The Meta-Model of Planned Change

This a model of managing change in human systems based on the classic perspective of organizational development developed by the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science. The classic perspective holds that the tasks of an organization-from planning to production to sales-are accomplished with the highest level of productivity when those tasks are supported by high quality of relationships among those responsible for them. With that in mind, the Meta-Model of Planned Change is offered. It is a model that believes in the empowerability of human systems and the people that live and work within them. Accordingly, it calls for collaborative strategies and tactics aimed at open communication and consensual decision-making.

A model is a descriptive system of information, theories, inferences, and implications used to represent and support the understanding of some phenomenon. Meta-, in the sense used here, is a context or framework. A meta-model could then be understood as a framework or context for a model-albeit, a model of a model. Therefore, a meta-model of planned change is a framework from which any number of more specific models of how to manage change in human systems can be understood and developed.

Our model is a three dimensional matrix with the horizontal axis describing the five iterative stages of any planned change project. The diagonal axis offers four levels of human systems-personal, interpersonal, group, and organization/community-to which the horizontal dimension can be applied. Though straight-forward these two dimensions can be difficult to use; that is, without the vertical axis. The vertical axis describes eight disciplines which can facilitate the success of any particular planned change effort. The last page of this article offers a graphic of the three dimensions.

The Stages of The Planned Change Process

The stages of the planned change process are contracting, data gathering, intervening, evaluating, and disengaging. They are not discrete-they overlap and are iterative. Often, they must be simultaneously orchestrated, as each can trigger the need for another. Any stage can lead to any other stage. Data-gathering, intervention, evaluation, and disengagement can all lead to re-contracting.


People in any of several different roles undertake planned change efforts. This includes the person(s) with direct decision-making authority over a system or part of a system, as well as someone working or living within a system without direct decision-making authority. Someone from outside a system, called in for that purpose, could undertake planned change efforts. Regardless of the role they may be in, we will call those who undertake change projects change agents or change leaders. Again, in spite of the role, change leaders must contract for change with the other members of the system.

Contracting is the process of coming to agreement with those person(s) who are key to the success of a change project. If the change agent is the person in decision-making authority, the agent must contract for change with those who live and work under that authority. If the change agent works or lives within the system without decision-making authority, that person must first contract with the person in authority for the desired change. Together, they can contract with the other key people in the system. Similarly, a person from outside the system must first contract with the owner of the system, and together, they contract with the other key persons.

When organization-wide change is desired, or when a local change will have organizationwide impact, the change contract is best made at the highest level of management. Contracting at this level leverages the greatest accountability-rewards and penalties-for the desired change. Change occurs most efficiently from the point in the system that has the greatest impact for the least effort.

Effective change contracts specify must specify the following: 

  1. Change goals that are clear, internally consistent, and have a systemic and human values orientation. The most effective change goals are fully consonant with the well being of the system as a whole, as well as its members.
  2. Clear, defined roles of the project leader (the client) and process facilitator (consultant). It is important that the project leader have primary responsibility for the system under change. It is just as important that the project leader understand that he or she is there to lead with the support of the process facilitator. The process facilitator (consultant) must have the required skills to support the project leader in effective use of the five stages and eight disciplines of the Meta-Model.
  3. Collaborative, inclusive, consensus-building change processes. These processes should be consistent with the human values orientation of the change goals, and create the levels of committed buy-in necessary for successful projects.

Data Gathering

Once the initial contract has been established, the prudent change agent would insist on a data-gathering stage. This process serves several purposes: 

  1. It provides important information for the effective planning of specific interventions.
  2. It galvanizes the organizational energy in preparation for “something happening.”
  3. It provides an opportunity for some initial empowerment coaching of those from whom data will be gathered.

Data should be gathered regarding the following: 

  1. What is working in the targeted system?
  2. What needs improvement within the system?
  3. What has been done to facilitate improvement?
  4. What barriers occurred to such attempts?
  5. Reactions to the change goals and reasons for it.


