20 Change Management models, 20 years of experience, here is what I took away
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
Reading time: 12 minutes
Many Change Management models and articles are on the market –- which ones to choose, what are good take-aways, what is missing? Why does Change Management often not work well, despite a lot of effort?
In order to answer these questions, I decided to look at Change Management models and literature, and compare this with my own my experience of what I think works to enable engagement and sustainable change in any organisation.
I have 20 years of experience in Human Resources, I am trained on Change Management, I am applying Change Management in my job every day, driving large scale Change Management projects with global organizations. I have experienced failures, frustrations and successes. I now enjoy to transfer this expertise to other global organizations.
Managing Director at 37 Grad GmbH
Markus is a HR professional with 20 years of experience, including 16 years in a large multinational in the healthcare industry. He has a proven track record as HR Generalist, developing leaders and teams and implementing fully integrated HR solutions in highly matrixed organisations.
He built cross functional competency and career models, established a holistic Leadership Development function and led worldwide, values based cultural change programs. He led large transformation projects and is trained as change expert.
He is passionate about all aspects of culture, using digital technology as an enabler. Influencing large scale behaviours to create a better world has always fascinated him.
Why you should read this
In this article, you will find the essentials of 21 change management models, what they have in common, where they need to evolve. You can take away the latest thinking on enabling sustainable change and apply it directly. This research focusses on large-scale change efforts in complex organisations. However the core takeaways also apply to all kind of change situations.
Who this is for?
You are interested in and want to learn more about the latest thinking on Change Management and enabling sustainable organizational change
You are interested in how to change behaviors and mindsets of employees in an organisation, but do not really know how to do this
You want to know how you can practically apply these things in your organisation
You do not know how to get started with all the different models on the market
You are a change practitioner
How did I work and compare?
I read through dozens of articles and books on the different Change Management models and topics. Some are core Change Management models, others are only tackling a part of the change process. I then compared them on the basis of where they work well in the different phases of change (Analyse, Prepare, Change, Sustain, Measure). Measuring change is a topic for another article, here I want to go a bit deeper into how to do change and how to create ownership for change for everyone concerned by the change.
Reading through 21 models and many articles on Change Management, I found a lot of focus on the different process steps of change and preparing for it. However traditional Change Management models do not provide much information about how sustainable organizational change, behavioural change and mindset shift and engagement can be achieved. For many of the models it looks like change is ‘being done to’ the organization and do not provide a practical approach to getting everyone in the organization aligned and engaged with the shifts.
History of Change Management
Many Change Management models have their roots in the work of Kurt Lewin back in the 1940s (unfreeze, change, freeze) and still hold basically true today. Following models have partially been rooted in grief studies, like the well-known Change Curve of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
As some individuals continued to build their own Change Management models, also large consultancies and multinationals started to review what is out there and built their version of Change Management. Depending on how these organisations function, or which type of organisations the consultancies mainly worked with, these models have strengths and limitations. Some work well in a hierarchal, structured and regulated organisation, some work well in very large change projects. Some models work well at small scale, others are specialist models that tackle only a part of the process.
Comparing the different Change Management models and articles, I found that whilst there is a wealth of different approaches, the core is often similar. There is a strong emphasis on analysis and process, what is missing overall is the focus on behavioural change of the people concerned. Most models do not take latest trends into account which is understandable as they have not been updated since their creation.
Nearly all models look into how to prepare for change. Most touch on how to sustain change. Much fewer guide also through how to actually do the change. Very few go beyond the point of how to create a pull from concerned individuals versus a push from the organisation. Nearly none explains how to measure change. Most of the models were designed for cascade in a hierarchical organisational structure and don’t pay attention to the new Digital Reality.
Looking across the different models, there are groupings similar to the early model of Lewin or parts of it like the impact analysis (the need for change must outweigh the resistance), then there are some models comparable to the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. Others only focus on some aspects of the change approach like the upfront analysis, or the causes, or sustaining change.
How do the different models compare
If you look over the decades of evaluation since the early years of Change Management, Lewin used terms like “unfreezing” and “freezing” whereas later models focused on helping people “discover”, “accept”, and “embrace their new identities” in the new situation.
Then there are some of the well-known models of large consultancies or corporations, that cover the preparation for change, the set-up of change and how to conduct change. They differentiate in how much effort it takes to do this work. For some you are bound to the consultancy, for some you need to go through training and certification, others require a small army to conduct the process. Nothing is wrong with any of these approaches, but they all have in common to be process-step-rich as an adequate response to complex change projects - so they often require serious resources. This might be the right approach for large scale Change Management projects, if you are ready for the investment.
