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Change Management – An easy guide to the common models and approaches

Change Management is the collection of approaches and methods used to influence human behaviour. There are countless models and books on the topic so we've summarised some of the main ones here.

Change Management: What it is and why it matters

Change Management is a term we hear regularly, especially in large organisations, but what does it really mean and what does it seek to achieve? Whilst it may sound obvious, there are plenty of different perspectives on this and more books than we could possibly read on the topic (a search of the books on Amazon alone with the phrase “Change Management” shows over 50,000 results!).

The business world today is constantly changing. Between technological and societal advancements and disruptions, it’s increasingly critical that our organisations are continuously ready for change. Yet studies continue to show that most organisations struggle to adapt or don’t adapt quickly enough. This is also evidenced, among other things, by the seemingly constant headlines showing big name companies that haven’t made it. Research supports this view, similarly pointing at alarmingly low success rates for organisational change; depending upon the definition of success, these are often as low as 20-30%. The last couple of years have truly highlighted the fact that change can happen very quickly that those organisations that adapt quickly are the most likely to succeed.

Each change is unique because the situation is unique and so are the people involved. Whilst there are some very useful frameworks (a few of which are discussed here), it’s important to remember that change is a journey into the unknown, at least to some extent. These frameworks are there to guide our thinking, not linear processes to be followed blindly. In the end and at the centre of it all are people, each with their own perspectives, unique situations and motivations, an important point that’s often overlooked. The truth is that we are irrational and emotionally driven, maybe in predicable ways, but nevertheless it’s something we can’t ignore if we are to make change happen successfully.

So, what is Change Management and how can it help us to more easily achieve those changes that are important to us?

We’ll aim to answer those questions by firstly clearing up some confusion we often come across about the term ‘Change Management’ and then we’ll look at some of the more popular models used for leading and managing change. If you’d like to go a little deeper on the different models we also have a free Change Management Guide that delves more extensively into the topic.

How is the term ‘Change Management’ used? 

The term ‘Change Management’ can mean different things to different people. We hear the term used interchangeably for the following:  

  1. The procedures that organisations put in place to ensure that changes to systems, policies or processes do not have a detrimental impact on normal business. This is often interchangeably referred to as change control, configuration management or  deployment management or could be a combination of all three. 
  2. As another word for Project or Programme Management. The latter tends to focus on the tangible aspects such as project organisation, team management, planning, tracking and reporting, communications, outcomes and deliverables. Whilst these are clearly important, they often become the primary focus at the expense of the human behavioural factors. This is one of the most commonly reported reasons for the low success rates reported for organisational change initiatives. 
  3. Thirdly, the approaches and methods used to focus on and influence human behaviour. This could be to encourage a new way of working or increase adoption of new IT systems, maybe affecting a few hundred people. Alternatively it may be something transformational, for example when an organisation needs to make fundamental changes to the way it works, maybe even to what it does. An example here could be a fossil fuel-based energy company that wants to become a renewables-based energy company.  

Our definition and the focus of the rest of this article is on number 3, the tools, models approaches and approaches used to influence human behaviour in positive ways and help people to adapt comfortably and sustainably to changing circumstances. Next we’ll take a look at some of the more popular models and don’t forget you can also get a free download of our Change Management Guide.

Commonly used Change Management models 

As discussed above there are countless change models, articles, videos, books and a huge body of research on change. Underpinning the different models and all the research is the desire to understand more about what makes us behave the way we do. Then using that knowledge, we seek ways to shape our behaviour in a way that’s useful, whether it’s for ourselves, for our organisation or our planet. And the good news is that, regardless of the scale of change, the underlying principles are universal so, once understood, can be applied to pretty much any change situation, from a new IT system at work to our response to a global pandemic or reducing carbon emissions.

We’ve summarised below some of the more popular models but there are many others that are equally valid and that offer something useful. 

Lewin’s 3-Stage Model: Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze

Kurt Lewin developed this theory in the 1940s and it was first described in an article titled “Human Relations”. It’s power is in its simplicity, although that also means the model attracts its critics who point towards the fact that change is a continuous process now for most organisations. He describes the change process in 3 stages:

1. Unfreeze stage

During this stage, the focus is on getting ready to accept change, so this is a combination of recognising that things can’t stay as they are and creating the desire for something different. Essentially this is the process of letting go of the current state so we can move to the future. A key point here is a recognition that we have a bias towards the status quo, in other words the do nothing option is normally the most compelling as its the most familiar and therefore comfortable.

2. Change stage

This is the process of moving to the future state, it’s a stage of transition in which the organisation (and individuals within it) transform from one way of doing things to something new. It’s the moment in which change becomes real, it’s also the stage in which people struggle the most. Education, training, communication and support are critical as people go through the process of adapting, each in their own way.

