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Top 10 change management models: A comparison guide

Adapting to change can be easy. Learn about the top 10 change management models and methodologies to help your team successfully navigate organizational shifts.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Last updated March 14, 2024

What is change management?

Change management is the structured process of planning, implementing, and guiding individuals, teams, and organizations through changes to achieve desired outcomes effectively while minimizing resistance and disruptions.

With how fast industries move, technologies advance, and current events shift, organizational change is now a normal part of doing business. But change is rarely easy—and the bigger and more complex a business is, the more challenging it can be to navigate changes effectively.

When the need for something different becomes obvious, your business must determine the best steps to take to put that change into effect. This requires a thoughtful, strategic approach and an effective change management process. Our guide covers the 10 best change management models and methodologies to help your business seamlessly adapt to changes while maintaining employee satisfaction.

1. Lewin’s change management model

Lewin’s change management model steps are listed next to an illustration of a person sitting and wearing headphones.

Lewin’s change management model is named after Kurt Lewin, who developed it in the 1950s. Lewin’s model divides the change process into three steps: Unfreeze, change, and refreeze.

  1. Unfreeze: This is the preparation stage. Analyze how things work now so you accurately understand what needs to change to get the intended results. In this stage, you can also implement change management communication so employees know what to expect and prepare.
  2. Change: This is the implementation phase. Put the change into practice, and keep communicating and providing support for all employees involved.
  3. Refreeze: This phase helps you avoid falling back into the old way of doing things. Review how the new processes work and measure change management metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to see how well you’ve reached your goals.
Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Small to midsize businesses undergoing significant organizational restructuring or work culture shifts would benefit most from Lewin’s model. It provides a clear framework for managing change and addressing resistance effectively.

2. McKinsey 7-S framework

Developed by McKinsey & Company consultants, the McKinsey 7-S model involves breaking a change program into seven components:

  1. Strategy: This is what a company wants to achieve and how it plans to do it.
  2. Structure: This is how a company is organized, including who reports to whom and how tasks are divided among employees.
  3. Systems: These are the formal processes and tools a company uses to get things done, like technology systems, performance evaluation processes, and budgeting procedures.
  4. Shared values: These are the core beliefs and principles that guide behavior and decision-making in a company.
  5. Skills: These are employees’ abilities and expertise.
  6. Style: This is the leadership and management approach within a company, including the leadership style of top executives and the overall company culture.
  7. Staff: This is the company workforce and includes the number of employees, their roles, and their distribution across different functions.

Breaking organizational change down into these core components helps prevent overlooking any important factors.

Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Large organizations undergoing strategic transformations or mergers would benefit most from the McKinsey 7-S framework. It helps leaders assess and realign various organizational components to support desired changes.

3. Kotter’s 8 steps for leading change

Harvard professor and change management expert John Kotter created the 8-step process for leading change. Kotter’s theory focuses primarily on the people involved in a change process and their psychology. He divides it into eight steps:

  1. Create a sense of urgency to motivate people.

  2. Build your change team with leaders and change agents of various skills and departments.

  3. Define your strategic vision for what you want to accomplish.

  4. Communicate with everyone involved in the change management process to get them on board and ensure they know their role.

  5. Identify roadblocks and address anything causing friction.

  6. Create short-term goals to break your change management plan into achievable steps.

  7. Keep up the momentum throughout the process of implementation.

  8. Maintain the changes after the initial project is complete.

Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Businesses of any size embarking on significant change initiatives, such as digital transformations or cultural overhauls, would benefit from Kotter’s 8-step change model. It offers a comprehensive roadmap for navigating complex change processes.

4. ADKAR change management model

An illustration shows a group of icons representing the five goals of the ADKAR change management model.

The ADKAR model, developed by Prosci founder Jeff Hiatt, formulates five main goals on which to base your change management process.

  • Awareness: Ensure everyone in your organization understands the need for change.
  • Desire: Make your case so that everyone involved wants the change.
  • Knowledge: Provide the information each person needs on how to accomplish their part of the change process.
  • Ability: Make sure all employees have the skills and training they need to successfully do their part.
  • Reinforcement: Continue to work with employees and stakeholders after you accomplish a change to make sure they stay on top of doing things the new way.
Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Businesses undergoing technology implementations or process changes would benefit from the ADKAR model. It helps leaders identify and address individual barriers to change, ensuring successful adoption.

5. Nudge theory

Nudge theory is a change management model that focuses on employing a particular mindset to encourage change rather than a step-by-step guide. Instead of issuing top-down change requests from senior executives and expecting people to fall in line, the nudge theory is about finding a persuasive way to nudge your employees toward wanting the change on their own.

This change management theory involves:

  • Thinking about the change you want to make from your employee’s point of view

  • Presenting it based on how it will benefit them

  • Treating it as a recommendation rather than a command

  • Listening to employee feedback throughout the process
Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Any business seeking to promote behavioral changes among employees or customers would benefit from applying nudge theory. It is particularly useful in areas like health and safety initiatives or sustainability programs.

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6. Bridges transition model

Created by the change consultant William Bridges, the Bridges transition model emphasizes the emotional transition people go through in the course of experiencing and accepting a change. The model recognizes three stages companies should help guide employees through:

  • Ending, losing, and letting go: For many people, the first reaction to change is a resistance marked by fear and discomfort.
  • The neutral zone: When the change is starting to take place, people will be stuck between letting go of the old status quo and welcoming the new.
  • The new beginning: Once the new change is in place, and it’s handled well, people will enter the stage of acceptance and comfort with the new way of doing things.
Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Businesses undergoing leadership transitions, mergers, or significant restructuring would benefit from the Bridges model. It helps leaders understand and support employees through the emotional journey of change.