Going through the models, I personally found some good ideas for example in stakeholder analysis with Larmarsh, some good ideas on viral change in Viral Change Roadmap and ideas for individuals such as Steven Covey’s 7 habits for highly effective leaders. The more recent Nudge Theory is an approach that enables sustainable behavioural change in the digital organization and is easy to apply.
Most of the models build on developing a vision for the change, on communication and on strong leadership support. They differentiate on how much advice they provide and on how to conduct the actual change. Nearly all have a focus on tools and processes and most on leaders and change agents. Nearly none focuses on creating a pull from all the impacted people as the direct focus for their efforts.
It is surprising how much effort in many approaches went into preparing change compared to the effort how to actually do the change. I often had the impression that change was portrayed as something you do to the organisation whereas successful change must be something you do withthe people and for the organisation.
I have never liked the term of Change Management. Change is not something that should be or needs to be managed. For me this is a contradiction and reflects the old way of doing it. I prefer to talk about Transformation or People Engagement.
Here are core elements I took away
The need for change must outweigh the resistance – the inertia in the organization to maintain the status quo. The role of Change Management is to enable that.
Do not focus on changing culture. Focus on changing behaviors, this will change the culture, not the other way around.
Stories and story-telling are the best currency for successful change. Storytelling and narrative are core for construction of new realities and identities. We know that stories create a deep connection with the listener. They can transmit a complex construct in a simple, natural way that the recipient then uses to construct their own version that can be further transmitted, and so on. Very impactful, very natural, very simple to do and highly engaging.
You can redefine processes and re-arrange the organization chart, install a new tool and explain to people why this is good and necessary, create a massive communication and training campaign and make sure that everybody has clearly understood where to go. Perhaps you’ve done this already and noticed that many people hang on to the old ways. That is because there is no change unless there is behavioural change. It is only when new behaviours have become the norm that you can say that real change has occurred. You want a new culture, then focus on changing behaviours. Cultures are not created by training in the typical way.
A core element of change are values. Placing values at the heart of the change emphasizes that these values are central to the development of all the other critical elements. The company's structure, strategy, systems, style, staff and skills all stem from what the organisation stands for. The original vision of the company was formed from the values of the creators. As the values change, so do all the other elements.
A key challenge of Change Management projects seem that they do not start with the end in mind, but with a problem at the beginning: something that impacts somehow the success of the company. Like many of the recent corporate scandals have shown, at the heart of the problem was often culture = behaviors. Yet often the end-stage of the change approach, the desired behaviors and what people should stop, start, continue doing was not clearly defined. Instead approaches tend to jump on initiating what is perceived as “quick-wins” like some initial good communication, some townhalls, maybe the deployment of a tool, maybe a change agent network and then often not much more. But there is often no real logic behind choosing these tools and what they should do. Sometimes there is endless internal debate about what to do instead of looking for best practice from those who have done it already and build on the burning platform that will not be there forever. Starting with the end-stage well defined in mind overcomes this and lays out an effective deployment of the rare resources available, to ensure you have the impact needed.
Most important: give the power to the people. You cannot create real change by only focussing on a few leaders, changing some processes and tools and communicate all of this for some time. Serious change takes time. It has to involve all the people impacted. Ask the people how they define the change, let them drive change, engage them.
In reality, what any change support programme should do is to empower people to make decisions and take action rather than top-down command and control. Successful change enables everybody impacted to hold the steering wheel and not only the senior leaders.
But aren’t most people “change fatigue” and likely not respond anymore to any change? Yes, if Change Management is not well done, this is indeed the case in some organisations. Change fatigue starts with what is perceived as too much change and the concerned are not able to influence the change, nor are they rewarded on the right expectations. If you feel that you cannot really change things, you let go trying or take another way, which is a very natural human reaction. Often also education on the right capabilities is missing.
Why change agents networks often do not work well: people with overloaded agendas are asked to be a change agent and they rarely refuse to take on the task. They are asked to contact many other people, influence them, pass on messages and at the same time send consolidated feedback back to the central team. So far, I have not seen this working well in large-scale change approaches. If it was working, it would be a massive undertaking to manage. Also, this brings us partially back to “push” mode. Are there more effective ways of doing this?
What about Leaders then, are they core to the change? Many models put a lot of emphasis on the leader or leadership team. And this is an important thing to get right. When leaders do not act as role model and do not send the right messages, change will stall. This won’t be enough though and it won’t work well work in a non-hierarchical set-up either.
How to apply the take-aways
Are there other approaches than top-down ones? Change done well is rare. Why is that? Giving the “power to the people” seems risky sometimes as one cannot predict outcomes. Taking what is perceived as a safe, controlled route seems less risky but has at the end much less impact than planned.
