Thursday, 10 November 2016 10:18

Change Management: time for a new vocabulary?

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)

I want to talk about some words – specific words, but in order to do this I’m going to start with a big generalisation. 

The important thing about words is that they have meanings. Because words have meanings we are able to communicate about all sorts of objects, ideas, concepts and whatever other entities, things or stuff we want to talk about. 


So far, so obvious.

Yes, this really is obvious. Because it is so obvious we tend to take meanings for granted – or more precisely we tend to assume that anyone we are talking to who uses the same words as us, means the same things. Most of the time we are not even aware we are making this assumption.

If only life was so simple. Unfortunately, the meanings we give to words are often different. Sometimes very different. If we were always conscious of this difference we might spend some time exploring meanings and getting to some sort of consensus on a shared meaning. Typically, we don’t. 

Specific words: change and change management

This is very prevalent in the area of change management. We throw around words such as “change” or “transformation”, and the phrase “change management” and assume we all mean the same thing. Yet if you actually listen to how people use these words and try to understand the sorts of things they are referring to, they do not always seem to have a common meaning. 

For instance some people use “change management” and “change” as effectively synonyms for “project management” and “projects”. Personally, I don’t. I think of them as related but fundamentally different concepts. Some people referring to “change management” see it as essentially a grouping of training and communications. No doubt important parts of change but not really change management in my view. On other times people using the phrase “change management” put a silent and unspoken additional word on the phrase and see “change management” as the same as “people change management”. And then I could go on and mention all those debates arguing the difference between “change management” and “transformation” – which some people think is important and some don’t. 

There are probably lots and lots of other variants of meanings, and other change related words I could have used as examples. 

I don’t think this is a completely bad thing. I believe it is a sign of the depth of interest and the huge numbers of people increasingly involved in change management. The discipline is growing, maturing and diverging. But somehow we need to find at least a reasonable degree of commonality in the core terminology we use, else the words will become useless for effective communication.

Like anyone else involved in this somewhat vague domain of change and change management I have views on meanings. I have indicated some of mine above. But mine is just one view amongst a sea of contending voices. We all talk about change and change management whilst often meaning different things. 

This is of course true of other pieces of terminology. We could probably find differences in the way, for example, we use the phrase “project management”. But with projects I sense that our meanings are similar enough that differences don’t get in the way of effective communication. I worry that this is increasingly not true when it comes to change and change management.

Towards a solution

The solution? I do not have the perfect answer. I doubt it is down to simply giving change and change management formal definitions. As Wittgenstein famously said “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”. Definitions don’t really matter – how we use words does. 

I suspect, we don’t even just need more consistency in our use of “change” and “change management”. We need a need a broader vocabulary with multiple terms referring to the many different things people seem to be referring to when they talk of change or change management. Perhaps it is time for a new vocabulary with a new clearer set of shared meanings. 

Any views or suggestions to get us started?

Read 3291 times Last modified on Thursday, 10 November 2016 10:22
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at Information about his company can be found at His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.