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Context Is Everything

At 7:51 am on January 12, 2007, a man wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt and faded jeans entered L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. amid the morning rush of commuters and quietly removed his violin from its case. The violin was the rare Gibson ex-Huberman handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” when his technique had been refined to its highest levels. After tossing some seed money into the case to encourage those passing by, the man lifted the violin to his chin and began to play the beautiful “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita Number 2 in D Minor, considered one of the most difficult pieces to master.

On this particular morning, however, the violinist was not your ordinary street musician. It was Joshua Bell, thought by many to be one of the finest violinists in the world.

Of the nearly 1100 commuters that passed Bell that morning only seven stopped to listen and only twenty-seven gave money. Just three days earlier, Bell had played to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall where mediocre seats cost $100. Bell usually earns around $1000 per minute, but his earnings that morning amounted to a little over $32.

“It was a strange feeling,” Bell said, “that people were actually, ah . . . ignoring me.”

Context is everything.

Bell’s performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities as well as an assessment of public taste. They wanted to answer the question, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

This is the same question we face every time we implement change. And the answer is a resounding “No!” If change is not framed in the right context then the organization will never see the beauty of the solution.

Researchers Achilles Armenakis, Jeremy Bernerth, Jennifer Pitts and Jack Walker identified five important precursors that determine the degree to which change recipients accept the context required for successful organization change. Assessment of these factors can help to gauge the degree of buy-in and determine the specific gaps in contextual understanding that may impact the success of your initiatives. In addition, these factors can serve as basis for planning and executing actions to enhance the understanding of change recipients.

As you manage your change efforts ask whether your stakeholders believe the following factors to be true:

  • Do we need the change? The belief that a change is needed. The belief there is a significant gap between the current state of the organization and what it should be. The belief that the organization has a problem it must solve.

  • Is the proposed solution the right solution? The belief that a specific change designed to address a discrepancy is the correct one for the situation. The belief that the solution is correct and complete, and that it will solve the problem.

  • Can we achieve the change? The belief that the organization can successfully implement a change. The belief that the organization has an achievable plan and the right people to execute that plan.

  • Do leaders support it? The belief that the formal leaders (vertical change agents) and opinion leaders (horizontal change agents) in an organization are committed to the success of the change and they will stay the course even if the going gets tough.

  • Will the change benefit me? The belief that the change is beneficial. The belief that the change will make the individual's work life better, or at least, not make it any worse.

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