Change management

Effective change management: in theory and action

Kurt Lewin, Kotter, Ackerman and Anderson, and Kubler-Ross’s change management models aim to describe how change should be managed in practice, on a collective and individualistic level. Combining theoretical models with organizational realities, we can level up a comprehensive framework for managing change.

Nima Torabi


We live in a world of rapid, relentless, continuous, and ever-faster rates of change. Change becomes the norm and change within change is ever-growing. Therefore, the ability to successfully navigate through change is becoming more and more important.

As individuals, each of us reacts to change in completely different ways, whether at the workplace or in our personal lives. Hence, it is important to have a good awareness of how those around us, such as colleagues and family members, react to change. Some love an environment of change and others don’t. In reality, research shows that most people instinctively don’t like change, and this means leaders who are managing change — sometimes even radical ones — need to be aware of how everybody else is feeling in the early days.

In theory, there are four frameworks for managing change:

  • Kurt Lewin’s 3-step change management model
  • Kotter’s 8-step change management model
  • Ackerman and Anderson’s 9-stage model
  • Kubler-Ross’s 5-stage change management model
Combining theoretical models with organizational realities, we can level up a comprehensive framework for managing change.
Photo by Adrià Tormo on Unsplash

Kurt Lewin’s 3-step change management model

The Kurt Lewin model says that there are three main stages in a change process:

  • Unfreeze
  • The change itself
  • Refreeze

Stage 1: Unfreeze — creating the perception of a need

This stage is about getting ready to change. It involves getting to a point of understanding that change is necessary and getting ready to move away from our current comfort zone. The more we feel that change is necessary, the more urgent it is, and the more motivated we are to make the change. The unfreezing stage is all about preparing organizations for change which would entail lots of communication and clarity of purposes such as roles and responsibilities and locating change agents or ambassadors for the change.

In this stage, the goal is to make people feel a bit more comfortable about what’s going on and paint a picture of what the new world would look like when the organization refreezes. The unfreezing stage thinks of the resources available, making sure that people who were in doubt start to get the message and become a little bit more comfortable over the change as most people are not going to like what they hear at the unfreeze stage.

Organizational reality is never a situation where 100% of the staff is with you all of the time. In most cases, if you take most of the people, you’re on to a good start. In any change project, 5–10% of the people are excited about it, while maybe 5–10% will resist it with everything they have, and in the middle, 80–90% will come along with the program to different extents at different times. This means that in the end, 80–90% of any employee population ought to come through to the new world.

Therefore, in the unfreezing stage, if a change leader gets the majority of the employee population onboard, then reality says that they’re doing as well as might be expected.

Unfreezing and getting motivated for the change is all about weighing up the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ and deciding whether the ‘pros’ outweigh the ‘cons’ before taking any action. This is what is called the ‘Force Field Analysis’, a way of saying that there are lots of different forces for and against making the change that we need to be aware of them. If the factors for change outweigh the factors against it, we’ll make the progress and if there’s low motivation to change or in other words, if we feel pushed to change, it will likely fail or not achieve the desired results.

Lewin’s Force Field Analysis | MindTools

Stage 2: The transition — moving toward the new

In this stage, whatever that change might be, such as restructuring, outsourcing, joint venture, merger, rebranding, entering new markets, relocation, etc. will take place.

Change is not an event, but rather a process or a transition which is the inner movement or journey we make in reaction to a change. In this stage, people will move towards a new way of being.

This stage is often the hardest as people are doubtful and fearful. This is not an easy time as people are learning about the changes and need to be given time to understand and work with them. Support is important here and can be in the form of training, coaching, and expecting mistakes as part of the process.

Using role models or change agents and allowing people to develop their solutions also help to drive change. It’s also crucial to keep communicating a clear picture of the desired change and the benefits to people so they don’t lose sight of where they are heading.

Stage 3: Refreezing — solidifying new behavior and norms

This is where the organization starts to settle down after the change. Individuals and groups of employees start to get used to their new roles, working models, forces at the workplace, new locations, cultures, etc.

The refreeze stage is the outcome stage where the organization is aiming to habitualize the new operating model as soon as possible. In this stage, when the evidence of habitualization is seen, leaders need to start measuring the success of the change process.

The goal of the refreezing stage is to establish stability once the changes have been made. The changes are accepted and become the new norms. People form new relationships and become comfortable with their routines. The only note is that this process can take time.

Kotter’s 8-step change management model

Kotter’s 8-step change management model
Kotter’s 8-step change management model

Kotter’s framework is about setting a vision for what’s going on engaging the employee population and inspiring employees with the change journey in a very structured 8-stage way. Dr. John Kotter’s change model stages include:

Stage 1: Creating a sense of urgency

For change to happen, it helps if the whole company wants it by developing a sense of urgency around the need for change and helping spark the initial motivation to get things moving. By doing so we’re giving the change program significance and communicating the message that what’s about to happen is important. For this to work, we need to have a clear explanation as to why change will be important to the various stakeholders in the organization. For the creation of a sense of urgency to work, we need to have credibility as a leader of change.

