Some useful models of change management

© 2020 Zoryna O’Donnell

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful,” said George Box, one of the great statistical minds of the 20th century.

He was right, of course, for every model, does not matter how elegant and well-known, is wrong because it is not a perfect representation of the phenomena it models. It is just an idealised (meaning simplified) representation of a part of the world.

And yet, simplifications of reality can be very useful. They can help us explain, understand and predict the world around us and all its various components. Just think about the London Tube map (which is one type of model) – it is wrong at so many levels, and yet it is still very useful!

The same goes for change management models which give us useful insights into various aspects of behaviour of individuals, organisations and systems undergoing change and transformation.  

Take, for example, Kurt Lewin’s Three Stages / Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze Model. Lewin, who was a physicist as well as a social scientist, explained organisational change using the analogy of changing the shape of a block of ice. His model presumes that certain customs and processes are built into the organisation. Before change can take place, the organisation must open itself up to the concept of change (unfreeze), then make the required changes and refreeze them again.

The Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model focuses on breaking people's resistance to change. In order to accomplish this, leaders must provide a motivation to venture out of their comfort zones. Once employees are given the motivation to embrace change, the process can begin. After it is completed, the change is permanently accepted as part of the company structure.

While the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model is undoubtedly effective, it has one key downside: it takes a long time to execute as leaders need to gradually encourage employees to come around to the inevitable.

Another popular and widely recognised model is Kotter’s 8-Step Model of Change. This model focuses on setting short-term goals and creating a sense of urgency to every member of the team. It is more detailed than Lewin’s and contains the following steps:

1.         Communicating the urgent need for change.

2.         Developing the coalition to guide change.

3.         Formulating the vision.

4.         Communicating the vision.

5.         Empowering employees and delegating duties to execute change.

6.         Setting short-term goals.

7.         Consolidating gains and setting longer-term goals.

8.         Ingraining new changes into the company culture.

For many organisations, the advantage of this model over the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model is that it makes change a collaborative process. For companies that strive to foster a sense of inclusiveness, participation and mutual accountability, this is a better model.

It is still one of the top-down change management models, so it may not be participative enough for smaller companies. The nature of small companies where employees tend to take multiple responsibilities and are more familiar with the entire operation of the business makes the process of communicating the change and vision rather artificial.

The Prosci ADKAR Model offers a different a different, bottom-up approach that focuses on the individuals behind the change, rather than the change itself.

The ADKAR Model is a goal-oriented approach to change-management. It requires businesses and individuals to set up incremental steps.

One of the unique things about the ADKAR Model is the focus on both, individual change and organisational change simultaneously. When individuals are helped to set their own goals, this can lead to them fostering change better. However, individual goals need to be sync and aligned with the direction of the company.

ADKAR stands for:

- Awareness - Convincing your employees that there is a real need for change.

- Desire - Having your employees personally invested in the initiative and gaining their support.

- Knowledge - Arming the employees with the right tools and knowledge to help carry out the change.

- Ability - The ability to use the knowledge gained and apply it in practice.

- Reinforcement - Implementing a system that makes sure your employees stick to the new routine.

This model is focusing on maximising the contribution of employees, which can be a confidence boost for them to work harder for the change. While this model emphasises the emotional aspect of human involvement in change, it is not too prescriptive about the actual management methods.

My personal favourite is a Congruence Model developed by David Nadler. He identified the following main aspects of the organisation which should be engaged and focused upon during the change process:

-       Tasks (the work to be done and its crucial characteristics);

-       Individuals (who are to perform tasks);

-       Formal organisational arrangements (including various structures, processes, systems etc. which are designed to motivate and facilitate people in the performance of tasks); and

-       informal organisational arrangements, also known as culture (including patterns of communication, power and influence, values and norms which characterise how an organisation actually functions).

According to Nadler, if those four aspects are not congruent, i.e. do not reinforce and complement each other, then the change cannot succeed. His hypothesis is that organisations will be most effective when their major components/aspects are congruent with each other.

Like other proponents of contingency approach, Nadler argued that there is no single best organisational design, management style, or method of working. His model recognises that people, tasks, structures, strategies, and cultures may be very different in different organisations and that different patterns of organisation and management will be most appropriate in different situations. It also helps to understand that organisations, as systems, are resistant to change.

According to Nadler, changing one component of an organisation may reduce its congruence with other components and unbalance the system, leading to an energy developing in the organisation to limit, encapsulate, or reverse the change. He pointed out at three main problems which can affect success rate of any organisational change.

Those are:

- Resistance to change (relates to individual component);

- Issues with organisational control (it is only too easy to lose it during a change, hence appropriate organisational arrangements should be designed for the transition period); and

- Power (organisational politics, the reactions of the informal organisation/culture to change).

Nadler pointed out that for a change initiative to be effective, all those three problems must be addressed. He also argued that managers need to be diagnostic in their approach to the problems of managing change.

Do you have a favourite model of change management?

Please share your insights in the comments.


Box, G. E. P., Norman R. D. (1987). Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces, Wiley.

Hiatt, J. (2006). ADKAR: A Model for Change in Business, Government, and Our Community. Prosci Learning Center Publications, Loveland, Colorado.

Kotter, J.P. (1996). “Leading Change,” Harvard Business School Press Edition 1996.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change. Human Relations 1.1 (1947)

Nadler, D.A. (2004). ‘Concepts for the management of organisational change’ in Mabey, C. and Mayon-White (eds.) Managing Change. 2nd ed. London: Paul Chapman Publishing in association with The Open University.

This article was first published on on 20/03/2020.

Image credit: geralt via Pixabay.