What type of organizational change is best for Fatigue Managers?

organizational  change

There are really just two main types of organizational change, incremental and transformative[1]. The urgency with which an organization and its people must improve their sleep and fatigue management practices usually dictates what type of change is needed.

Incremental Change
Incremental change, also known as first-order change or evolutionary change is linear, continuous and targeted at fixing or modifying problems or procedures. The organization is slowly changing in a step-wise fashion.  If a retrospective analysis of an organization undergoing incremental change were to be performed across a short period of time, the organization would not appear that different from time one to time two. It is only across longer periods of time that the organization would appear radically transformed.  

This type of change is usually adopted by Fatigue Managers who have been tasked with improving an organization’s sleep and fatigue management practices for the “greater good”. The Fatigue Manager’s goal would be to improve safety, health and productivity by changing the way sleep and fatigue are managed. There would usually be little to no urgency to demonstrate immediate improvements to a regulator or governing body or to deal with a huge risk to safety that surfaced through, for example,  a motor vehicle accident that caused serious injury or death. With incremental change, Fatigue Managers can thoughtfully plan and execute each step with improvements expected later rather than sooner.

Transformative Change
In contrast, transformative change is discontinuous and implies that radical changes to an organization’s structure, systems, strategies, or orientation are needed in a relatively short period of time.  This type of change is similar to the paradigm shifts that occur in scientific thinking such as the one when astronomers discovered that the sun, rather than the earth, was at the centre of our galaxy.  It is also known as second-order change, gamma change[1] or revolutionary change.  

This type of change is usually thrust onto Fatigue Mangers.  They are told “here’s the problem, now fix it quickly”.  A new set of duty time regulations, a safety audit revealing a high level of fatigue risk or a devastating accident due to fatigue can cause this urgency.  In general, transformative change achieves results faster than incremental change but encounters far more resistance and requires many more resources to implement which means it is not usually the first choice for Fatigue Managers.

Change Sub-Types
Incremental and transformative change can be divided into sub-types. These are usually referred to as planned, unplanned, top-down and bottom-up change subtypes.

            Planned Change
This sub-type refers to change that is strategically plotted towards a goal.  For example, a planned-incremental change aimed at improving safety, health and productivity may require hundreds of small changes in sleep and fatigue management practices across many years. Although the steps in the change program may be carefully detailed at the outset, they may be altered to deal with unforeseen challenges.  The goal, however, remains stable, to improve safety, health and productivity.  This type of change is usually the most preferred by Fatigue Managers because, if it is done correctly, less resistance is encountered and it is more likely to be successful.

In contrast, a planned-transformative change may also occur.  This type of change requires large changes in fewer numbers than planned-incremental change. Strategies to address resistance are carefully planned, but implemented swiftly.  Fatigue Managers tasked with improving sleep and fatigue management practices significantly and rapidly through a planned-transformative change encounter more resistance than with planned-incremental change.  However, because it is short-lived, some Fatigue Managers prefer this approach.

            Unplanned Change
The source of unplanned change is usually seen as an external force to which the organization must react without any foresight.  For example, a company may be faced with a sudden contractual change that requires it to devise and implement a fatigue management program or face termination of the contract. The company must change many of its policies and procedures in order to compensate for the external force rather quickly, this can be seen as unplanned-transformative change.

It can be argued that it is impossible for no planning to occur in transformative changes since reaction times are rarely immediate, and this would be correct.  The lack of planning referred to here, however, occurs during the period of time leading up to the external force.  In other words, change is reactionary rather than proactive in nature. 

Unplanned-incremental change also occurs. This change sub-type can be seen in organizations that get modified without any strategic foresight, they simply evolve slowly across long periods of time with changes occurring in reaction to external or internal forces often without reasoning.

Fatigue Managers involved in unplanned change can encounter resistance. It is usually a more bearable level of resistance than what is encountered for planned changes because the need for the change can be attributed to an external force. Fatigue Managers can stand behind statements such as “It’s not us, it’s them causing us all this stress.”

Changes that are mandated from management to the workers are seldom successful[2]  and result in significant levels of resistance with which Fatigue Managers must deal. However, if the desired changes are modeled by leadership, top-down approaches to changing an organization can be successful.  When trying to focus an organization on reducing fatigue for example, senior leaders and Fatigue Managers could demonstrate how they have increased their sleep quantity and quality and experienced personal benefits from the extra and better sleep.  The modeled behaviours become contagious and the workers begin to follow their leaders.  Making everyone a part of the top-down change management process and allowing people to become involved in influencing it is preferred over thrusting change upon people. Company-wide involvement in a top-down change can reduce the resistance encountered by Fatigue Managers.

Organizations are often changed by people on the outskirts of power. These individuals are usually resourceful and imaginative people with good ideas.  Their goal is not usually to change the whole organization, but rather to change a process of which they are part.  The changed process is either adopted by the remainder of the organization or its influence results in changes that spill over into the rest of the organization.  Bottom-up change programs are much more successful than top-down because they involve the people who must follow the new or revised processes. Fatigue Managers can reduce the resistance encountered by allowing more bottom-up influence.

Take-Away Points for Fatigue Managers

  • Incremental and transformative change processes normally have two sub-types.  For example, upper level management could dictate a top-down, incremental, planned change by requiring all workers implement one new sleep or fatigue management strategy of management’s choosing per week that would push the organization closer to a safety goal of reducing fatigue-related incidents.
  • The main change type and sub-types are related to the level of resistance that may be encountered. 
  • The change type that usually leads to the least resistance and greatest success is the Incremental-Planned-Bottom up approach.


[1] See for example: Burke, W., & Litwin, G. (1992).  A causal model of organizational performance and change.  Journal of Management, 18, 523-545.

[2] Beer, M. (1980).  Organization change and development: A system view.  Glenview, Il: Scott, Foresman