7. Kübler-Ross change curve

The Kübler-Ross change curve, also known as the five stages of grief, was created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and is the model used to describe the experience and process of dealing with loss. You can apply it to many experiences of change, so understanding these stages can help you better address employees’ responses to an organizational shift.

  • Denial: Refusal to believe the situation is a common knee-jerk response to information a person doesn’t want to hear.
  • Anger: When an unwanted change feels forced on a person, anger is natural.
  • Bargaining: People may try to push for a compromise to avoid having to accept the change entirely.
  • Depression: If employees are upset about the change and feel hopeless about it, they may enter a stage of depression.
  • Acceptance: When people realize there’s no other option, they eventually reach the point of acceptance.

Ideally, you want to design your change approach to address these potential feelings head-on and keep employees from experiencing the worst of them.

Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Businesses implementing major organizational changes or downsizing initiatives would benefit from the Kübler-Ross model. It helps leaders anticipate and manage employees’ emotional reactions to change, fostering acceptance and resilience.

8. Satir change model

Created by therapist Virginia Satir, this model is based on trends she saw in how families experience change. But, as with the Kübler-Ross, it can also apply to businesses. Here’s how the Satir change model is broken down:

  • Late status quo: This is where you are when you first start.
  • Resistance: This is the natural response many people have when you first introduce change.
  • Chaos: This occurs when the change first gets implemented, and there’s still confusion and resistance from employees.
  • Integration: This is when productivity begins to level out, suggesting general acceptance.
  • New status quo: This is when employees settle into the new normal.
Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Businesses undergoing cultural transformations or leadership changes would benefit from the Satir model. It provides a framework for fostering collaboration, resilience, and innovation throughout the change process.

9. Resistance to change model

Rick Maurer’s resistance to change model focuses on the factors that lead to change failure. It emphasizes that poor leadership and implementation strategies are the primary reason for change failures, not resistance. The model identifies three levels of resistance:

  • Level 1—“I don’t get it”: This level involves rational objections due to lack of information, disagreement with data, or confusion. Leaders often mistakenly address all resistance as Level 1, focusing on providing more information when other approaches are needed.
  • Level 2—“I don’t like it”: This level is emotional resistance based on fear of loss, such as face, status, or control. It’s typically deep-seated and can trigger fight-or-flight responses, hindering communication and decision-making.
  • Level 3—“I don’t like you”: This level is based on resistance towards the leader or the organization, often due to mistrust or past negative experiences. Lack of attention to this level can lead to entrenched resistance, even if people understand and support the proposed change.

To address resistance effectively, Maurer suggests:

  • Making a compelling case for change by explaining why it’s necessary

  • Tailoring communication to the audience’s preferences and understanding

  • Emphasizing the benefits of the change and engaging employees in the process
  • Building trust by being honest, keeping commitments, and investing in relationships

  • Being open to feedback and willing to reconsider decisions

By understanding and addressing resistance at all three levels, leaders can increase the likelihood of successful change initiatives.

Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Any business undergoing significant change initiatives would benefit from understanding and managing resistance effectively. The resistance to change model helps leaders identify potential barriers and develop strategies to overcome them.

10. PDCA cycle

The PDCA (plan-do-check-act) cycle is a widely used method in change management for implementing continuous improvement and driving organizational change effectively. W. Edwards Deming developed the PDCA cycle, also known as the Deming Cycle or the Deming Wheel.

Here’s a breakdown of each phase of the PDCA cycle in the context of change management:

  • Plan: Businesses assess the need for change and establish clear objectives and goals. They develop a detailed change management plan, outlining strategies, resources, and timelines while also securing support from stakeholders to ensure alignment and commitment to the proposed changes.
  • Do: Businesses implement their change management plan, execute activities, communicate with stakeholders, and support employees with necessary training. Progress gets closely monitored to ensure adherence to timelines, and regular communication addresses any concerns or questions stakeholders may have.
  • Check: Businesses evaluate the progress and impact of the change initiative by monitoring key performance indicators and analyzing deviations from the planned outcomes to understand their causes. This phase offers valuable insights into the effectiveness of change management strategies and identifies areas for improvement.
  • Act: Businesses take corrective actions based on findings from the check phase, adjusting the change management plan and integrating successful changes into standard procedures. This phase ensures continuous improvement by addressing issues and updating strategies based on lessons learned.

The PDCA cycle is a loop. After the Act phase, start again with the Plan phase to keep improving or tackle new problems. This cycle helps organizations stay flexible and make their change management better as things change.

Which type of business would benefit the most from this model?

Businesses committed to continuous improvement and quality management would benefit from the PDCA cycle. It provides a systematic approach to identifying, implementing, and evaluating changes to enhance organizational performance.

How to select the right change management model

Each of these change management frameworks emphasizes the importance of centering your employees in how you plan and implement a change. Think about their feelings and treat effective communication with them as a top priority.

There isn’t one change management methodology that’s the best across the board. Follow these change management best practices to determine which one makes the most sense for your business needs, or take elements from each one and apply them to your situation.

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