Managing Organisational Change in Heritage Settings

9th February, 2022

This resource is paired with: Values-Led Leadership Through Change

Many of the plans I’m working on are 18 months. I don’t think I’ve written a five-year business plan with a client for two or three years.


The tempo of change has been picking up noticeably in the past few years. Brexit and the digital transformation were among the factors causing UK organisations to rethink, even before the systemic shock of the pandemic. Added to this is the realisation that the climate emergency will call for another wave of change throughout the 2020s, making managing organisational change in heritage an important skill.

Heritage organisations may be less likely than some other types of organisations to see change as good in itself. Despite this, many have had to change in response to the events and challenges of Covid-19. Sometimes a change of tack can be exactly what some heritage organisations need to succeed in their aim of preservation, while also surviving financially and retaining their audiences.

As this article will explain, organisational change can be a better experience if it’s understood through a social and human lens, rather than an impersonal strategic shift. It also gives practical advice about applying emergent business planning and structures for sifting ideas, so that you can identify which of dozens of possibilities are a good way forwards for your organisation.

About this article

This article is drawn from a talk originally given by independent coach Ellen O’Hara, via Creative United, as part of the Rebuilding Heritage training programme. You can watch the whole webinar here.

Creating the Capacity for Change

“Change is a social process – it’s a human process. If we remember that as leaders and think about how we can embed that into our change plans, then we’ll have a much greater chance of success.”

Change is a social process. In tandem with plans and protocols, start by understanding yourself and your staff body. Get the whole picture of your collective culture and emotional states as you face the need for change.

The Kubler-Ross change curve suggests the path a person will take when coming to terms with loss: from shock to denial, frustration, depression, experimentation, decision and integration. Riffing on this classic model, John Fisher suggested a more mixed path for anyone facing transition, with more uncertain outcomes. In this illustration, we see the possibility of petering out into hostility and resistance or getting stuck in denial, instead of finding a positive exit route out into the future. Does this sound familiar to you?

Your staff body is likely to include people at all stages of this journey – some who love the idea of trying something new and who thrive on the process of change, others who begin by feeling fear, threat or anger – and a few at risk of getting completely stuck in an attitude of resistance. Where organisations are facing restructure and redundancy, those who remain may also feel survivor’s guilt.

Having a sense of how people individually feel is therefore vital, so that transition ends in acceptance and an agreed-on future for the organisation.

Here are some considerations, in managing organisational change in heritage settings – both for individuals and groups.

Consideration A positive leadership response
People initially focus on what they have to give up and have lost. Create time and space to grieve, acknowledging real and perceived losses.
People will feel alone even if everyone else is going through the same change. Acknowledge individual emotions and responses.
The wider life circumstances of different people will shape how much bandwidth they have for an organisational shift. Take time to understand changes in a personal capacity and explore ways to support each other.
People have a change threshold and may be experiencing change fatigue. Decide what is essential and what can be phased in or out. Do you have to do everything at once?
People are at different levels of readiness for change. Attend to each employee and their readiness level. This takes more time but reaps rewards in the long term.

Start by listening

A good way to start to scope out what this means in detail is to hold a listening exercise before you make a change plan. Some first steps to consider:

Do you understand yourself and your own capacity for change – where would you place yourself in the change curve? Are you the sort of person who relishes transformation, and assumes that others are the same – or are you more resistant, and if so, how does that affect how you plan?

Get your colleagues to ask themselves the same questions. If people can more consciously address how they are reacting, this will help.

Build empathy around where people are in the change curve, and address underlying issues and assumptions. Often resistance to change has an element of fear to it, and, in some cases, this will be well justified.

Once you have a picture of how everyone is reacting, you can decide what support needs to be put in place. This might include training or coaching to develop new skills, or something much simpler like opportunities to be heard, greater clarity about what will happen, and more regular communication.

Consult – but decide who makes the final decision

Wide consultation, which may involve the whole organisation, will be a very useful part of managing organisational change in heritage settings. But ultimately, someone will have to make a decision, and even among the core people making a plan (whether that’s a senior management team in a large organisation, or committed volunteers in a smaller one), there may be competing agenda and competing desires. If change is very contentious, your aim may be to find consent over consensus.

If a final decision is made by a Board, you may also have a protocol in terms of how many votes decide an issue, and knowing how many people should be present to be quorate.

Ultimately, a range of views around a table can be very healthy. But you need to be clear who the final decision rests with if you can’t come to an agreement.

Tailoring your messages

Though you will want to start from a strong preference for transparency, that might be balanced by a sense of where each group is at, and whether or not the change is affecting wider society. Ellen comments:

“I’ve always been a very strong advocate for as much transparency as possible, and on the whole I still am. But what I’ve noticed in this last year is that the levels of anxiety among staff have been so high because of the impact of the pandemic on all levels, that actually continually changing decisions and consultations has been a bit overwhelming. Some organisations that have ordinarily been very transparent have held back a bit and have changed their strategy around that.”

