The Top 10 Change Management Models

January 13, 2023

the top 10 change management models

Organizational change is a normal part of doing business, and this is becoming especially apparent in the fast-moving world where technological innovations and current events can have an immediate impact on the world of work.

However, implementing change is rarely easy, and as the complexity of the change increases so does the challenge of making the changes effectively, and that is where a change management model can make a difference.

What is a change management model?

According to Prosci, a leading change management consultancy, change management is “an enabling framework for managing the people side of change”. This demonstrates the realistic view that for any change to be successful, leaders need to be able to work with the individuals within the business - from the bottom up - to prepare them properly for the changes to come, to give them the knowledge and skills to be able to benefit the most from the proposed changes, and to support them through the process from an emotional and physical level where needed.

A change management model provides an organization with a defined framework or structure to work with when implementing change, using theories or concepts based on science, psychology, or backed by extensive field testing to demonstrate success.

These models take the idea that dealing with change is about more than communication - you cannot implement changes in an organization effectively by sending an email telling the staff what will be happening.

Instead, the change management models give a structure to the process, provide leaders and employees with the knowledge that they need to both adapt to the changes and fully adopt them, and provide a high-level overview of the possible pitfalls that could derail the changes that are needed for continual success.

In this article, we will look at the top ten change management models, with a broad overview of who created them, what they cover, and their advantages and disadvantages. We will also discuss the best way to choose the right change management model for your organization.

1. The ADKAR Change Management Model

the top 10 change management models

Developed by Jeff Hiatt, the founder of Prosci, the ADKAR model looks at the five main goals that need to be achieved for successful change. These are:

  • Awareness: everybody understands the need for the change

  • Desire: those involved actively want the change to occur

  • Knowledge: everyone has the information they need about their role in the change

  • Ability: all have the skills (or the available training to get the skills) needed for the change to be a success

  • Reinforcement: after the change is implemented, support to ensure that it is working as expected

The ADKAR Change Management Model is all about employee feedback and is based on conversation and communication, which makes it an excellent choice of model to use when the change is to be a gradual one. It is designed to limit resistance to change by making sure that the implementation is from the ground up, and provides a practical approach that can be applied directly.

For organizations looking for an off-the-shelf model that is ready-made for almost any situation, the ADKAR model is a great option, and it comes with extensive resources and support from the Prosci team if needed. However, the rigidity of the structure might make it too prescriptive for certain businesses and cultures.

2. Satir Change Model

The Satir Change Model was created by a family therapist named Virginia Satir, and it is based on the different ways that families deal with experiences. The different areas of this can be applied to business changes too, and this model describes the psychological reactions to change that employees might have and the process they go through toward accepting the new normal.

  • Late Status Quo: this is the situation that is in place before any changes are made, and this is where you are when you are first starting out.

  • Resistance: whether through fear or apathy, some resistance to change is a natural response to proposed changes.

  • Chaos: this is the stage where changes are being implemented but there is still resistance and possibly confusion about what is happening and how the changes are going to work in the future

  • Integration: it is at this point that feelings, emotions, and productivity begin to level out as acceptance of the changes is normalized.

  • New Status Quo: as everyone settles into the changes and they become routine, a new status quo is established.

This model is based on tracking employee emotions and understanding how people might be feeling at each stage. This is not an ‘out-of-the-box’ solution - there are no specific actions that must be taken or next steps in the process, but it is a great way to understand the way that employees are feeling when they are reacting to a change that might not be welcome.

This model is often used in conjunction with other, more structured, models as it provides more of a deep dive into emotional responses and how they can tie in and be understood in terms of productivity.

3. Bridges’ Transition Model

This model of transition was created by William Bridges, a change consultant. The Bridges’ Transition Model looks at the emotional transition that has to happen for a person who is experiencing a change to accept it.

In this model, three stages are identified:

  • Ending, Losing, and Letting Go: the first reaction is often highly charged, combining fear and loss as well as discomfort.

  • The Neutral Zone: in this stage, a person is stuck between the old status quo and the new, without much guidance or understanding about where to go next

  • The New Beginning: this end stage is where the employee has accepted the new way of doing things and they are feeling comfortable with it.

