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What is change management? Conquer it with this guide

January 20, 2022 - 23 min read

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What is change management?

Levels of change management

Considering the human side of change management

The six principles of change management

How to implement a change management plan

Change management: the challenges

Overcoming the change management challenge

They say change is the only constant. We'd argue resistance to change is another. And that has never been more true than in today’s rapidly-changing business environment.

Technology and globalization are driving change like never before. Organizations know they must adapt to survive.

But transitions are delicate processes. They must take into account the human factor while meeting the organization’s goals. Too many change management plans have covered every detail. Except for those pesky humans.

To succeed, you need a solid change management plan and a team of committed people to implement it. Not sure what change management is? Let’s take a deep dive into change management and the concept.

What is change management?

Why implement change management?

Changing your processes, operations, or tools requires support from management. You will also need buy-in from your employees.

Both groups tend to be resistant to change for different reasons.

Senior executives are often hard to convince. They don’t want to authorize changes that may be unpopular with employees.

They also might not see the value of the proposed change. Or perhaps they have a different opinion about the kind of changes needed.  What often goes unsaid is that large changes imply changes in budgets, resources, and influence. Change changes.


Employees are often resistant to change because they fear what change might bring. People fear increased workload, obsolete skill sets, vague expectations, or worse — getting fired.

That’s why change management puts the human factor at the center of the proposed changes.

An effective change management process guides the organization and all the people involved. It helps them get out of the current state, through the transition phase, and into the future state.


The 4 common models of change management

Thankfully, change management isn’t a new concept. There are established frameworks to organize, structure, and communicate change. While many different models of change management exist, some are more common than others.

Let’s take a look at four tried-and-true models of change management:

1. Lewin’s change management model

Psychologist Kurt Lewin developed this change model in 1947. It is one of the earliest change management theories.

Lewin’s model highlighted the need to go through a transition period to adapt to organizational change. 

In doing so, he defined change management as the process that manages that transition.

Lewin describes three stages of change management:

  1. Unfreezing old behaviors and ways of working
  2. Teaching new ones
  3. Freezing the new behaviors and ways of working


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2. Bridges’ transition model

This model, developed by William Bridges, puts people’s emotions at the center of the change management process.

Like Lewin, Bridges identifies three stages of change management. Each stage is linked to different emotions. 

The three stages described by Bridges are:

  1. Endings
  2. Neutral zone
  3. New beginnings


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3. Prosci’s ADKAR model

Prosci’s change model goes by the acronym ADKAR. It stands for:

A: Awareness of the need for change

D: Desire to support change

K: Knowledge of how to change successfully

A: Ability to adopt the new behaviors or skills

R: Reinforcement of the change (similar to Lewin’s concept of “freezing”).

Like Lewin and Bridges, Prosci also identified three stages of change.

They are: 

  1. Preparing for change
  2. Managing change
  3. Reinforcing change

4. Kotter’s 8-step change model

Kotter’s eight-step change model is a top-down approach. 

This is different from Lewin, Bridges, and Prosci. They take a bottom-up approach to change management.

The focus of Kotter’s model is to keep up the momentum of the change process and prevent the project from stalling.

Kotter’s eight-step process for managing change is:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Enable action by removing barriers
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Institute change


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Levels of change management

Change management takes place at three levels: individual, organizational, and enterprise.

Let’s take a look at how it works at each level.

1. Individual change management

At the individual level, employees must understand the change process and their role in it.

To support their team, an effective change manager should prioritize the following tasks:

  • Give clear instructions when assigning new tasks
  • Teach employees new behaviors
  • Motivate the team to implement the changes

Psychology and coaching principles can help people overcome their resistance to change

Often, just feeling supported is enough to help people adapt to the transition.

2. Organizational change management

Organizational change management is the process of implementing the proposed solutions and strategies.

Change at the organizational level requires a documented change management process. This document provides support and guidance for those affected by the proposed changes.

Identify the groups of people who will be involved in the change and define the actions they must take. 

Then create implementation plans for each level of the organization. These plans will help your employees implement the change.

3. Enterprise change management

Enterprise-level change occurs once the change management process is complete.

At this stage, the changes are embedded into the company. They should also be at the heart of the following areas:

The objective of enterprise-level change management is to create an agile and flexible organization, regardless of size.

The change management program should leave your company better able to adapt to market changes and new technology. 

Change management today

In the past, most companies had one goal: to steadily increase their market share and profits by maintaining the status quo. Change management, therefore, meant making small internal changes. The aim was to maintain balance. 

In today’s globalized market, however, the business landscape has changed radically. This change has the following drivers:

  • The opening of new commercial borders
  • Labor mobility
  • Global competition
  • Instant communication
  • Technological advances

21st-century companies need to be flexible and embrace a culture of change. This will help them stay relevant and profitable in an ever-changing market.