Addressing extreme resistance to change

You may find that a small number of people are particularly resistant to change, whether actively or passively. When this happens, continually reinforcing your message may not help. It’s important to find out what lies behind their resistance.

The nature of resistance may also play out differently depending on the size of an organisation. In larger organisations, there may be whole departments with a particular perspective, who think they have more to lose through change. Conversely, in a small organisation, a single individual might be 10% of the workforce and have a significant influence. Either way, the way forwards is to dig more deeply into the reason for the objection.

In a group, the reasons why individuals within it are unhappy may be very different: perhaps one fears digital innovation and doesn’t think they will be able to pick up the skills, while another invested time and pride in an element of work now being retired. Make sure you are not jumping to conclusions about each person’s reasons – it might not be what you think. Just because a group of people take the same stance, does not mean that they have the same opinion.

Individual coaching can help, with the aim of creating a way forwards for each person within an organisation. Not all will end positively – but take time to find a solution wherever you can.

Planning – Keeping Up With the Pace of Change Through Emergent Planning

Many organisations managing change in heritage find they are facing constant shifts – as soon as a roadmap is in place, something comes up that takes up all the thinking time, or knocks those plans off course. This eventfulness can be as big as a pandemic or funding worries, or as prosaic as a Chair stepping down, and may or may not have emerged from the change process itself.

Heritage organisations are therefore finding it helpful to lean towards a more emergent planning model, which gives a flexible framework for responding to change.

Deliberate and emerging planning models


Deliberate and emergent planning are two broadly opposite models. Deliberate planning (sometimes also known as rational planning) tends to have a process that broadly looks like this:

Set a long term vision, for five or even ten years

Do research to work out how to deliver it

Set goals

Create a roadmap.

This is how many heritage organisations have tended to work in the past. It’s often, although not always, coupled with a relatively top-down leadership approach. This doesn’t mean there is no consultation, but it is likely to end with senior management announcing how all parts of a plan will work. The pandemic, in particular, made this approach less viable for many.

Emergent planning

Emergent planning, by contrast, involves working out more of your strategy as you go. This doesn’t mean making it up as you go along – you will still have a set of priorities to guide you. But this approach helps in a situation with multiple moving parts that your organisation doesn’t necessarily have control over. These might include:

Political change – when decisions are out of your control

Audience needs – when tastes and requirements are changing

New approaches – when you are trying something new and need to find your way. This might be for just one strand of your whole programme.

The characteristics of emergent planning include:

A greater emphasis on collaboration, whether that’s with teams, staff or audiences, who will continually feed into the process.

A much shorter planning cycle – where your firmest plans extend a few months, rather than a few years ahead.

Working with a situation where you don’t have the data to make all your decisions – so you are initially making informed guesses and may change tack or modify some parts of your plan as hard information comes in.

Revising and refreshing plans on a regular basis – and not allowing a fixed plan to gather dust. This can be anxiety-inducing at first – but is often a good muscle to flex.

Increasing responsiveness to needs of audiences, staff, volunteers, contractors.

Increasing capability to make quick decisions – which often means distributing authority and decision making differently. Even if the big picture aspects of a plan are set by leaders, you may confer more agency about how that works in practice across the organisation. For example, your Front of House might have insights into how access needs manifest in practice.

Being proactive not just responsive.

Scenario planning, rather than assuming one set path. Set out the most likely possibilities, with some mapping – “if X happens, then we should do Y”.

A permanent shift (not just for once in a century emergencies)

Virtually all organisations became ‘emergent’ in their planning in response to the pandemic. However, the pace of change was changing before Covid-19, with a trend towards business plans on shorter cycles. Even in a three-year plan, it is likely that some ideas will be realised and others fall away – and new opportunities will arise.

Emergent planning is often good for business – greater consultation leads to more awareness of and responsiveness to what is happening outside the organisation, giving a depth of connection with communities and audiences.

Emergent planning and change management go hand in hand – and may also mean that instead of dealing with an occasional, dramatic change in the face of a crisis, a manageable shift in emphasis is gradually introduced across the planning cycle.

Not everything will be emergent

Some aspects of a business will need longer lead-in times – for example, artists and exhibitions that need booking years in advance – but there is still plenty of room for flex around the more fixed points.

Not everything will be fast

Some organisations planning transformation may do that over a ten-year cycle, particularly if it’s a larger body and aiming for business model change. Not everything that is innovative happens quickly, and where there’s not an immediate threat (if you don’t act tomorrow, you will close) this can give time for staff and audiences to see change coming in stages, and acclimatise.

For more information on planning and scenario modelling, see our other resource: Business Planning in Uncertain Times.

Planning Activities – How to Adopt an Emergent Approach in Practice

“It can sometimes be helpful to add up the cost of the staff time used up by long meetings – which can become eyewatering very quickly if there are a lot of people in the room. This can focus minds on how long meetings need to be and who needs to be there.”