At some point in my career, I was tasked with a large transformation project but only had a relatively short time: how to engage a global, multinational organisation, across all cultures and hierarchies - have all people take ownership of the change, have them tell each other their own stories about this topic and create a movement to enable this transformation.
To be effective you should use technology to go viral. With the end point in mind we deployed a digital tool that connected people across time zones, hierarchies and cultures and received amazing feedback about how quickly they felt time passed during the sessions we conducted and how engaged they were. These digital tools allow for the bottom up approach that not only todays digital human and millennials ask for.
We guided them through a process explaining the change story and why and how they will be involved. They could influence what happened, they had the steering wheel in their hand all the time during the process, they shaped the change, with some of the leaders in the same session. People bought into what they built themselves. Not just a few leaders going top-down. Of course we also had a final senior leadership sign-off and strong involvement, but as a part of the process and not as the only part of the process.
We took the outcomes, learning and stories from one group to the next and so continued a viral approach. The learning took place in a digital, social learning setup. Endless scale was possible, being it 50 or 50000 people did not matter anymore. Our experience was that using digital applications to support the change brings people together in a different, really engaging way. Initial concerns that in some element of the large-scale approach we took face to face interaction out, to be able to reach more people was never confirmed. People appreciated that their opinion and contribution were valued. We know the world has changed fundamentally – we live in a digital reality and digital tools enable us to collaborate and communicate in new and powerful ways.
The benefits were amazing to us. All of this happened within a few days, around the world and opened up a new way to get people engaged in change. Design was pretty straight forward and technical implication easy. All we needed to do was mobilise people to initially participate, which was also not difficult.
During the early phases of the project we applied prototyping and sprints and design thinking processes to be most efficient. At the time this was unusual in a regulated and safe environment where this change happened in, long before today’s popularity of design thinking. Ultimately, this enabled us to maintain focus and speed and we actually applied some of the new cultural principles already in the process.
We then continued the journey by helping people to see how they as individuals compare to the new end-stage: how they can learn in an easy way during the daily activity and apply the new expectation.
Another core element to sustain the engagement was the use of gamified approaches. We built into every approach some level of gaming, playfulness and stimulation that rewarded further engagement, learning, sharing and application on the job. Combining this with a tailored learning experience is actually not very difficult to do, especially if you compare it with the superior impact this has over the old way of communication and push approaches.
All this happened at the individual level: understand, apply and sustain change. The next level then is to bring this to teams: how do we look at collaboration, routines, processes in our team. Finally, at an organisational level how does this now impact things we do internally and externally as an organisation.
All of this was supported at each step by the digital tools that allow tailored messages, tailored learning experiences, exchange, collaboration and storytelling at all levels of the organisation.
The key highlights are “large scale engagement”, “using technology” and “giving power to the people” to shape what you want to achieve.
The approach helped to activate those that voluntarily (not by nomination from their boss) are inspired, motivated, see a need for change, or improve their contribution to it, and are ready for taking this further. This is a change network that actually works, but without massive investment into it. It self-sustains.
Since I left industry and joined consultancy, my partners and I are applying Change Management “with the people” instead “for the people”. We deploy digital tools and combine them with selected learning from proven change models. This leaves us the flexibility to react to the needs of our clients rather than having a fixed proposal the client needs to adapt to.
In summary the concept is based on
A good preparation (optional change assessments, story set-up, stakeholder engagement, project set-up)
Conduct the change (deployment of engagement approach on individual, team and organisational level with focus on behavioural change)
Sustain the change (again on individual, team and organisational level)
Continuously measure impact
A final comment: Find your own approach. One size does not fit all. Don’t just take my word for it because I write such an article, the topic of Change Management is large. What counts is the experience, not the knowledge. Develop your own.
Call for action
Please share with me your experiences and success stories of enabling sustainable Change, Engagement and Transformation
Any reactions, comments, ideas and also challenges to further develop this work are most welcome.
Contact me if you would like to learn more about how I compared the different models and how we approach Change Management as described in this article
Here a list of all models I looked into
Accelerated Implementation Methodology (AIM), ADKAR Model (Prosci), Beckhard and Harris Change Management Process, Bridges Transition Model, Burke-Litwin Change Model, Change Acceleration Process (CAP – GE), Impact Analysis, Kübler-Ross’ change curve, Kotter, Lamarsh Change Model, Lewin’s Change Model, Nudge theory, People Centered Implementation Model (PCI), Stephen Covey: 7 Habits Model, The Change Delta (BCG), The Change Leaders Roadmap, The Satir change management model, The Change Curve, The Congruence Model, Viral Change, 7-S Model (McKinsey)