Today’s business landscape is changing faster than ever. Your success and revenue as a business are directly proportional to how well you can manage change.
And that’s what change management is all about.
Change management describes how your company deals with expected and unexpected shifts in markets, work processes and tools, and human resources. What strategies and systems do you apply, and why?
Over the years, several approaches have been developed. If you’ve felt lost in how to deal with change management, this article will shine a light on your options. Let’s dive in!
Lewin’s change management model was born in the 1940s and is one of the most popular change management models today. It has gained popularity due to its ease of use and focuses on process.
The model consists of three steps: unfreeze, change, and refreeze.
Lewin was a chemist and illustrated his change management model with an ice cube. Step one is an ice cube melting, step two is the resulting water, and step three is an ice cream made from the water from the melted ice cube.
Let’s look at the steps one by one:
This is the most critical step to warm your employees up to the planned change. The more your people are ready to undertake the change, the easier it will be. Effective communication is key during the unfreeze step – as is that you motivate the change and its benefits. Focus on how everyone will be better off in the long run.
For example, switching to video conference software involves an initial learning curve. Some of your team members will accept and appreciate the challenge, while others will lack motivation and want to stick with how things have always been.
Successful execution of the unfreeze step means that you manage to motivate everyone. Highlight the end goal – in this example, how much easier your employees’ workdays will be with a video conference tool supporting longer calls or that comes with automatic recording.
Change is where you throw out the old system/tool/process and install the new. In the above example, it would be deleting your old video call software and installing the new one. Critical aspects for smooth execution of the change step are careful planning followed by clear communication and encouraging everyone to participate.
At this stage, the change is becoming the new normal. Refreeze is successful when everyone has accepted the new video conference software and knows how to use it. Support is therefore critical during this step.
As the change management facilitator, you can enjoy your metaphoric ice cream – and don’t forget to share it! Celebrating your new, updated processes is a crucial part of the refreeze step.
The McKinsey 7-S model differs from Lewin’s model in that the focus is on the elements of change rather than the process. The model is not sequential but rather representative of a network where the constituent factors affect one another.
The seven factors can be divided into two categories: hard and soft values.
Strategy – your company’s plan for how to stay competitive and make sales
Structure – the organization and division of work tasks
System – processes, routines, and technologies the employees use to execute the work
Skills – the ensemble of skills in your organization
Staff – your human resources
Style – the leadership/management style
Shared values – core values and company culture acting as a north star for creative decisions and work ethics
Hard values are easier to identify and control, while soft values are vaguer – but not less important!
The McKinsey 7-S model helps you get a quick overview of how organizational changes will affect these key corporate factors.
For example, expanding and hiring ten new staff members will directly lead to changes in staff and skills. As a consequence, it might require changes in structure and system.
Another example is when something is not going as planned. For example, an issue with style – inefficient leadership – can increase staff turnover, cause misalignment with shared values, and lead to a lack of efficient systems for daily work. To solve the problem, this model can help ensure that you consider all the areas.
Even though it’s not a model for implementing change, it can guide implementation. The McKinsey 7-S model is thus best used in conjunction with another step-by-step model.
Kotter’s theory focuses on people and leverages the power of motivated employees to implement change.
It consists of eight steps tailored toward implementing changes with the least possible resistance. The steps are as follows:
Create a sense of urgency
Build a change team
Form a strategic vision
Communicate the vision
Remove barriers and reduce friction
Generate short-term wins
Instill changes in company culture
The philosophy behind Kotter’s theory is that once your people are on board with the change, the technical and systemic changes will be much easier. Successfully implemented, your employees will promote the transformation and do the hard work for you!
However, critics point out that the model takes a top-down approach leaving no room for employee feedback. It can create resentment in smaller companies where employees feel they're not recognized. Kotter's theory may thus work better in big corporations. For smaller businesses, it's best paired with another change management model allowing for feedback.
The Satir change management methodology is based upon the psychological and emotional reactions to change. It is based upon the five stages of grief, ranging from denial to acceptance. It was initially applied to how changes are experienced within families, as observed by family therapist Virginia Satir.
The methodology helps guide how to manage employee reactions throughout the change.
The five steps are:
Late status quo
New status quo
The late status quo is when your employees become aware of the change. Some of them may not agree with it or what is required of the employees to implement the change.