Implicit in the idea of the empowerability of human systems is the assumption that through improving relationships within the system, its leaders and members can begin to identify and resolve their own issues, and in the process create whatever change they wish. This could mean improving the relationships and resolving conflicts between system structures, groups, and individuals. At the intrapersonal level, some change action is often needed to help resolve the internal conflicts that bedevil many system executives and managers.

Interventions, as a stage in the total change process, are those actions designed to improve relationships within the target system. They are open communication, and develop more informed and inclusive decision-making processes. In their various forms, interventions include feedback to the system, team building, strategic planning, training, conflict management, and coaching.

Group facilitation and conflict management are the important skills necessary for designing and carrying out these interventions. These two skill sets require deep use of listening and straight-talk capacities. A systems orientation, where impact on the entire system is kept in mind, is essential. Of course, the ability to be flexible and congruent with any particular situation is fundamental. Conscious use of self is notable as the first of the planned change disciplines, and is described in the section on the Disciplines of Planned Change below.


The evaluating stage informs the change agent and the system about the results the interventions have had. It is as much an ongoing process as it is a specific stage. In essence, evaluation is a feedback based data-gathering process. This feedback will give the change leaders critical information about how the system has responded to an intervention, and how they might design the next intervention to be more effective. This concept is notably different from the use of feedback as an ineffective means of getting someone to change. It is more useful as a means of determining the quality of relationship that has, or has not been stimulated by a particular change action. Essentially, feedback is an evaluation process that can also be used to gather data about what can make a more effective next change action.

Evaluative processes can be as simple as asking how well something worked, and what might work better next time. More formal group processes can take a form where everyone takes a turn responding to an evaluative question, such as, ‘What did you learn about planned change this weekend?’ System-wide evaluations could be done, both at the end of a change project, and at periodic intervals after that to see how much staying power a certain systemic change might have. It is a good idea to have evaluative feedback processes built into a system’s ongoing routine to monitor the specific and general well-being of that system.


The process of completing or ending a change project is discussed only sparingly in the planned change literature. A typical disengagement process for the participants in the change project might include a closing evaluation session, statements of learnings gleaned from the project, and celebration of whatever successes were achieved.

In addition, the change leaders-task leader(s) and process facilitator(s)-should get together to formally agree that the project is complete, or otherwise at an end. Additional and personal feedback might be shared about what worked well or less well, and what might be done differently in a future project. Celebration would certainly be in order.

Appropriate closure and disengagement allow the system, and the people in it, to learn from their involvement in the project, and to let go and move effectively on to what is next.

The Disciplines of Planned Change in Human Systems

In order to create effectiveness within each of the prescribed stages of change, the following eight disciplines are offered. They directly support the notion of the empowerability of human systems, along with the people that live and work within them. Accordingly, they also support the use of collaborative strategies and tactics aimed at open communication and consensual decision-making.

Conscious Use of Self

The primary tool for anyone wishing to manage change in a human system is the configuration of intellectual, emotional, and physical energies that a particular person brings to the situation. That includes personality, abilities (particularly the ability to learn), and idiosyncrasies. Most change leaders have only begun to develop a full command of themselves. Instead, they tend to respond automatically to many situations. These automatic or habitual responses are the result of over-learning. Over-learning is extrapolating an appropriate learning from a past experience, and applying it too broadly to every other set of similar situations. Over-learning gives a ‘shotgun’ approach to life, where the impact of many intentions falls far from the anticipated results.

Another hindrance to conscious use of self is the way people define parts of ourselves as ‘okay,’ and other parts as ‘not okay.’ Too often, people deny large portions of ourselves that have define as ‘not okay.’ We want to see ourselves as male, not female, or female, not male. We want to see ourselves as ‘nice,’ but never as ‘mean.’ In this manner, people deprive ourselves of the inherent flexibility that comes with the multiple aspects and attitudes that make up their fundamental integrity. Often, people judge themselves too harshly.

