Maybe it is semantics, but I think there is benefit in distinguishing among these three concepts, understanding the purpose of each of them, and the responsibilities of leadership and management for each of them. By making this differentiation, organizations have a richer set of tools for becoming better. My comments are occasioned by a recent McKinsey & Company commentary I read, entitled "Build a change platform, not a change program."
In this commentary, Hamel and Zanini assert that continuous improvement requires change platforms rather than top-down, leader-managed change programs. And I agree that continuous improvement (and innovation) require leader-inspired environments or platforms that encourage intelligent risk-taking, local improvements, cross-organizational collaboration, and best practice sharing. However, in my opinion, that is different than strategic change management which is leader-driven and initiative based. Here is where the confusion enters in the McKinsey blog. They discuss social media, such as Facebook and Pinterest as examples of change that can't and shouldn't be managed by leadership. These are innovations, not examples of change management and the two concepts should not be equated or confused. Let me briefly explore continuous improvement, innovation, and transformational change management to provide some definition around each that might encourage the use of all three in your organization.
Continuous improvement involves the ongoing improvements to processes and products that result in incremental improvements, cost savings, and productivity enhancements. Continuous improvement is part of everyone's job in a high performing organization.
Innovation involves discontinuous or breakthrough improvement of products, processes, or performance that result in new dimensions of organizational performance. Innovation can result from brainstorming, research and development, outside-the-box thinking, serendipity, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Innovation can come from anywhere in the organization, but requires a supportive environment set by senior leadership; an environment that encourages intelligent risk taking and recognizes that there will be failures in pursuing some of those risks.
Change management is a leadership induced process that involves transformational organizational change that leadership controls and sustains. It requires dedication, involvement of employees at all levels, and constant communication. Transformational change is strategy-driven and stems from the top of the organization. Its origin may be from needs identified within the organization and it requires active engagement of the whole organization.
All three activities should harness the minds and energy of employees. Change management is episodic and disruptive to the organization; innovation and continuous improvement should be ongoing and be constant sources of building competitive advantage. For innovation and continuous improvement, senior leaders are enablers and cheerleaders. For transformational change management, senior leaders are the chief agents. Sometimes lines among these concepts may blur, but the construct as three different concepts provides a framework for recognizing that different types of opportunities exist and all should be considered in seeking organizational performance excellence.
All three concepts are embedded in the newly released 2015-2016 Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence.