Change Management: A Critical Perspective

Simon Shurville (School of Computing and Information Science,University of South Australia, Australia)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 20 June 2008



Shurville, S. (2008), "Change Management: A Critical Perspective", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 447-449.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Armchair warriors often fail and we've been poisoned by these fairy tales (Don Henley).

In the first issue of this journal, Andrew Dainty reviewed Making Projects Critical (Hodgson and Cicmil, 2006), an excellent collection of papers which collectively critique mainstream characterizations of project management and encourage “moving beyond realist perspectives and the tendency to engage in the reification of the project” (Dainty, 2008, p. 140). In Change Management: A Critical Perspective (Hughes, 2006), Mark Hughes critiques a parallel set of myths and reifications associated with rationalist approaches to change management. This radical yet sober text book promotes a pluralist alternative to change management, which is deeply rooted in praxis and a first rate critique of literature from multiple disciplines. So, in the spirit of pluralism, I hope you will join me on a brief sojourn into change management.

As projects are mandated to deliver change, the project management community has learnt that managing significant projects entails sparking and managing concomitant change (Walker, 2008). Problematically, however, the rational and teleological approaches that dominate project management (Pollack, 2007) are more suited to directing technical processes and logistics than to the subtleties of wrangling complex emotions and politics. Worse, the change dimension of significant projects is inherently “wicked” (Rittel and Webber, 1973). This means that identifying and characterising the potential change issues, selecting viable approaches and identifying metrics to evaluate progress are irreducible parts of each project. Consequently, project managers must learn to accept the lack of steadfast algorithms for planning, implementing or evaluating change. In my experience, adopting approaches that distil and refine personal experience, such as critical‐technical practice (Agre, 1997) and reflective practice (Schon, 1983) is indispensable. Hence, to manage change effectively, hard nosed, logical positivist project managers need to learn how to interweave softer, less deterministic mindsets into their professional practice.

Yet, as Peace (1991) famously observed, becoming a “soft” manager is hard work. So, securing buy‐in from busy project managers to engage in a programme of personal change within executive education requires a well‐researched business case, complete with a healthy projected ROI. Change Management: A Critical Perspective by Mark Hughes is a blessing to educators facing this predicament because it presents rigorous arguments against reifying positivist approaches to change, together with sober alternatives, and contextualizes these arguments within a superlative evidence‐base. This approach sets a radical agenda squarely within the workplace while opening the floodgates for critical and reflective debate in action learning sets and tutorials.

Hughes' exegesis of change management complements and expands upon the market leading textbooks by Burnes (2004) and Fleming and Senior (2006). It encapsulates a critical alternative to the mainstream approaches found therein. Moreover, despite the heftier proportions of their tomes, neither Burns nor Fleming and Senior manage to cover the broad curriculum included in Hughes' curiously Tardis‐like text. Strengths include a historical account of the discipline of change management; discussion of the contexts engendering and surrounding change; analysis of organizational structure and its relationship to change, an exploration of leadership that digs beneath the familiar tropes of heroics, authenticity and transformation; and an evaluation of the role of personal and organizational learning in change management.

Perhaps, Change Management: A Critical Perspective is a little too unorthodox to serve as the main text for an undergraduate course; although it may serve as a change agent to alter that perception by the time it sees a second edition. However, individual chapters could easily be introduced to critique the status quo, cover neglected areas such as communication and provide relevant case studies. This is entirely in keeping with the pluralistic mode that Hughes espouses. Conveners of postgraduate courses in change or project management could confidently set Change Management: A Critical Perspective as either the main text or as required reading. As a publication of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, we should expect Change Management: A Critical Perspective to be an ideal resource for independent continuing professional development and Hughes does not disappoint. Indeed, he has applied knowledge of learning and teaching theory to provide an excellent tutorial in print which absorbs much of the cognitive load from his readers. As a researcher, I was impressed by Hughes' scholarship and have found his bibliography far too tempting. Looking to the future I would like to see Hughes write companion volumes on critical approaches to innovation management.

This is a path finding textbook, which successfully challenges readers from the academy and the cubicle. I believe it would be well‐shelved next to Making Projects Critical and that fellow travelers and traditionalists alike will be stimulated by these critical perspectives on intertwined disciplines. Finally, to mix cultures, ddiolch 'ch Dr Hughes, this book is a mitzvah to both change and project management.


Agre, P.E. (1997), Computation and Human Experience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Burnes, B. (2004), Managing Change: A Strategic Approach to Organisational Dynamics, 4th ed., FT/Prentice‐Hall, Harlow.

Dainty, A. (2008), “Review of making projects critical”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 1401.

Fleming, J. and Senior, B. (2006), Organizational Change, 3rd ed., FT/Prentice Hall, Harlow.

Hodgson, D. and Cicmil, S. (2006), Making Projects Critical, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Peace, W.H. (1991), “The hard work of being a soft manager”, Harvard Business Review, November/December, pp. 407.

Pollack, J. (2007), “The changing paradigms of project management”, International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 26674.

Rittel, H.W.J. and Webber, M.M. (1973), “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, pp. 15569.

Schon, D.A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner – How Professionals Think in Action, BasiAshgate Arena, Aldershot.

Walker, D.H. (2008), “About the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 516.

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