In the processes of effective planned change, all the personal flexibility we can mustered is needed. How we present ourselves in one situation with one person is not likely to be very effective in another, though the situation or person may be similar. Part of that flexibility is the ability to notice when we might be mistaking our assumptions for sound and current data. This is a pervasive pitfall, both in the world and in managing change in human systems.

Effective use-of-self calls for learning how to be aware of and how to direct our own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. As we move toward mastery, we will be more able to behave in such a manner that the systems within which we wish to manage change will respond in ways consistent with our goals and intentions.

Systems Orientation

A pervasive approach to change defines a goal, and then sets out in as straight a tactical line as possible to achieve that goal. Such an approach tries to ignore or run-over any intervening or obstructing variables, such as the fact that several people do not want the goal to be reached, nor appreciate the tactics being used. A systems orientation to planned change looks holistically at human systems. It understands that any change within a system will reverberate throughout the entire system, and impact, even seemingly unrelated parts of the system. Using a systems orientation we…

  1. Understand that systems are comprised of constellations of forces that must be aligned for efficient and successful change projects.
  2. Widen our perspective from our immediate goal to one that considers the entire system.
  3. Simultaneously orchestrate several coordinated change actions.
  4. Develop feedback loops that are sufficient to stay in touch with the impacts of our change strategies and their specific actions.

Consider the following in helping you to think systemically:

Universal Connectedness: Everything is connected to everything else-processes, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Everything that happens is connected to something else.

Mutual Responsibility: For things to be the way they are everything must be the way it is; therefore, responsibility is always mutual. Those who see themselves as “doing nothing” are contributing to the way things are by “doing nothing,” just as much as everyone else is doing.

Sufficient Sound and Current Data: These are needed to determine the system boundaries containing both the problem and the solution. Look to a larger system definition when problems seem intractable.

Leverage Points: This is that accessible point in the system that creates the greatest impact toward the desired change with the least effort. The most important leverage point is the person whose system it is. To contribute to their success, build a high equity relationship with that person. If the system is yours, build a support system you can count on to help you create success.

A Powerful Reframe: A systemic perspective takes away the popular notion of single-point fault, allowing for an easier transition to the infinite perspective. For example, pain reframed from a systemic perspective is a signal for healing rather a trigger for anger and fear.

A Function of Consciousness: Often, we are only consciousness of a very limited part of ourselves and of all that is going on around us. Effective systemic-orientation calls for being present to a larger portion of ourselves and to what is going on around us. Only then, will we begin to perceive systemic connectedness.

Sound and Current Data

An efficient and successful change process requires good information for effective planning and decision-making. Such a principle, though obvious, is necessary as a reminder against mistaking our assumptions for accurate information. Our need to be “right,” seen as “smart,” for not wanting to “rock the boat,” or upset the boss often overwhelms our need for sound and current data. Accordingly, many change efforts suffer from insufficient, inaccurate information, while others fall prey to power struggles over whose data is right, and whose is wrong. A related pitfall occurs when the need for conformity prohibits the essential data from surfacing.

An environment of openness, straight talking, truthfulness, and honesty can be built from effective conflict management and team-building processes. In this way, a safe environment can be created where sound and current data can openly exist.


Systemic feedback is information from our environment about how it is responding to us. It is relevant data that is available to us at all times, though often, we fail to notice it. Systemic feedback allows us to evaluate how well the impact of our behavior is congruent with our intentions. The more we can fine-tune our behavior to be synchronous with our intentions, the greater our effectiveness as managers of change.

People often attempt to use personal feedback as a direct means of changing someone’s behavior. However, it is not very good at that. Personal feedback offered with that intention is often heard as criticism, which, often as not, generates defensiveness and resistance, rather than the desired change. So, when someone says to you, “May I give you some feedback?”-duck!

Managing personal feedback effectively calls for understanding two principles: 

  1. Feedback always says something about the giver, not necessarily anything about the receiver. Consequently, your initial response should be curiosity concerning the giver’s intentions, and then decide your next course of action.
  2. What is done with feedback is solely in the hands of the receiver. Consequently, be curious about why you are reacting the way you are, and then choose a response that gets you what you want more effectively.