What does this mean for change management? For starters, organizational change management is more complex than it used to be. The changes are happening more rapidly and more often.

It might have made sense to create elaborate change and communication plans when the change was from one fixed system to another, on a scale that would only happen once in a decade. 

Companies today will face changes on both massive and more minor scales, more frequently. That requires new approaches to managing change in the organization.

What will change management look like in the future?

Change managers must devise effective strategies while taking into account the human element. This is essential for the change to be effective.

According to Prosci, the future of change management has three key elements.

1. Collaboration with other disciplines

In particular, change management will integrate more with project management. Collaboration between project managers and change managers will increase.

Change management will continue to incorporate new technology and research. This includes everything from social media to the latest discoveries in neuroscience.

2. Greater focus on building organizational change management abilities

Change requires agents at all levels. Companies will reinforce their internal capacity for change management. 

3. Ongoing development of change management professionals

Change management certification programs are growing in demand, although the jury is out on whether these certifications can achieve significantly better results.

Considering the human side of change management

People are at the center of any major organizational change. Every decision affects them, and you need their buy-in for your change management plan to succeed.

Keep the following principles in mind to ensure your team remains engaged and supported throughout changes.

Lean into company values: Align your proposed change management program with your organization’s culture, values, and behavior. Do this by holding regular meetings with line managers and their teams. 

Over-communicate: Communicate clearly and frequently with your teams. Explain the reasons behind the changes and give regular progress updates.

Encourage feedback and collaboration: Allow your team to participate as much as possible in the planning process. This will help align your decisions with the company culture.

The six principles of change management

In 2020, the risk of change fatigue among employees doubled following the COVID-19 outbreak.

At a time when organizations need to be more adaptable than ever, employees have lost their capacity to absorb change.

For this reason, change management processes must be more effective than ever.

These six principles of change can help minimize the impact on your team members:

1. Understand change 

The first step in successfully implementing change is for everyone to understand why it’s necessary and its benefits.

Executives and leaders must commit to the change process and understand its advantages. Understanding the change will help you explain its benefits to your employees. But to overcome the unarticulated, and even irrational, fear of change, you have to do more than explain its benefits.

The most successful change occurs when management and employees feel the need for change, see a compelling opportunity, and have trust and confidence in leadership. 

You must also help them understand the negative consequences of not implementing the change.

To fully understand the change process, it is necessary for everyone to know:

  • The objectives and reasons for the change
  • The benefits for the organization
  • The impact on staff and their work
  • Their role in making the change effective

2. Plan change 

To help ensure change happens smoothly, you should develop a formal written plan. It will serve as a roadmap for your change process. It will also align executives and working groups on the goals of the project. Don't get so lost in the details that you lose sight of the compelling vision. Understanding milestones is critical. So, too, is realism about how much of the detail will shift and get new dates and details as the change process begins.

To create an effective change plan for your organization, you should:

  • Get consensus and support from executive-level sponsors
  • Plan how to generate support and commitment from your employees
  • Identify internal and external sources of support, as they will help develop the strategy and implement the change process
  • Measure the impact the change will have on vendors, clients, and human resources, and include potential adverse outcomes

Your change plan should include:

  • A comparison of the current reality and the future vision after the change
  • Clear articulation of the benefits and reasons behind the change
  • Evidence that the organization can meet the stated objectives
  • Details of the decisions and changes to be made at each level

3. Implement change

Once you have your change plan, you can start implementing change.

Appoint committed change agents at every level of the company to help you achieve the project objectives.

Train these employees so they can answer questions and guide their teammates through the transition. Managers should act as role models and coaches.

4. Communicate change 

Effective communication is essential for the success of the change management process. Yet change managers often focus their efforts on creating detailed plans. In doing so, they neglect communication with their teams. 

As a change leader, it’s essential to provide regular updates to all stakeholders. These should be clear and easy to understand. 

One way to improve communication is through bilateral meetings. These are also an opportunity for leaders to receive feedback from their teams.

During these meetings, remain calm and respectful when discussing the change process. This will help prevent strong emotional reactions from your employees.

But too often even the best-detailed communication plans fail to open a channel of communication, which is so necessary to understand resistance and address fear.

Communicate the benefits arising from early wins. Let the early adopters go first and then make their stories so compelling everyone else will want to jump on board, too.

5. Encourage ownership

For the change process to succeed, leaders at all levels must have a sense of ownership.

When people are invested in a project, they see it as their responsibility and are motivated to make it happen.

One of the best ways to encourage ownership is to involve leaders in the change process in their areas of influence.

Rather than managing them, take a coaching approach. Allow them to intervene in the process and look for solutions to problems that may arise in their team’s day-to-day work.

