Colour thinking (Caluwe & Vermaak)

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This article explains the theory of colour thinking in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful change management tool.

Introduction

Organizational change can be dealt with in different ways. 

Léon de Caluwé and Hans Vermaak studied change in the past and together they have developed a useful framework/ overview of five ways of thinking about change processes.

What is Colour thinking?

This framework is called ‘colour thinking’ and helps becoming aware of other people’s ideas about change.

Colour thinking provides points of reference to clarify other people’s ideas about this and to engage in dialogue with each other.

The five ways of colour thinking about change are characterized by the following colours:

  1. White-print thinking (natural and organic)
  2. Green-print thinking (development and learning)
  3. Red-print thinking (motivation and a sense of togetherness)
  4. Blue-print thinking (management, planning and control)
  5. Yellow-print thinking (politics and power)

1. White-print thinking

The principle underlying white-print thinking is that the colour white reflects all colours. In other words, white-print thinking allows room for self-organization and evolution thinking.

It denotes openness and this provides the broadest form to lead to the desired changes.

This means that the change itself is also a permanent process. Aiming for change means removing obstacles, observing what is happening, analysing and acting on feelings (internal security).

Meaning is crucial in this way of thinking.

2. Green-print thinking

Green-print thinking is about the growth and development of the desired changes.

It is about the ideas of people (with their motivation and learning capacity) by means of reflection, knowledge sharing and awareness.

The result is not always predictable, as this depends strongly on learning capacity.

3. Red-print thinking

The starting principle of red-print thinking is the human factor.

People must be influenced, attracted (for examples with the aid of rewards) and stimulated. HRM management, including HRM tools, are the key to accomplishing the desired changes.

Here, it is mainly about responding to the soft aspects of an organization.

4. Blue-print thinking

Blue-print thinking is based on the rational design and implementation of the desired changes.

It mainly concerns the controlling, planning and managing of the changes, so that the result is both predictable and clear.

The intended changes are especially aimed at matter and form. Irrational aspects are subordinate.

5. Yellow-print thinking

Yellow-print thinking is about power.

By managing interests and striving for feasibility within complex objectives, the desired changes are aimed at.

The common interests are not always of prime importance and politics play an important role. By having power, the desired changes can be enforced.

Obtaining balance is a continuous challenge.

Types of change trajectories

Now that a picture has been formed of the five ways of colour thinking about change, a picture can also be formed of other types of change trajectories these colours imply.

The following table has been developed to explain this.

Colour thinking
Type of change trajectory
White-print thinking Having a vision of how to accomplish the desired changes is not always effective. Planning, control and management are concepts that are not in line with these types of change management. Although having control of these types of change trajectories is hard, they can be facilitated and influenced. This concerns removing obstacles and following the inner feelings. Coaching and support are effective and helpful tools in this. Analyses, reflections and letting go are helpful interventions in these types of change trajectories. Statements such as “things can only get better” and “change starts with you” fit in with white-print thinking.
Green-print thinking These types of change trajectories take a lot of time because of the organization’s continuous trial and error process for the desired changes. Because of limited management and the many interactions it may sometimes be very difficult to work towards the desired changes. Useful tools are motivation, stimulation and education.
Red-print thinking Change trajectories using red-print thinking take up a lot of time. Continuous motivation of various people and managing based on agreed objectives require a lot of attention from the change agent. Using the temptation strategy and working with rewards and penalties may help realize the desired change. The key in this approach is knowing how to find the right combination between the desired changes and the people needed to make a contribution.
Blue-print thinking These change trajectories do not have to take much time because of their thought-out approach.  Rational reasoning and carrying out feasibility tests in advance can be integrated seamlessly with an effective approach namely think first and then act according to plan. Planning and organizing are the basis for this approach and the advance assessments of the success of the desired change. Acting independently of people’s individual opinions and preferences contributes to the change. The focus is on the realization of these change trajectories.
Yellow-print thinking The outcome of the desired change is hard to predict because these depend on (possibly) changing powers and influences of groups and parties. Creating negotiation positions with several stakeholders is an approach that may be effective in practice. Using an independent facilitator or agency may also be an effective means to achieve the desired result. Prudence, sensitivity and specific rules are a must for this approach to change.

Colour thinking may help when making a diagnosis or analysis of the approach that is to be taken with respect to the desired changes.

Awareness and insights alone could even be effective. Colour thinking may contribute to continuous changes and understanding the people behind those changes.

Colour thinking can help you make a successful change.

More information

  1. de Caluwé, L. & Vermaak, H. (2008). Thinking in colors – on video. Available at http://www.hansvermaak.com/
  2. de Caluwé, L. & Vermaak, H. (2004). An Overview of Change Paradigms. Organization Development Journal, from VU.nl
  3. de Caluwé, L. & Vermaak, H. (2003). Learning to change. A guide for organizational change agents. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage Publications, Inc.

How to cite this article:
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