principle touches every development. And even better; everyone within the organisation immediate sees its effect and results.


This leads to the conclusion that an optimal change approach and an integrated approach are not yet sufficient for a successful change. Recognizing limitations, being transparent about them and proactively mitigating potential risks are essential for the successful realization of a change. The cases also teach us that by taking the time for a change, we have been able to really let the change last. Taking the time for reflection has led to a real slow change. This way, the change has thus become part of daily business operations.

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