This model is about transition, which is different to change. A change happens quickly, whereas a transition is something that tends to be a slow and gradual process, allowing people to internalize the new situations and fully embrace them.

With this in mind, it is not necessarily a blueprint to getting changes accepted, but more of a roadmap toward understanding and establishing the way people might be feeling. It is an optimistic model that demonstrates how things will get better, but it is also rather abstract, without any solid strategy to follow.

4. Lewin’s Change Management Model

This change management model was created by Kurt Lewin in the 1950s, and it divides the process of change into three steps.

  • Unfreeze: in this step, preparation is key. An understanding of where the organization is now helps to understand accurately what needs to change - and how this should be accomplished. This needs to be communicated effectively to employees to unfreeze them from the old status quo.

  • Change: this step is about the implementation of the change. The key here is to keep communicating and providing support.

  • Refreeze: in this stage, the change has already taken place, and this is about avoiding falling back into old habits or making sure that the changes stick.

This is another model that works best when applied over time and it needs excellent management support from the top down to make changes across an entire organization. The Lewin model is popular because the clear concepts are based on psychology and are easy to understand because they focus on behaviors.

However, this model is quite rigid and that means that it may not be relevant to some organizations and cultures, and the idea of ‘shaking things up’ in the unfreeze stage is less optimistic and more combative than other models.

5. Kotter’s 8-Step Theory

Designed by Harvard professor and change management specialist John Kotter, this theory focuses on the psychology of people that are involved in change management. There are eight steps that can be used to manipulate people through change, as follows:

  • Create urgency to motivate

  • Build a change team with leaders across departments and with different skill sets

  • Define the strategy and vision of what you want to change and accomplish

  • Get others on board through clear communication so that they know their role

  • Identify any potential roadblocks and deal with them quickly to prevent unnecessary friction

  • Create a series of short-term goals to break the changes down into achievable steps

  • Keep up the momentum throughout the process

  • Maintain the changes made even after the initial project has been completed.

This structured theory is best applied in larger organizations where there are strict hierarchies as the rigid structure of the process needs top-down management to succeed, but it is excellent because it focuses on how important buy-in to the proposed changes is to employees.

Although it is easy to follow and implement, it can be a more time-consuming framework than other models, with less room for conversations between departments or as equals.

6. McKinsey 7-S Model

McKinsey & Company is a well-known consultancy firm, and their change management model is an in-depth and thorough framework designed to support all aspects of change management. It is broken into seven specific components:

  • Strategy

  • Structure

  • Systems

  • Shared Values

  • Style

  • Staff

  • Skills

This is a strategic planning tool that does not have a narrow focus on just one aspect of the change management process, like some others that might just focus on the emotional response of the employee. Instead, this is a structure that can be used for all manner of business decision making and ensures that nothing is overlooked in the planning stages.

Placing equal emphasis on the importance of hard components (strategy, structure and systems) and so-called soft components (the more malleable staff, skills, shared values and style), the McKinsey structure aligns processes with systems and people.

With such an in-depth tool, it can be time-consuming to analyze the different factors and create the necessary changes and benchmarks, which might make it more unwieldy for the smaller business, but the time taken to get everything right in the planning stage can be worth the time saving when it comes to the implementation stage.

7. Deming Cycle (PDCA)

The PDCA method of quality assurance was refined by Deming, which is why this process is often called the Deming cycle. While it was originally intended for continuous process improvement, it can also work as a way to get great results in change management too.

The cyclic nature of the four-step process means that each iteration can improve on the last through analysis and working on roadblocks as they come up. The four stages are:

  • Plan: what is the current situation and what needs to change?

  • Do: put together the changes and implement them (as a sort of test run) or start with small steps

  • Check: look at the results of the implementation against the objectives set out in the planning section.

  • Act: make any necessary changes to improve and fully implement.

This is a simple and continuous program for change, and it works on a long-term basis to ensure that everything changes gradually and in the way that works best.