Involving leaders in the process and keeping them informed will also reduce their resistance to change. This is important when making decisions that will affect the implementation of the change process.

You can also incentivize ownership by offering rewards to your employees. Reward leaders who take on new responsibilities and make decisions that help achieve the objectives.

6. Assess the cultural landscape 

A successful change process requires commitment at every level of the organization. 

For this reason, it’s essential to take into account the cultural background of your employees. Knowing your colleagues’ beliefs, behaviors, and perceptions can help prevent possible problems. 

It also shows your employees that you’re trustworthy and committed to making changes that benefit people at all levels of the company.

Additionally, it will help you assess whether the organization is prepared for the proposed changes.


How to implement a change management plan

An effective change management process guides the organization and all the people involved. It helps them get out of the current state, through the transition phase, and into the future state.

Follow these tips for successful implementation:

  • Support your employees as they go through the behavior change process
  • Make sure everyone understands what will happen and how it will affect their work
  • Monitor progress and carry out regular assessments
  • Look for gaps in knowledge and skills and address them with training
  • Identify the key stakeholders and define their level of commitment and participation in the change

The five most important skills for change managers

The good news is there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to change management leadership. Any kind of leader can learn the skills required to manage change effectively.

These are the top five skills needed for the job:

1. Emotional intelligence

Employee resistance is common during organizational transformation processes.

In general, people are resistant to change because of one primary driving emotion: fear.

This may be fear of the unknown, fear of losing their job, or fear of their role changing or increased responsibilities.

Fear makes people act in irrational ways and is the root of a whole host of other emotions.

2. Clear communication

Excellent communication skills are a requirement for any leader. During a change management transition, communication must be clear and detailed. 

When managing a change process, you must clearly communicate the reasons behind the change and the procedures to follow. 

This will improve the chances of your change management strategy being successful.

3. Transparency

Going through a change initiative can be a sensitive process. This is especially true when it involves firing people.

However, it’s essential to be as transparent as possible with your employees. This will build trust and help ease their fears.

Have an open-door policy so that colleagues can come to you privately with their concerns.

4. Coaching

A change manager should have the skills to coach their teammates through the transition process.

Leaders can train middle management in coaching techniques. This builds a coaching culture throughout the organization.

Coaching increases resilience, which will help employees navigate the transition period. Successful change management requires leaders to have a high level of personal resilience.

Resilience helps you overcome the challenges of change implementation and achieve results.

5. Strategic thinking and attention to detail

Change management requires you to see the big-picture vision. At the same time, you need to stay focused on the day-to-day details as you move through the transition.


Change management: the challenges

Change management is challenging by nature. To help you prepare, we’ve identified four of the most common change management challenges.

Change managers can mitigate the effects of these challenges using the solutions below.

1. Picking the right team

Creating a team of reliable change agents who can successfully implement the change program is a challenge.

You need your best people involved in the project, but they already have their work to do.

Change managers should look for people willing to go the extra mile to ensure positive results. To identify those people, have conversations with colleagues and line managers. 

Don’t just accept anyone who volunteers. Instead, find out from their coworkers what they’re really like. This will help make sure you pick the best people for the job.

2. Boosting commitment

Your change initiative needs commitment from both senior management and the employees who will have to deal with the changes.

You can overcome many objections by having regular conversations with stakeholders at all levels.

Be transparent and honest in your communication. This will help maintain support and commitment to the change project.

3. Balancing efforts

One of the biggest reasons your employees are resistant to change is that they are busy. 

They’re worried that the change process will mean more work for them. And often, they’re right.

The change management project team should calculate how much the change will increase each employee’s workload.

If the increase is more than 10% for any individual, look for ways to redistribute their tasks. 

This will prevent the changes from affecting some people more than others. It will also reduce the risk of overwhelm, burnout, and change fatigue.

4. Managing the duration of the change program

People often think that a change program should be short to succeed.

They believe long, drawn-out transition processes gradually lose support and commitment over time.

But according to research by Harvard Business Review, that’s not true. In fact, longer projects that are regularly reviewed are more likely to succeed than shorter projects.

This means the time between reviews is more critical for success than the overall duration.

A change management project should have clearly defined objectives, roles, and responsibilities.

Keep track of progress by conducting assessments every six to eight weeks. This will help identify gaps, challenges, and new risks.

Overcoming the change management challenge

Organizations that embrace change management have an advantage over those that don’t. 

They are more likely to stay relevant and profitable. This is why it’s worth facing the challenges of change management.

Apply the principles and tips set out in this article to overcome resistance and implement lasting change.

If you need extra support guiding your company through the change process, discover how BetterUp’s expert coaches can help you.New call-to-action

Published January 20, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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