Step 2: Forming a powerful coalition

Convince people that change is necessary requires strong leadership and visible support from key people within the organization. Change needs to be led. This means regularly checking throughout each stage of the change process and making sure that all of the key internal and external stakeholders (e.g. regulators, media, union, government) are fully engaged.

Step 3: Creating a vision for change

Change-related ideas and solutions need to be linked to an overall vision that people can grasp easily and remember. A compelling vision sells what is good about the change, what is going to make a difference, and making a better organization for everyone to work at.

The challenge is when the change is about downsizing or huge cutbacks. It’s difficult to create a powerful, compelling vision simply because it’s bad news, and organizations need to be highly skilled to communicate these messages, to get a compelling vision across irrespective of what that message is.

Step 4: Communicating the vision

What you do with the vision after you create it will determine the success of the change project. The change message will probably have strong competition from other day-to-day communications within the company, so it needs to be communicated frequently and powerfully to get embedded within everything that the organization does.

The vision needs to be communicated effectively and consistently at all levels within all outlets, functions, and locations in an organization. All the key stakeholders must be kept regularly informed about what’s going on, why it’s going on, how it’s going on, how the organization is progressing against plans, and what it means to each of the employees.

The communication process must be robust, consistent, concise, correct, and clear. The communication strategy needs to constantly reinforce the varying topics related to the change program.

Step 5: Removing obstacles

By this stage, we have talked about the vision and building buy-in from all levels of the organization and hopefully, the staff wants to get busy and achieve the benefits that have been promoted. For smooth operations, we need to define process changes and think of possible barriers to implementation before the organization runs into problems.

Additionally, the change team needs to define rules and processes to solve unpredicted or forecasted problems that may arise, and how the decision-making processes should come into play to solve such challenges.

Step 6: Delivering short-term wins

Success motivates people and change leaders need to deliver a taste of victory early in the change process. Within a short timeframe (e.g. a month or a year, depending on the type of change), change leaders want to have some “quick wins” that the staff can sense tangibly. Without this, critics and negative thinkers might hurt progress.

Creating and celebrating wins will let everybody know that the project is making process and everyone can take credit for it. Furthermore, celebrating wins anchors the changing culture in the organization and habituates the new norm.

Step 7: Building on the change

Kotter argues that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early while real and true change generally runs deep. Quick wins are only the beginning of what needs to be done to achieve long-term change.

Therefore, do not celebrate victory too early and always keep the change momentum going before the staff gets cold.

Step 8: Anchoring the changes in the corporate culture

To make any change stick, it should become part of the core of the organization. The corporate culture often determines what gets done, so the values behind the vision must show in day-to-day work.

Ackerman and Anderson’s 9-stage model

Ackerman and Anderson’s 9 stage model

Ackerman and Anderson’s model of change is a cyclical process that views change from three perspectives:

  • Content: the technical and organizational factors that require a change
  • People: the subjective factors such as the mindset, behavioral patterns of employees, and the organization’s culture
  • Process: the possible action plans or strategies that can be crafted and implemented for driving change successfully across the organization

Ackerman and Anderson’s model of change is comprehensive and useful for addressing various kinds of change in any organization. This model describes the change in nine cyclical phases and gives due importance to all the strategic decisions that should be considered by the change leaders. This model provides strategic alternatives for addressing various challenges that may arise during different phases of the change.

Step 1: Preparing to lead the change initiative

Any change in an organization is the result of a wake-up call that an organization receives. During this phase, the employees of the organization, as well as the management, reach a consensus regarding the need for change. The strategies for managing change are implemented as well and the employees are prepared for dealing with the change process through effective communication and involvement of the employees in the entire process. The employees are prepared for the change process by:

  • Role clarification and selection of the best-suited skill sets or expertise as per the requirements of the role
  • Motivating the employees to endorse the change initiatives by determining the need for change and highlighting the possible outcomes of change and how it may influence the organizational functioning as a whole
  • Ascertaining the organization’s preparedness as well as the capacity to implement the change initiative
  • Identifying and strengthening the capacity of the change agents to develop and implement change models successfully by analyzing behavioral, process-oriented, and organizational factors
  • Developing various approaches to change management, defining the structures, processes as well as the pre-requisites for implementing change in the organization successfully

Step 2: Defining the vision, commitment, and capabilities

This stage consists of building organization-wide commitment, understanding, and strengthening the capacities to succeed in the transformation process by:

  • Building a strong case for change and motivating the employees to embrace the change by sharing the futuristic vision
  • Planning and utilizing effective techniques for communication that may help in fostering a deeper understanding regarding the change
  • Planning and organizing periodic training programs aiming at changing the employee mindset from following the traditional style of working to endorsing newer methodologies or changed techniques
  • Seeking employee involvement and participation in the process by obtaining their input on various issues related to the process of change management
  • Allocation of responsibilities by identifying the key players across all levels of the organization