3. Refreeze stage

During this period, changes need to become the new norm. It’s the moment in which changes transform into organisational goals, processes, structure or roles. Once changes are accepted, they must be “refrozen” and become the new status quo. What’s more important is that changes are transformed into organisational culture. Positive reinforcement in the form of rewards, acknowledgement and nudging is very helpful during this stage. Critics argue that this stage is outdated (believing that it is unnecessary to spend time “freezing” a new change when today’s businesses need to be constantly changing), so it’s maybe more helpful to think of it as continuing to move forward and not slipping back into old productive ways, equally valid in a constantly changing world.

Kotter’s 8 Steps

One of the biggest names in corporate change and often taught in business schools, John Kotter’s 8 Steps gives a useful framework and clear guidance for large scale organisational change. The 8 steps are as follows:

Step 1. Create a sense of urgency – We’re all very good at sticking to what we know and putting things off so it’s important that we first accept that staying as we are is not such a great idea for us and that time is not on our side.

Step 2. Build a guiding coalition – Key to momentum in organisational change is having a group of powerful advocates leading the way.

Step 3. Create a compelling vision for change – Give everyone something that is well defined and compelling enough to reach for. 

Step 4. Enlist a volunteer army – Having a vision among a core group is one thing, having it widely shared is something quite different so this is about creating a movement that starts to take on its own momentum.

Step 5. Remove obstacles to enable action – Even the most motivated of us will start to run out of steam if there are too many things in our way. Time taken to remove or lessen the impact of obstacles is critical to both establishing and maintaining momentum.

Step 6. Create short-term wins – Nothing motivates like the feeling of making progress and the opposite is also true. We should consider how we can bring forward some of the changes, ideally along with some early benefits so that progress, even small steps, are highly visible and ideally with tangible benefits.

Step 7. Build on the Change and sustain acceleration – it’s easy for us to take our eye off the ball and miss the fact that the energy for change is starting to dissipate. Find ways to re-energise everyone involved, especially when it starts to get tough and everyone is feeling change weary. 

Step 8. Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture – A common complaint for organisational change is that they initially lands ok, only for old habits to gradually creep back in, undermining the benefits of doing it in the first place. We are creatures of habit, both individually and in groups, so we need to find ways to make the new habits endure for the longer term. A bit like a new gym habit.

In our experience it’s useful to recognise that while there is a general sequence from 1 to 8 in practice it’s often necessary to review and sometimes go back to previous steps as situations change. 

ADKAR by Prosci

Developed by Prosci founder Jeff Hiatt after studying the change patterns of more than 700 organizations, the ADKAR Model works on the understanding that organisational change only happens when individuals change. The ADKAR Model focuses on individual change, guiding individuals through a framework of five key focus areas or pillars that make up the ADKAR acronym:

A – build AWARENESS of the need to change

D – create the DESIRE to get involved and support the delivery of change 

K – develop the KNOWLEDGE of those involved in how they will make the change 

A – foster the ABILITY of those involved to make the required changes to their skills and behaviours 

R – REINFORCE the changes and create new enduring habits, ensuring that we don’t slip back

Nudge Theory

Based upon the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge Theory looks to achieve change in people by shaping the environment around them, making it more likely that we’ll do the ‘right’ thing and less likely that we’ll do the ‘wrong’ one. It starts from an acceptance that individuals are free thinking and our behaviours are driven by our own attitudes, values and habits as well the “norms” of those around us. It also acknowledges that we are not entirely rational and that our judgements are distorted by a number of mental shortcuts or heuristics that we are mostly unaware of.

Some Nudge examples include:

  • Encouraging us to eat less by reducing the sizes of plates we serve the food on (a small meal looks bigger on a smaller plate),
  • White lines in car parks to encourage us to park straight
  • Adding more visible litter bins and signs to reduce littering
  • Digital road signs displaying our current speed to encourage us to slow down
  • Making printers less accessible to reduce unnecessary printing
  • An often quoted example is the inclusion of an image of a fly on the urinals in Schiphol airport. This is reported to have reduced spillage by 80%, maybe proof that we all need something to aim for.

You’ll no doubt see many more examples in everyday life. A key point is that Nudging is about encouraging rather than forcing the behaviours we want, recognising that for a variety of reasons we don’t always make decisions that are in our best interest.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Change Curve 

Developed by Doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 and popularised in her book “On Death and Dying”, it was originally known as “The five stages of loss” or “The five stages of grief”. It was later recognised that the emotions involved in change are very similar in that they involve letting go of something in order to embrace something new. The principles provide a useful model when making organisational changes and help us to remember that we all go through some or all of these stages, depending upon our unique circumstances so attention needs to be paid to helping those affected with their own personal journey.