Resistance occurs when the change starts to get implemented. At this stage, the change is undeniable – but employees may experience challenges understanding new systems and tools or staying motivated. Productivity loss is a natural consequence.
Chaos is when the change is fully implemented – for example, when you have switched from one accounting software to another. This step is the most critical and where you need to provide maximal emotional support to help the productivity pick up quickly again.
Integration happens when the change starts to yield positive changes, and most employees see its value. The overall morale increases, and you're moving into acceptance.
The new status quo enters when people have accepted the change without looking back. Productivity has picked up again – hopefully at a higher rate than before the implementation of change.
Like the Satir methodology, the Kübler-Ross change management framework focuses on the psychological side of change management. It is also centered around the five stages of grief.
Employees may move back and forth between the first four steps before reaching acceptance.
It is essential for you to provide moral and emotional support and to acknowledge whatever is coming up without judgment. You can do a lot to facilitate and speed up the trajectory from denial to acceptance by effective communication and feedback and holding space for your employees.
Awareness of these five stages is helpful even if your primary change management model is not Kübler-Ross. When anticipating their reactions, it’s also easier to cushion them and collectively move forward.
One drawback is that human emotions are unpredictable. Solely relying on the Kübler-Ross change management framework might not be the best choice for large-scale changes. It is helpful to pair it with a methodological model to get both the structural and the human aspects of change management.
Bridge’s Transition Model covers the three overarching steps employees go through in the process of change:
During the letting go phase, you should motivate why the change is necessary, encourage endings and letting go, and communicate each step of the closure. Your employees are inevitably letting go of something – a location, colleagues, or system/tool – so prepare to be emotional support.
The neutral zone is a limbo state of sorts – mentally, many are still left in the old way, but you have started to implement (or even finished) the new. Employees may feel insecure and unsure about their new responsibilities or how to use novel tools.
Your role is to listen and encourage the new methods or systems. If necessary, reduce confusion by implementing temporary positions. Focus on short-term goals and quick wins to boost morale. See if your employees need more training.
New beginnings occur when everything is implemented, and people are happy with the change. You still have to model positivity toward the change and celebrate successes following it.
Like the previous two models, Bridges focuses on the emotional aspects of change that your employees may traverse. It is thus best paired with a sequential change management model.
The Nudge change management model takes the opposite approach from the top-down models. Instead of imposing change, the role of the managers is to nudge the team toward change. It’s all about making the employees desire the change for themselves.
It consists of the following steps:
Consider employee point of view
Give evidence to motivate the optimal options
Present change as a choice
Listen to employee feedback
Solidify change with quick wins
Therefore, the nudge change management model is less about a step-by-step framework or managing emotions and more about encouraging a specific mindset. It follows a similar psychological pattern as sales funnels: shifting the prospect's perspective from skeptical or neutral into wanting the product or service.
Resistance is reduced by giving freedom to the employees in how the change should be implemented. The role of the management is to present the change in a positive light and motivate how it will benefit the employees. Changes should be proposed rather than enforced.
Aside from a change management context, nudge theory has been successfully used to encourage people to invest in their retirement and to promote organ donations. Those situations deal with one-time choices – so nudge theory needs to be slightly more planned and structured when used in a corporate setting for change management.
The ADKAR model is not strategic but focuses on five values that companies need to honor for successful change management. The five qualities behind the acronym should ideally be reached in order:
Awareness – of the need to change
Desire – to contribute to and undertake the change
Knowledge – of how to implement change
Ability – or the skills, confidence, and behaviors necessary for change
Reinforcement – to sustain the change
Like the nudge method, the ADKAR model starts with employees and their behavior. It takes a bottom-up instead of a top-down approach. It is designed to prevent pitfalls and minimize resistance. It's a two-way process where you are in dialogue with your employees and let them be part of deciding the change.
ADKAR is a people-centric method that increases the chances of sustained change compared to models that depart from the management. The placement of knowledge before ability shows the importance of understanding why and how to implement change before actually doing it, thus reducing the risk of needing to go back and correct it.
Deming cycle, control cycle and PDCA refer to the same change management model. It is circular and focuses on process rather than people – specifically, process improvement.
PDCA consists of four phases:
The underlying philosophy is that you create and implement change on a small scale – such as one project or team – to get feedback. If everything is going well, the changes can be spread to the wider organization.