Infinite Power

Traditional planned change approaches often call for identifying the person or people who are not in accord with a change project, and replacing them with those who are. This process typically leads to a series of finite, win/lose power struggles that change little and waste energy on non-productive activities. An alternative approach would be to focus on infinite, win/win change goals and strategies, as win/lose processes always generate lose/lose results in the long term unless our physical survival is at stake.

An important aspect of playing infinitely is to focus on changing the quality of relationships within the target system, rather than trying to change members who do not seem in accord with a proposed change. This is directly related to the processes of conflict management and team-building mentioned in previous sections.

Focusing on changing the quality of relationships, rather than trying to change people minimizes the need for power struggles. Open, collaborative decision-making processes are enabled, during which most individual needs can be met while centering on developing strategies and tactics aimed at the change goals.

Learn from Differences

Differences are the only sources of learning we have. When used for learning, differences are the progenitor of synergy, wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Too often, however, differences are used finitely to determine who wins and loses. Accordingly, they are the source of wasteful power struggles or creativity-deadening conformity aimed at avoiding power struggles. Organizations overvalue conformity-those with critical information, or new or differing ideas, are warned not to “rock-the-boat,” therefore, making sound and current data a rare commodity. The Bay of Pigs and Challenger disasters are two highly dramatic examples of this phenomenon. New, differing, and sorely needed ideas are repeatedly stifled by our need to be safe within finite organizational cultures.

The ability to learn from differences is a critical conscious use of self for change leaders. It will support them in maintaining the systemic, non-judgmental perspective. Such a perspective is necessary to use the differences within their systems for the learning and synergy needed to collaborate toward effective change processes. Given our socialized propensity toward operating from the finite perspective, this is easier said than done. The infinite perspective helps, as it allows change managers the support of strong and long-lasting partnerships and teams. Such support is doubly critical as the stress of change can move us swiftly back to the traditional, conformity-oriented way of operating. With support, a speedy return to learning from differences can be provided as needed.


The client, and his/her system, have the necessary power to manage change within their system once their energies are released through effective, infinitely-oriented processes. Of course, learning from differences though good conflict management and team building skills are concomitant with the infinite perspective. The potential success of many change projects is often minimized by system authorities or change agents who believe that they must make the change happen rather than empowering the systems, the groups of the systems, and the individuals to make the change.

Critical aspects of empowerment are the experiences of choice and influence. Consider, as I experience my behavior as influential, I will begin to experience choice about how I respond to my environment. Consequently, I begin to experience myself as powerful. The more powerful I feel, the more I will contribute my skill and energy to those who support my experience of choice and influence.

Personal empowerment without effective leadership, conflict management and team building, however, can lead to chaos. Groups are the fundamental units of human systems. Successful systemic change, then, calls for personal empowerment within the context of group empowerment, and within the context of decision-making parameters that support the success. Accordingly, our definition of empowerment is supporting self and others to discover their ability to experience a choice about how they respond to their environment on behalf of increasing the well being of themselves and their environment.

Support Systems

The ability to develop support systems is crucial to effective planned change for two reasons. First, systemic planned change will occur when the support for that change reaches critical mass among the members of that system. The success of your planned change efforts depends on our ability to develop empowering partnerships across a full range of differences using the infinite perspective of power.

Second, applying the eight disciplines to the five stages of planned change is a daunting task. Those who choose to take this on must develop strong support systems. Change in human systems is never created alone. It requires support systems. An initial support system might be one or two confidants. This small informal group might evolve into a larger group willing to take direct action and contribute to the critical mass that is crucial to success. We cannot manage systemic change alone. Develop support systems to help you strategize and operationalize your change strategy and to assist you in using yourself effectively.

The Meta-Model of Planned Change has one hundred and sixty boxes or applications. Maybe, one could distinctively master each and every one. In contrast, it might be more important to use the meta-model to develop ones own model of planned change tailored to ones own particular interests, goals, and skill. Just as important, have fun with it as you develop your own model.

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