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As a project manager, you know that change is inherent in your job. Whether you’re dealing with minor tweaks or sweeping changes on the organizational level, navigating smooth transitions is essential for success. 

But what is change management exactly? And what if you don’t have all the tools and information at hand to make informed decisions?

Fortunately, this guide has got you covered! In this post, I’ll discuss various types of change management models and explore tips for implementing those changes within your organization. 

By the end of this post, project managers will feel equipped with an ultimate guide to managing different levels and approaches to successful change projects. So keep reading to unlock powerful insights into strategic decision-making and facilitate effective organizational transformation!

What Is Change Management?

Change management is an essential part of project management, as it helps ensure a smooth transition when organizing or executing any organizational or project-related changes. Change can come in many forms including: 

  • Changes caused by project delivery, such as a systems implementation
  • Changes caused by project scope revision, causing a change in the project plan
  • Organizational changes not driven by specific projects you are managing

This article focuses on change management in general, as change is a predictable process and humans react similarly to all change, regardless of type.

Change is happening all around us, all the time. The better we know how to lead, manage, and adapt to change, the more effective (and happier) we will be overall. 

Change management models are pivotal in ensuring that all key stakeholders involved have a clear understanding of the changes and their associated processes. 

Without effective change management, project managers may be faced with unexpected problems and roadblocks (often due to poor adoption) that disrupt timelines and budgets.

If you want to be a successful project and change manager, having a sound knowledge of change management methodologies is crucial for successful outcomes.

Organizational Change Vs. Project Change

When initiating change within a business organization or project, it is important to understand the differences between organizational change and project-related change. Organizational change and project change both involve major shifts in daily operations, but the two are separate concepts.

  • Organizational change refers to any major institution-wide modifications, from how people process information to shifts in company culture and philosophies. 
  • Project change involves shifting specific aspects of a particular project, such as adding more deadlines or resources for completing tasks.

Understanding these distinctions will help project managers effectively implement change management plans for their respective projects and organizations in order to ensure smoother transitions when implementing new initiatives, especially in situations where project delivery involves a shift in organizational process or culture.

Why Is Change Management Important?

Change management is important for several reasons, most of which revolve around adapting to the environment and changing what we do to stay competitive. Remember Kodak the camera company? Some of you probably do, and some of you don’t! 

Those of you that do likely remember film cameras. Sadly, Kodak did not effectively change to digital fast enough to be a market leader. Kodak’s inability to change quickly and innovate led to the downfall of the organization. Let’s be sure this doesn’t happen to you. 

Here are some fresh takes on why change management is important for your organization’s long-term success: 

  • Change is a constant in today's fast-paced business environment. Organizations that fail to adapt to changing market conditions risk falling behind their competitors. Effective change management helps organizations stay agile and responsive to changing customer needs, new technologies, and emerging trends (remember Kodak).
  • Change management helps mitigate any negative impact of changes on employees and stakeholders. Changes can be disruptive and unsettling for people, leading to resistance or even sabotage. Effective change management strategies help communicate the rationale behind changes, address concerns, and build support and buy-in among stakeholders while minimizing chaos (you want chaos minimized, trust me).
  • Change management encourages changes to be implemented in a structured and controlled manner. This reduces the risk of errors or oversights that could result in costly downtime or other negative consequences.
  • Effective change management can improve employee engagement and morale by involving employees in the process of implementing changes (and again, minimizing chaos). When employees feel like they have a say in how changes are made, they are more likely to embrace them and work towards their success. People crave control, and when people feel like they have influence, they feel in control and are much more likely to play nice, even when things get tough. 

Change management can help organizations achieve their strategic goals by ensuring that changes align with overall business objectives. By taking a holistic approach to change management that considers both technical aspects and the human factors involved, organizations can maximize the chances of success.

Don’t believe me? Think about pretty much any layoff that caused negative long-term impacts that the organization didn’t anticipate. Across each of these examples, poor change management is a likely cause (sorry if this example is too real, it’s too real for me, too).

Change management is important because it enables organizations to adapt to changing market conditions while minimizing disruption and maximizing engagement among stakeholders. 

By implementing changes in a structured and controlled manner that aligns with overall business objectives, organizations can ensure long-term success in an ever-changing landscape (and avoid being a distant memory, like Kodak).

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The 7 Rs Of Change Management

The seven Rs of change management.

One of the more popular change management models comes from ITIL’s Seven Rs of change management, which can be used to frame any change endeavor. 