In the Plan stage, you identify the opportunities for change and target the underlying root causes. You also develop a hypothesis for the outcome. After that, you move to the Do stage, where you execute what you planned.
If there are flaws in the implementation, you’ll catch them during the Check stage and can thus take action or make adjustments accordingly. If there’s a theoretical mishap, you may need to get back to the drawing board and return to the Plan stage before executing again.
The Deming cycle works best for small changes in a test phase rather than major company-wide changes.
Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits Model is inspired by his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a sequential change management model that invites employees to look at how they react to change in their lives.
The seven habits that can be used on a personal, as well as professional, level are:
Be proactive – You have the power to choose your reactions instead of getting caught up in the drama. In change management, that means that each employee is invited to look at what triggers them around the change instead of getting swept away by negative emotions.
Begin with the end in mind
Put first things first – This step is about effective time management and its role in implementing change.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Synergize – The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In change management, it translates into how effective relationships facilitate the implementation of change.
Sharpen the saw – You are your greatest asset! Nurture yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and you will show up better as a leader or employee executing the change. An example is a person sawing down a tree. They are asked to take a break to sharpen the saw, to which they respond: “I don’t have time” – while sharpening the saw would have saved them time in the long run. How can you sharpen your saw when implementing change?
This change management model focuses on the individual and the importance of self-awareness and emotional intelligence as the foundation for collaboration and co-creation.
The first three habits are thus centered around yourself. The following three focus on co-creation – and the last one on how to tie it all together.
Maurer’s change management model is unique in that it focuses on the three main things causing changes to fail. These are also referred to as the three levels of resistance:
I don’t get it
I don’t like it
I don’t like you
The creator of this model, Rick Maurer, believes that two-thirds of changes fail due to one or a combination of these aspects.
"I don't get it" means that people don't understand the "how" or "why" of the change. What is the motivation behind it? How should they undertake it? Any of these create resistance. The remedy is to ensure that you inform everyone as early as possible and educate your people on how to implement the change.
“I don’t like it” is an adverse emotional reaction to change. The person doesn’t want the change for one reason or the other. It can be due to frustration in the previous step – not getting it – or feeling afraid of the consequences of change, or even fear of the unknown.
For example, laying off people may mean the remaining employees get a higher workload. Switching to a new video call software may cause fear of not understanding it and getting judged by more tech-savvy colleagues. You, as the leader, must understand these fears and take preventative actions.
“I don’t like you” refers to a lack of trust or confidence in your capacity to implement the change. If your employees don’t trust your judgment, expertise, and capability to guide them through the implementation, they are more likely to resist the change. Showing confidence and motivating why the change is needed will soothe resistance at this stage.
Like the other emotionally focused models, the Maurer 3 Levels of Resistance and Change Model is best combined with any of the more process-focused organizational change models.
Kaizen is a popular change management model since it acknowledges that change is a continuous process rather than a one-time shift. Kaizen means “improvement” in Japanese, and the term is used in software development in continuous integration and continuous development.
The Kaizen model favors small and regular changes over large and infrequent ones. It consists of ten principles:
Avoid jumping to conclusions
Be proactive about problem-solving
Reject the status quo
Choose iterative, adaptive change over perfectionism
Let mistakes guide you to solutions
Create an environment where everyone feels safe to contribute
Instead of accepting the initial explanation, ask “why?” five times to reach the root cause
Gather information and opinions from several people
Find low-cost, small improvements
Never stop improving
The Kaizen model makes it easier for employees to feel recognized than many other models. It’s also more natural to engage them in the creative process of driving change. Everyone contributes to making change happen by identifying small yet pertinent opportunities for change. This engagement helps decrease resistance to change.
The underlying philosophy is that there’s no status quo – you can always improve.
The LaMarsh change management model takes a process-oriented approach (as opposed to some people-focused ones presented above). Risk management is central, and the model provides guidance on how to mitigate risk throughout the process.
LaMarsh also helps prioritize by identifying areas where change is needed the most.
It is a cyclic, iterative model initiated by leaders. The employees’ reactions to change are accounted for in the risk estimation.
The model consists of five steps:
Initiate the change – At this stage, leaders establish objectives and ensure everyone is on board with the change
Identify risk – What risks may the change imply? Where may you experience employee resistance?