Responsiveness and flow of information is central

Emergent planning requires increasing the flow of conversation and data between you, your teams, board, community and audiences. This doesn’t have to mean more meetings.

Reconsidering how your organisation holds meetings can also free up time for the emergent approach. If you find you hold meetings where everyone around the table recites what they have been doing – then leaving little time to focus on problems or debate, consider what routine information could be shared in other ways.

Where can you apply distributed decision making?

Although high-level strategic decisions need to stay with the board and executive team, there are many opportunities to distribute operational choices. As long as teams and volunteers feel supported, and there’s a clear structure given for how to make decisions, and what values should underpin that, not everything needs to be referred back to senior management.  The change process becomes easier – and the organisation more fleet – with this kind of organisational culture. It also empowers your staff to be proactive rather than reactive in a changing wider world.

Factors Supporting Change Management in Heritage

 Disciplined decision making

Have a clear way to decide what you say yes or no to. Your criteria should outline when something is working, or not, and how to decide when to stop. This might include financial considerations for a paid-for programme, or how far you are reaching new audiences.

Consent over consensus

Most change involves some degree of loss, so look for consent, rather than total consensus before trying something new.

Progress over perfection – and a culture of learning in failure

Acknowledging that things won’t be perfect the first time around can also help with addressing resistance to change. Bumps in the road may be used as an excuse to go back to previous practice before the whole picture has played out. If you have a culture of experimentation and learning in failure, this means you won’t get trapped in the status quo. Many organisations are currently experimenting with hybrid working and new formats for team meetings. Sometimes, not getting it right initially can be a good sign – it shows that you are genuinely innovating, not being over-cautious.

Some Methodologies to Consider

Micro-change managements

Depending on the circumstances, it may be easier to be continually making small changes, rather than one radical break with the past. Breaking down a big change programme into component parts makes it easier to take everyone with you.  It’s a very common approach in startups but is less familiar in large organisations that have existed for a long time. This can be a highly disciplined approach with a beginning and end, and reduce the sense of risk.

You can read more about the detail of this approach here

Marginal change and the 1%

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference” – Sir Dave Brailsford

Marginal change is another approach that can work for some – although not all – situations. This is a philosophy that if you make dozens of small optimisations to a model, even if each one is only 1% of the whole, then it all adds up to a transformation of the big picture over time. Sir Dave Brailsford adopted this model as he managed Team GB cycling, and helped it become a multi-gold medal-winning team.

This may work best when you’re confident in your central model but would like to tune it up. If you are shifting more fundamentally, you will probably need to do it through bigger strides.

Article: should we all be looking for marginal gains?

Leading, Managing and Implementing Change

Once you have primed people with the need for change and identified what it will look like, there are also some useful steps to take as you launch the change process itself:

Name the change

If early on in the process you create a shared language and encourage a conversation around it, that will help people see it as something they have helped to develop, rather than something being done to them.

Create a shared vision of change

Discuss why change needs to happen – and how inaction is also a threat. Use clear communications to underline the rationale.

Take time

Give people time to unpack the implications for their work and what support they will need.

Create channels

Especially in larger organisations, make sure there are ways for everyone to share and receive information. From a leadership perspective, that means making yourself available, even when very busy.

Create transparent, measurable plans

This should give clarity around how you will measure performance and impact. They should also be open about the circumstances in which you might again decide to change tack.

Choose formal or informal change agents and champions

For some change projects, you might choose to appoint a designated champion for the change process – or it could be a more informal arrangement, where people in a volunteering community are cheerleaders for change. Some of these may be natural ‘node’ people, with a wide network across the workplace or community.

You may also have one or two people on your Board who champion change, whether that’s by bringing other Board members with them, collaborating with staff (especially within smaller organisations) or just committing to being the person with a comprehensive understanding of the process to support decision making.

Culture Change Happens Organically – Not by an Act of Will

It is hard, if not impossible, to create culture change purely by an act of will from the top of an organisation – unhappiness, lack of productivity and covert resistance are likely to be the result. By instead working with the grain of human nature, consulting and planning, you can help your organisation tell a new story about itself.


Culture change is different from changing tack with your business model or working practices – but often those other changes are underpinned by it. To survive, all organisations change over time in step with the technologies, attitudes and needs of the societies around them. Accepting change comes with the knowledge that nothing stays the same forever.

Heritage and cultural organisations can be particularly likely to think of themselves symbolically, and through stories from their past. Those stories can be highly selective, and in different circumstances can hold an organisation back – or propel it forwards.

By bringing together a positive story with your vision and values, formal processes and everyday habits, the shift starts to happen that is necessary to create a new culture. In combination with the practical steps above, this will set you on the path to becoming an adaptive, resilient organisation.

This article was written by Kate Smith of Goosegrass Culture.

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