Each element or each of the seven Rs is critical to understanding and planning the change, and each element can be phrased as a question to prompt a discussion on change management planning. 

  1. Who raised the change? Ensure you know where the change request and driver is coming from at the start. As the change progresses, you’ll want to be able to answer the question “who’s idea was this, anyway?” The person who raises the change is important to include in the change process as a resource and coach for implementation of the change. Pro Tip: Document the requestor for all changes. If you can, use a consistent intake form and gather that information in a systematic way.
  2. What is the reason for the change? Does the reason for the change make sense? If not, get with the person that raised the change and get to the bottom of the underlying cause or reason that the change was suggested. Understand why the change was raised and gather evidence to support the suggested change as you’ll probably need it later when working through the “why” with people the change impacts. 
  3. What return is required from the change? What is the expected outcome when the change is implemented? What positive outcome or benefits are expected? Does the benefit outweigh the cost? The expected return from the change should inform the priority of the change. 
  4. What are the risks involved in the change? All change involves some type of risk. Risks can be have either a negative or positive impact, and some are more likely than others.
Here's a simple way to think about the probability and impact of risk.

Not all risks are created equally. Some are a minor annoyance, where some will stop you dead in your tracks. The probability and impact of a risk determine its true importance. 

Risk matrices like these can help you categorize risks and create mitigation plans accordingly.

A risk matrix focuses on the likelihood of a risk becoming impactful, and the estimated impact of the risk if realized. Lower impact and likelihood risks are managed differently than high impact and likelihood risks. 

5. What resources are required to deliver the change? Change requires resources! Determine whether there are sufficient resources available to support the change. If the resources are not yet available, work with the person who raised the change, the organization's leadership team, and the change management team to determine if the change is urgent, and if so, how to properly support the change using resource allocation methods.

6. Who is responsible for the “build, test, and implement” portion of the change? The responsible party question is age-old for project managers, especially in organizations where projects are continually under-resourced. Be sure the change has appropriate resources to support determining an individual or team who is responsible for the heavy lifting in the project or change. If everyone is responsible, then no one is! Be clear about this and consider using a RACI chart to document responsibilities across the team.

7. What is the relationship between this change and other changes? Consider the relationship between the change in question and other changes going on both inside and outside of the impacted organization. For example, consider the experience of facilities project managers working to move employees from one office to another in March 2020—how do you think that went for them?

The context and internal and external environment impacting your change is essential to acknowledge. If you miss this point, you might still drive your change, but you’ll be seen as tone-deaf and insensitive to the needs of others, which will limit your successful or positive impact in the future. 

The 7 Rs might seem simple, but they are not to be overlooked! By recognizing each of these 7 Rs as a potential barrier or benefit that could influence project outcomes and managing them accordingly, project managers can better manage risks and ensure smoother transitions for teams throughout the change process.

Types Of Change Management

Various types of change occur through different organizations. Three common types of change are most often described: 

  1. Organization-wide Change: Organizational change management is an encompassing term that refers to any type of change which affects the entire organization. This can include restructuring, rebranding, changes to operations and processes, adding new processes, or even mergers and acquisitions.
  2. Transformational Change: Transformational change focuses on fundamental shifts in an organization's structure, culture, and workflows. It usually involves a large-scale implementation of innovative strategies, processes, or technologies that move the organization away from traditional methods.
  3. Developmental Change: Developmental change is more incremental and focuses on improving current processes rather than completely changing them. It typically involves smaller adjustments such as implementing new tools, adapting or refining current systems, or making modifications to workflow structures. Iteration could be considered developmental change, especially when executed consistently over time. 
  4. Transitional Change: Transitional change seeks to bridge gaps between existing and new practices within an organization. While it is often used during times of transition or transformation, it may also be employed when an organization has a need for improved efficiency or updated capabilities but isn't ready for a full overhaul of existing systems. In other words, when the conditions are not right for transformational change, transitional change might be used to bridge the gap between the status quo and the future state.

The Change Management Process

Change management is a necessary process for project managers to understand, as it allows them to effectively plan and institute changes within their organization or project.

From operational adjustments to process revisions, a consistent and successful change management process can help prevent disruption and ensure smooth transitions. 

Many change management processes are used across industries, but most have a few things in common which can be distilled to a simple 3-step high-level process for managing change. 