The 5 stages of grief are normally summarised as: 

  1. Shock and Denial – a sense of disbelief that it’s happening 
  2. Anger – the realisation that it’s happening (or happened)
  3. Bargaining – attempting to go back or lessen the impact of the changes
  4. Depression – the feeling of helplessness that kicks in once the realisation settles in that there is no going back 
  5. Acceptance – the realisation that there is a future for us in the new situation and we start to see how we could make it work

There are other variations with more stages, essentially breaking these down further which can also be useful in building strategies, either for ourselves or those around us. As mentioned above, it’s useful to keep in mind that these stages are neither equal nor linear, we all move through them differently based on our individual circumstances, the environment and the nature of the change. You can read more on this in our blog How to ease the pain of change 

The ‘7 ‘R’s of Change Management’

The 7 ‘R’s of change management is one that we see occasionally. It’s can be a useful checklist which poses some simple questions to help introduce and normalise the process of change management to those who are unfamiliar:

  1. What is the REASON behind the change? 
  2. Who has RAISED the change request? 
  3. What RESOURCES are required to deliver the change? 
  4. What are the RISKS involved in the requested change? 
  5. What is the expected RETURN required from the change? 
  6. Who is RESPONSIBLE for creating, testing, and implementing the change? 
  7. What is the RELATIONSHIP between the suggested change and other changes? 

5E Model for Successful Change 

Of course, whilst we’re on the topic we’d be mad to leave out our own 5E model. The 5E model was designed specifically to make the topic of change more accessible to more people. We wanted something that is practical, easy to understand and (most importantly) measurable using a change readiness assessment. It focuses on 5 key elements (or questions we can ask ourselves) that underpin every change, regardless of topic or scale, and gives us a lens through which we can view any change, from 100 people using a new IT system to reducing global carbon emissions.

The five themes and the change readiness assessment process have both been developed in collaboration with the UWE Psychological Sciences team in Bristol. They combine the latest in  behavioural research, our own experience of change in a wide range of different organisations and sectors, whilst also building upon existing well-known change models. 

  1. Energise – How motivated are we to change and what would be be prepared to do to make it happen?  
  2. Enable – What could slow us down or make us less likely to want the change? 
  3. Execute – How achievable does it feel? Do we know how we’ll get there and what progress we’re making? 
  4. Enable – How can we make the changes stick for the long term. How will we create the required new habits and long term behaviours? 
  5. Evaluate – How are we doing with the change. Could we do something differently to make it easier or improve the likelihood of the outcome we want? Are we being honest with ourselves and being sufficiently aware of any biases? 

If you are working on or involved in a change at work, read more about our Change Readiness Assessment Tool.

Alternatively, if you’d like to see how it measures up try our free assessment below. It’ll only take a few minutes.

Try our quick and easy assessment

In conclusion

As discussed at the beginning of this article, Change Management is a topic that attracts a good deal of attention and probably an equal amount of misinformation and misunderstanding. We’ve attempted here to at least give you a flavour of the more popular models although we should stress that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there are plenty more. Hopefully we’ve at least made the topic a little clearer for you and given you a way to navigate through the mass of information on the topic.

If you are interested in delving a little deeper then do grab yourself a free copy of our full Change Management Guide. In the guide we discuss these models in a little more depth and also include a few more, including:

  • AIM Change Management
  • UCL COM-B Behavioural Model
  • Trans-Theoretical Model of Change 13
  • Lewin’s Force-Field Analysis
  • Elephant and Rider – Switch 3-Part Model

About Applied Change

We can’t stop the world changing, but how we respond is a choice.

Humans are naturally creative and adaptable and when the conditions are right, almost anything can be achieved. Our job is to help create those conditions and unleash positive change that benefits individuals, organisations and the global community.

The global business environment is changing more rapidly than ever and just staying relevant requires ever increasing levels of agility and innovation. Consider how different music, video, publishing, retail and banking look today compared with just 20 years ago. Technology will continue to advance relentlessly, creating even more opportunities. If you have been involved in large or complex change, especially within the workplace, you’ll know how uncomfortable and exhausting it can be.

At Applied Change, our unique people centred change model combines decades of first-hand experience delivering complex, fast paced transformational change together with the latest research in change theory and practice, leadership and psychology. Our aim is to enable positive change in a way that’s easier, faster and more sustainable for all concerned.

We love helping people to create something amazing. We love a challenge and an opportunity to continue developing our own understanding. When we’re told it can’t be done, it’s just the way things are around here, things will never change, that’s when we dig even deeper to find the answer.

That’s the journey we enjoy and that’s what inspires us.