Step 3: Determining the design requirements by assessing the situation

This is the stage during which the situation as-is of an organization is assessed and desired outcomes are defined clearly through the implementation of change. These actions will be driven by:

  • Clear definition of expectations for successful outcomes
  • Creating various design scenarios that may influence the change and evaluation of various alternatives before the implementation of change
  • Determining what is required to be stopped or dismantled and creating a fresh roadmap for achieving successful outcomes of change management

Step 4: Enabling the vision by creating the desired design state

This phase involves designing the organizational as well as cultural solutions that may help in the realization of the ultimate vision. We can achieve this by:

  • Establishing the processes as well as the structures
  • Providing power to the nominated employees for deciding on various decision-making processes
  • Deciding about the usage of the pilot test and various communication modes that can be used across the organization

Step 5: Analyzing the Impact

The magnitude of the impact can be measured by analyzing gaps to highlight the key areas or issues that need to be addressed by crafting a realistic action plan. During this phase, change agents need to focus on the formal organizational processes the behavioral, cultural, and human factors, and the interlinkages between them to drive change.

Thriving on Change: Creating A Gap Analysis | EPM

Step 6: Planning for implementation

This stage entails masterminding the implementation plans, integrating various actions for achieving efficiencies and optimizing resource utilization. It involves the implementation of strategies, defining the timelines, and managing the key processes for reaching the desired state.

Step 7: Implementing the plans

During this phase, the change initiators will pay attention to the following parameters:

  • Dealing with resistance and managing employee’s reactions
  • Monitoring the entire implementation process critical aspects such as communication delivery, the reaction of employees, and the need for coaching and training

Step 8: Celebrating and integrating the new state

This is the stage for celebrating the achievement of the desired state and making people in the organization aware that they are in the new state. In this phase, we need to reward the people who have made active contributions towards the achievement of the desired state. It equally involves integrating the employees and supporting them in mastering new behaviors, skills, and competencies. This integration and support may take the forms of training and development, mentoring and coaching of employees, identifying best practices, rewarding outstanding performances, benchmarking the practices or success stories of other organizations, and organizing seminars/workshops, projects, etc.

Step 9: Learning and correcting course

The last phase involves paying attention to the following factors:

  • Creating effective processes and mechanisms for achieving continuous improvement
  • Continuously evaluating and learning how effectively the entire process of change and processes were designed and implemented
  • Improving the organization’s readiness as well as the ability to drive future changes successfully
  • Closing down the process of change by dismantling the temporary structures, infrastructure as well and conditions that do not meet the requirements of the new organization any longer

Kubler-Ross’s 5-stage change management model

Kubler-Ross’s 5-stage change management model

Lewin and Kotter’s change models are more of a collective, how a functional group goes through change and less about the individual level. Kubler-Ross’s model aims to illustrate the individualistic aspects of change that each person goes through during the change program.

The Kubler-Ross curve picks up on the reality that most people at the outset of change will feel anger and fear and that they are going to deny that this change is coming. They want to stay in the world that they know and are comfortable with. This denial needs to be unlocked and the individuals need to be coached through the fear. Change leaders need to understand the anger and work with people to defuse such emotions to create buy-in.

Factors such as peer group pressure, understanding the details of the change and what it means to the individual, effective leadership, effective line management, and appropriate incentive systems will help build a smooth buy-in and acceptance process. The individual may move from anger to bargaining and even depression, but the factors mentioned above will help them accept what is to come.

Theory vs. reality

The four theories listed can be quite easy to read and remember. But in the dynamics of organizational life, they might not be as straightforward as in theory. For example, the majority of any employee population does not like change, at least in the first instance. They might even dislike, fear, or even distrust change which will lead to varying levels of resistance. And in today’s workplace and speed of change, this will almost lead to organizational instability.

5 ways to lead in an era of constant change | Jim Hemerling — 1) have a purpose, 2) go all in to win, 3) put people first, 4) instill a culture of continuous learning, 5) orchestrate inclusive leadership

Today, change can be created by organizational restructuring, takeovers, mergers, downsizing, outsourcing, in-sourcing, new leadership teams, new reward strategies, and the like. These changes can be instigated by the organization itself or by external factors. Today companies such as Nokia, Blockbuster, or Woolworths do not exist, because they weren’t aware of the changes that were going on externally, didn’t change, and inevitably died.

There are very few organizations that manage change effectively and failed change is quite frequent. The initial setback is stakeholder conflict and employee resistance through their denial and anger. Immediately, a change program will have immediate stakeholder tension between the organization and employees that need to be managed, which should be managed straight away. Moreover, change leaders need to regularly manage expectations, particularly if what was planned turns out to be very different from what was happening, especially if the change is going wrong.