However, consistent reviews and checking can make it more reactive than proactive, and it is not a cycle that is suitable for single use or for implementing a big change in a wider organizational sense. This does mean that it is a powerful tool that is useful for smaller businesses making smaller changes on a more regular basis.

8. Nudge Theory

change management models

This is an interesting addition to the list as it is not a step-by-step framework or model, but rather a theory that is used in various ways throughout the business world - and even in the wider world too.

The Nudge Theory is all about setting up the right mindset for people to embrace change - and it is all about nudging them in the right direction using persuasiveness and making the proposed changes the easier and more comfortable option for people so that they will actively choose it for themselves.

Once there is a defined plan of what changes are needed, listen and empathize with the POV of the employee. You will want to show them evidence of the best solutions and give them the choice of which route to take - by limiting the ‘wrong’ options and ensuring that your desired outcome becomes the only obvious choice.

By making the change the easy and convenient option for the employees you can achieve better individual outcomes, but it is not always easy to get it right - people can be stubborn and still resistant to change and the outcomes are not always predictable - and it is time-consuming.

9. Maurer 3 Levels of Resistance and Change Model

While this model is useful in change management, the Maurer 3 Levels of Resistance is designed to avoid the significant derailment risks that can come early in the change management process.

Developed by Rick Maurer, this looks at three specific types of resistance and the specific approaches that are needed to deal with them.

  • Level 1 - I Don’t Get It: at this level, resistance comes from a lack of understanding, and the person involved needs to be given more information about the change proposed. Clear communication is essential here, and it isn't an emotional response but a factual one.

  • Level 2 - I Don’t Like It: this is an emotional response, often irrational and driven by fear of the unknown that the change represents. This is where emotional models and frameworks can help to change this resistance into acceptance.

  • Level 3 - I Don’t Like You: this is about trust and relationships - and can come from problems like reputation, poor management, or bad experiences in the past. Relationship development is the only way to deal with this type of resistance.

As this is not a complete framework or methodology, it works best in conjunction with other change management models, but it is useful in pinpointing the reasons for resistance and finding the best approach to make sure that the necessary changes don’t meet roadblocks.

10. Kübler-Ross Change Curve

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is a psychiatrist, and this model that she has created is best known for describing the stages of grief - but it is an effective framework for dealing with any type of change that has an emotional effect.

We know the five stages, as below:

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

These stages are an excellent way to understand and be ready to address the potential feelings that employees will have.

While it is probably more effective for use in smaller organizations or when dealing with change management on a departmental or even individual level, the empathy and understanding needed to assess where an employee is can engender a feeling of trust and transparency around the process.

As with grief, employees can move backward and forward through the stages and the change curve, which means that it can be too simplistic and not easy to apply to every situation, despite being clear and easy to understand.

How to choose the right change management model

Choosing the right change management model depends on a number of factors that are relevant to your specific organization - and in most cases, you will probably find that the best results come from a blend of several models being used together.

Some things to consider when putting together a framework to support your organization through change include:

What are the goals that the change will help you achieve?

A real change management plan should have specific end goals in place. Whether you are looking to improve profits or productivity, have increased retention or build a better company culture, the goals of the change should be specific, measurable and achievable so that you can show the staff what they are aiming for - and you can tell if it has been successful.

What are the changes going to look like? Are there multiple changes, or just a big change?

The actual scope of the changes can help you decide what type of framework you will need. If it is lots of little changes, then a PDCA cycle might be most useful, but if it is an enormously large change you might want to invest the time and money into the McKinsey 7-S model, alongside others.

Smaller changes might be easier to accept and make the bigger changes more palatable, but how you approach this is a highly individualized choice.

Employees and workplace culture

However you are approaching change, the most important thing to consider is the staff and their values. Your employees are your most valuable asset, so whatever change management model you use has to be undertaken with them in mind specifically.

Are the changes that are needed something that the staff are already aware of or have even suggested themselves? If so, they might need less support from the resistance side of things and more support in terms of training and upskilling.

Change management is flexible, and with the right tools in hand, your organization can create a blueprint for managing change that makes the most sense to the business, the employees, and the goals that need to be achieved.

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