4 basic principles of change management for successful organizational change
As the world keeps changing, it helps to have a solid foundation in the principles of change management as well as a little empathy. Read on for a few tips.
Published April 24, 2020
Last updated November 9, 2021
Businesses are rapidly evolving, particularly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has accelerated change. As Beth Comstock, former vice chair of General Electric, wrote in her 2018 book Imagine It Forward: “The pace of change will never be slower than it is right now.”
As a business trying to execute change management in these uncertain times, you’ll need a solid foundation in the principles of change management and a little empathy.
Change management principles
We talked to a change management professional and identified a few of the most basic principles of change management:
It would be great if we could simply announce a change and everyone would fall in line, but the reality is more complicated. Change is inevitable, but it can also be uncomfortable or emotional for employees.
As a leadership team, you need to have realistic expectations for your change implementation. Not everyone will like the change process, or even agree with the change, according to Dana Otto, Senior Manager of Change Management at Zendesk.
My goal is not to get people to like the change. My goal is to get them to hate it less.Dana Otto, Senior Manager of Change Management, Zendesk
“One of my main principles is: My goal is not to get people to like the change. My goal is to get them to hate it less,” Otto says.
To help you employees “hate it less,” focus on articulating your overarching vision for the change, and then communicate a plan for how to make it happen. More on that below.
Identify your stakeholders
A common mistake in the change management process is not fully understanding all people impacted by a potential change, according to Otto.
One example is implementing new customer service software. The change will obviously impact your support agents, but what about your support team managers? They will be affected too because the people they manage are impacted. The implementation might also require additional training for those managers, if they need administrative access to the software.
Work with your change team to identify who is impacted and how. Consider everyone from top executives to the most entry level employee. This can be done through proactive consultations, surveys, or pilot teams.
Then you can start to craft a change management plan that speaks to every stakeholders’ needs and priorities.
Communicate with your team
Before implementation, you should develop communication plans tailored to each stakeholder or stakeholder group, depending on the scale of the change. Different stakeholders will experience the change differently, and will need to respond differently.
Change communication should be sequenced, according to Otto. That means senior leaders and managers hear the news before their direct reports. This gives them the opportunity to educate themselves on the change, so they can be prepared to answer their direct reports’ questions later on.
While it might seem like diplomatic leadership to send everyone the same message at the same time, Otto says this is a mistake because it results in chaos—no one knows what’s going on or how to help. That's not the kind of organizational culture you want to create for your business.
Provide resources and support
Following the announcement of an organizational change, you should be looking at two basic measures of change management success, Otto says.
Are people aware of the change and rationale behind it?
Are people prepared to do their part to make the change happen?
A good first step is communicating widely on your company’s internal communication channels, such as email, Slack channels, or an employee knowledge base.
Documenting important information such as timelines, reporting structures, or deliverables is a must. Departmental staff should also talk to their teams about how the change impacts their day-to-day duties.
Change can be overwhelming. Continue talking with your team throughout the change process to help your team feel supported and appreciated.
Change management theories
Many companies rely on change management models to help structure their change management planning. These tools and theories provide a foundation to help understand how people experience change, and how leaders can guide their teams through the process.
These are a few of the most widely cited change models:
- Kübler-Ross Change Curve — The change curve is a chart showing the ups and downs people feel as they process change over time.
- ADKAR Model — The ADKAR model outlines five necessary outcomes you need to achieve for a successful organizational change.
- John Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change — This is a change management theory designed to help leaders accelerate change within their organizations.
It’s important to remember that these models are a guide, but implementing change is not a linear process.
For example, organizations might cycle through certain stages of the change journey a few times before they achieve company-wide adoption. You may also need to repeat the process multiple times as circumstances evolve.
Change management books
These change management books can help equip you for your organizational change journey, and come to terms with the reality that change is the only constant.
- Leading Change by John Kotter
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- Next is Now: 5 Steps for Embracing Change by Lior Arussy
- Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business As Usual by David Burkus
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Al Switzler, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan
- Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future by Kyle Nel, Thomas Zoega Ramsoy, and Nathan Furr
- The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger
- Imagine It Forward by Beth Comstock and Tahl Raz
- Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World by John Kotter
- Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions by John Kotter
Change demands empathy
Change is constant, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with emotionally. Humans are naturally resistant to change, and as we face even more disruption of our lives after the COVID-19 pandemic, changes can be even harder to swallow.
Otto’s advice for managing change during these uncertain times is to double down on empathy throughout the management process. “Right now, people need a ton of empathy,” she says. “People may be reacting to changes that you’re implementing at work in a different way than they normally would because they are experiencing change saturation.”
Especially now, people need to feel safe to say they are struggling, and change managers have a responsibility to listen, acknowledge their struggle and try to minimize distress.