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Organizational change management: 8 proven models to help navigate change

Look at eight change management models to help your team successfully navigate change.

By Kristen Hicks

Published May 12, 2020
Last modified July 8, 2020

With how fast industries move, technologies advance, and current events shift, organizational change is now a normal part of doing business. But change is rarely easy. And the bigger and more complex a business is, the more challenging it is to implement change effectively.

Yet the ability to incorporate necessary changes into how you do business plays a direct role in long-term success. That requires a thoughtful, strategic approach to every change the business takes on, which is what change management is all about.

As Rachel Breitbach, the Change Management and Agility Practice Lead at Farwell describes it, “change management helps you look at the impacts to people—how they're going to react to the barriers to adopting that change—and help them, ultimately, to be able to adapt and move forward.”

What are change management models?

When the need for change becomes obvious, your organization must determine the best steps to take to put that change into effect. If you play it by ear and hope for the best, you’re taking a big risk. Many change projects fail. But if you look to examples of successful change management to base your own strategy on, your odds of success increase.

That’s where change management models come in. Change management models provide specific guidelines to help organizations through the process of planning and implementing change more successfully. Let’s look at a proven change management process that’s been developed by experts and tested by other businesses.

Why understanding change management models is valuable

Learning the different change management models teaches organizations about best practices to use in a change project. Whether you pick one model, or use some combination of a few, they can lead to development of a more effective change management methodology.

Change projects are frequently big, complicated, and costly. Breitbach points out that “you want to make sure that whatever you're investing in, whatever that change is, that it sticks.” Using a trustworthy change management model helps you consider all the factors you need to get buy in from employees and stakeholders. And it offers a shortcut for developing a change management workflow you can use for each new change you implement, rather than starting from scratch every time.

8 types change management models to consider

There are eight main change management models organizations turn to for inspiration.

1. Lewin’s change management model

This model is named after its originator, Kurt Lewin, who developed it in the 1950s. It’s divides the change process into three steps:

Unfreeze This is the preparation stage. Analyze how things work now, so you accurately understand what needs to change to get the intended results. In this stage, you also make your case to employees and communicate what to expect so everyone impacted is prepared.

Change This is the implementation phase. Put the change into practice, and keep communicating and providing support for all employees involved.

Refreeze To avoid falling back into the old way of doing things, develop a strategy to check in and make sure the change sticks. Review how the new processes work and measure how well you’ve reached your goals.

2. The McKinsey 7-S model

Developed by McKinsey & Company consultants this model involves breaking a change program into seven components to focus on:

  1. Change strategy
  2. Structure of your company
  3. Business systems and processes
  4. Shared company values and culture
  5. Style or manner of the work
  6. Staff involved
  7. Skills your staff have

Breaking organizational change down into these core components helps to avoid overlooking any important factors.

3. Kotter’s change management theory

Harvard professor and change management expert John Kotter created a theory focused primarily on the people involved in a change process and their psychology. He divides it into eight steps:

  1. Create a sense of urgency to motivate people
  2. Build your change team with leaders and change agents of various skills and departments
  3. Define your strategic vision for what you want to accomplish
  4. Communicate with everyone involved in the change management process to get them on board and make sure they know their role
  5. Identify roadblocks and address anything causing friction
  6. Create short-term goals to break your change management plan into achievable steps
  7. Keep up the momentum throughout the process of implementation
  8. Maintain the changes after the initial project is complete

4. ADKAR change management model

The ADKAR model, developed by Jeff Hiatt, the founder of Prosci, formulates five main goals to base your change management process on.

  • Awareness Ensure everyone in your organization understands the need for change
  • Desire Make your case so that everyone involved wants the change
  • Knowledge Provide the information each person needs on how to accomplish their part of the change process
  • Ability Make sure all employees have the skills and training they need to successfully do their part
  • Reinforcement Continue to work with employees and stakeholders after the change is accomplished, to make sure they stay on top of doing things the new way

5. Nudge theory

The nudge theory is less a step-by-step model than employing a particular mindset to encourage change. Instead of issuing top-down change requests from senior executives and expecting people to fall in line, the nudge theory is about finding a persuasive way to nudge your employees toward wanting the change on their own. This involves thinking about the change you want to make from your employees’ point of view, presenting it based on how it will benefit them, treating it as a recommendation more than a command, and listening to feedback throughout the process.

6. Bridges transition model

Created by the change consultant William Bridges, this model emphasizes the emotional transition people go through in the course of experiencing and accepting a change. The model recognizes three stages companies should help guide employees through:

  • Ending, losing, and letting go–For many people, the first reaction to change is a resistance marked by fear and discomfort.
  • The neutral zone–When the change is starting to take place, people will be stuck between letting go of the old status quo and welcoming the new.
  • The new beginning–Finally, if handled well, once the new change is in place people will enter the stage of acceptance and comfort with the new way of doing things.

7. Kübler-Ross change management framework

This framework, created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, will be familiar to many as the model used to describe the experience of grief. It can be applied to many experiences of change, so understanding these stages can help you better address employees’ response to an organizational change.

  • Denial–Refusal to believe is a common knee-jerk response to information a person doesn’t want to hear.
  • Anger–When an unwanted change feels forced on a person, anger is natural.
  • Bargaining–People may try to push for a compromise to avoid having to accept the change entirely.
  • Depression–If employees are upset about the change and feel hopeless about it, they may enter a stage of depression.
  • Acceptance–When people realize there’s no other option, they eventually reach the point of acceptance.

Ideally, you want to design your change approach to address these potential feelings head-on and keep employees from experiencing the worst of them.

8. The Satir change management methodology

Created by the family therapist Virginia Satir, this model is based on trends she saw in how families experience change. But as with the Kübler-Ross, it can also apply to business changes.

  • Late Status Quo–where you are when starting out
  • Resistance–the natural response many people have when change is first introduced
  • Chaos–when the change is starting to be implemented and there’s still confusion and resistance
  • Integration–when productivity begins to level out, suggesting general acceptance
  • New Status Quo–when employees settle into the new normal

Create a change management methodology that’s right for you

Each of these change management methodologies emphasize the importance of centering your employees in how you plan and implement a change. Think about their feelings and treat effective communication with them as a top priority.

There’s not one change management style that’s the best across the board. Instead, by understanding all of them, you can determine which one makes the most sense for your business needs, or take elements from each one that apply to your situation.

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