The difference between planned and unplanned change is exactly what it sounds like. Planned change is something you choose, such as implementing a new strategic direction or a system reorganization. Examples of unplanned change in an organization include unexpected developments such as a new product's failure, a key executive quitting or a public relations disaster.

The Types of Change

There are many different ways that an organization can change. Planned vs. unplanned change is only one of them.

  • Company-wide vs. Subsystem: Restructuring an entire organization is a major challenge, sometimes compared to teaching an elephant to dance. Changing one part of it, such as your sales force or your IT department, is simpler though not necessarily easy.

  • Transformational vs. Incremental: Incremental change can be so gradual that your people may not even notice it happening. Transformational changes such as a merger or a company-wide reboot are far more drastic and obvious.

  • Remedial vs. Developmental: A remedial change fixes a problem, while developmental change builds on success. If, say, employees are burning out, a remedial change might be hiring more staff. If employees are loyal and committed, a developmental change plan might make them even more loyal.

Planned Change vs. Unplanned Change

Both unplanned and planned changes can be company-wide or small scale. Whether a talented employee gives notice well in advance or dies unexpectedly, the loss is a change to which you have to adapt. There are other ways that planned and unplanned changes resemble each other.

  • Change is chaotic. Even if you carefully plan for change, the process may become chaotic once you put it into action.

  • Making one change at a time is not always an option. If you're in the middle of a reorganization when you get hit with a major lawsuit, you'll have to cope with both the planned and unplanned change simultaneously.

  • Change has to be managed. Whether you're planning an incremental improvement or coping with an unanticipated change, you'll need to think your way through and not react blindly.

  • However you deal with the change, you have to show commitment. Your employees will find it hard to support changes, planned or unplanned, if you're not leading the way.

Managing People During Change

One difference between planned and unplanned change is that planned changes give you time to prepare your team. To manage change effectively whether planned or unplanned, it's important to manage your employees and possibly other parties through it. Asking yourself some questions is a good way to start:

  • Who are the external and internal stakeholders affected by the change?

  • What are their primary concerns? If you're downsizing, for instance, employees will worry about their jobs. Customers may worry about whether they'll get the same level of service with fewer people.

  • Have you provided them with enough information about the change? How do you plan to share information as the transition moves along?

  • Will the change require retraining employees, such as to replace someone who's left the company?

  • Do employees have a chance to offer feedback? Are you paying attention when they do?

  • Are you and the other team leaders guiding employees through the process?

  • How will you deal with employees who are stuck and don't want to move on?

Preparing for Unplanned Change

Another difference between planned and unplanned change is that with planned changes, you have time to think your way through the key questions. In a crisis of unplanned change, you'll have to come up with the answers quickly.

One way to avoid that is to think of examples of unplanned change that might hit your company. If you're on the Gulf Coast, for instance, hurricane damage and flooding are a risk. You can't know when a storm will devastate your community or destroy your business, but you can have backup plans in place that allow you to keep operating when it happens.