Implementation phase – This phase has an action plan designed to turn employee resistance into support for the change and acceptance. It is led by managers or change practitioners. Risk management is put into practice in this step, as employee resistance is considered a risk.
Achieve results – Results are measured against the initial objectives. Risk is continuously assessed, and necessary actions taken
Sustain outcomes – It’s essential that the management keeps supporting employees even after change implementation to guarantee sustainable changes.
LaMarsh’s change management model has the advantage of being scalable and adaptive to smaller and bigger companies.
This model is once again people-focused and looks at the different emotional stages people may go through when faced with change. It is applicable in the personal as well as professional spheres.
Leaders can look at the John M. Fisher change management model and determine at which stage each employee is at to better guide them through the change.
The 12 stages identified in the John M. Fisher, change management model, are:
Anxiety – fear of the unknown future caused by the change
Happiness – anticipation and excitement toward the change and satisfaction over the fact that things we don’t appreciate are changing
Threat – the need to reassess who you are and how you see yourself triggered by the change
Fear – similar to anxiety: of the unknown future and potentially on you being judged for not adapting well to the change
Anger – toward the people instilling the change for causing stress and disruption
Guilt – from being reminded of how you previously reacted to change and the pain it may have caused others
Despair – wanting to give up
Hostility – often from previous changes that didn’t go well
Acceptance – letting go of resistance and accepting the change
Moving forward – getting back your sense of self and who you are in relation to the new practices or systems the change caused
Denial – not accepting the change for whatever reason
Disillusionment – when the change is out of alignment with your personal values or beliefs
The power of this model is that it acknowledges our individual differences at a granular level and how we all respond differently to changes. It can be an efficient tool for companies with the resources to set aside time for each employee and coach them during the shift.
AIM is a sequential model for implementing change strategically. According to AIM, successful and sustained change happens when taking the following steps:
Define the implementation or change
Generate sponsorship – which basically means having anyone directly affected by the change, or reporting to someone affected by the change, on board
Build change agent capability – train the change facilitators in managing the new implementation
Develop target readiness – this means managing the reactions of your people. One of the human-centered change management models can come in handy at this step.
Communication – ideally, this step starts with creating a communication strategy and then executing it. Remember that everyone has a different learning style.
Develop reinforcement strategy – at this stage, the change is already implemented, and the focus is on supporting the new way of working. Feedback is important for successful reinforcement.
AIM is a sophisticated yet flexible framework that can be applied to any project or initiative. Like LaMarsh, it recognizes how change is a dynamic and nonlinear process. It is centered around concepts. AIM gives a roadmap to tackle any situation by matching it with the corresponding concept.
The question naturally becomes: what change management model is best for my organization?
Here are some factors that can help you navigate the landscape of organizational change models:
What are the objectives you wish to reach? Increased cash flow, growing your audience, or higher employee satisfaction? Some goals may benefit from people-centered models and others from process-focused ones.
Do you want a step-by-step or a conceptual model where you have the freedom do develop your own process? Lewin’s and Maurer’s are high-level models where you develop the implementation process, while AIM gives you a step-by-step approach.
Larger organizations with strong leadership may benefit from top-down models. Bottom-up may be the preferred choice in smaller organizations – otherwise, people may feel they’re not recognized. Lewin’s is an example of a leadership-focused model, while e.g., ADKAR and the Nudge theory let people be the driving force for change.
Are your employees in general welcoming change, or are they rather reluctant? Some models place greater emphasis on resistance management. Satir, LaMarsh, and John M. Fisher are great models for managing potential adverse reactions and consequences.
Certain models require individual communication and feedback to maximize the benefits. This is highly valuable – but you need the resources to regularly take time with each employee. Kaizen and ADKAR are models where feedback is central.
Some change management models are better applied for smaller project where you can afford a higher degree of dialogue. Consequently, models like ADKAR may not be ideal for large changes, as the continuous feedback will slow the process down.
By now, you hopefully have got a good overview of the change management models and how they can support your organization. The only thing constant is change – successful companies must have a plan for managing planned and abrupt changes on repeat.
There is a change management model for each company's culture and scope. A tip is to start by playing around with different models. Test them one by one or combine them. You’ll soon find the magic bullet that makes your team tick and request instead of resisting change!
Tobi is a writer and communications consultant with five years of experience in creating content for corporate and non-profit organizations. She enjoys writing on best practices for business processes, technology, ESG, and climate change.