First, change leaders and change agents define and prepare for the change, next the change is implemented and managed, and finally, the change is adopted and maintained. If this simple model appeals to you, learn more about an effective 3-stage change management process in this article!

What Are Change Management Models?

Change management models provide project managers with valuable tools to successfully implement organizational and project-related changes. These models include frameworks that help them identify, assess, and manage the necessary changes and resources needed to complete the projects they oversee. 

Change management models also provide project managers with processes that aid in understanding change, establishing goals, managing risk, educating stakeholders and team members, optimizing resources, developing plans of action, monitoring progress and milestones throughout the duration of the project, and ultimately achieving the desired outcome. 

By using these models as guidance, project managers are better equipped to handle any unexpected obstacles that may arise during a project’s execution phase.

Yes, there are MANY models for change management, some more useful than others. I have personally tried many different models across organizational contexts and projects and I’m excited to share a few of my favorites. 

Lewin’s Model of Change

Kurt Lewin, a very popular change theorist, introduced a 3-stage model of change which is easy to understand.

In this model, Lewis describes a 3-stage process for change where the first step is to unfreeze, or melt the status quo, preparing for the desired change. Next, in step 2, the change is implemented. 

Finally, in step 3, the context or landscape is solidified through a refreeze, which would theoretically allow the process to start again, with the unfreeze step. 

  • Unfreezing: breaking the status quo and introducing a change
  • Changing: actually executing the change 
  • Refreeze: locking the change in place as the new normal.

I like this model because of how simple it is for folks to understand, especially non-project managers. This is the key change management model included in many human resources curriculum, including certification prep courses. 

It just makes sense that we would prepare for and decide to change, change, and then stop changing. Easy as pie! That said, personally I find this model to be not so helpful in answering the very typical question of “what do I need to do next?”

Prosci ADKAR Model

The ADKAR model is a popular model amongst change practitioners, and there are certifications associated with this model, which was created by Jeffrey Hiatt. 

The ADKAR model focuses on the people involved in the change process and focuses on getting people on-board with your change in order for it to be successful.

ADKAR is an abbreviation where each letter represents a stage in the model, and each element represents a goal that can be achieved at any time; the model does not require linear execution. 

The ADKAR model of change.

I like the ADKAR model because it is people-focused, where many other models are change or management-focused. 

In fact, the ADKAR model is often referred to when people attempt to drive bottom-up change, or change driven by the lower-levels of the organization, rather than by leadership at the top dictating what is to happen like a royal decree. 

ADKAR is one of the most well-recognized change models for people-focused or bottom-up change, but it somewhat ignores the complexity of change and the relationship to the top-level strategic goals of the organization. 

For this reason, ADKAR is probably better suited to smaller change initiatives, such as moving from Scrum to Kanban in a small team.

Kübler-Ross Change Curve

The Kübler-Ross Change Curve is hands-down one of my absolute favorite models of change, as it is a typically spot-on predictor of a person’s reaction to change.

This model was originally theorized as a model for processing grief, but is directly applied to change in many contexts because unfortunately, regardless of the content of the change, change is always viewed as negative by someone who is grieving the status quo or the “old way.”

Once we understand how people react to change, we can develop solutions to help get them what they need to be successful or move to the next step in the change process.

An illustration of the Kübler-Ross change model.

I like this model because it very well describes how people react to change at an emotional level. This is the human side of change; we are all humans (hopefully), which means we all react emotionally to change; we can’t help it! 

While this model is a great predictor of response, it doesn’t necessarily describe what to do next in the context of an organization or project-driven change, so you might consider coupling this model with another more technical approach to change management. 

The Satir Change Model

The Satir Change Model is one of the most universally useful models of change I have encountered as it integrates the emotional response described in the Kübler-Ross Change Curve with stages of change. 

Virginia Satir is known as the mother of what we know today as psychotherapy. She created her change framework after observing families and individuals navigate a wide range of changes.

Satir focused on how individuals navigate change, try to cope, and the impact of the change on human relationships with others. 

The Satir model of change (source).

I love this model because it blends the art and science of change management and navigating human reactions to change. In Satir’s book, The Satir Model, each step is outlined with interventions to help move to the next stage, as well as examples and stories from her practice in implementing and testing the model. 

Some hardcore technical change practitioners might not like this model because it is rooted in psychotherapy practices, but I can assure you that this model is time-tested and battle-hardened.

When I’m driving change, this is the macro-level model I use to talk about where we are, what’s happening now, where we’re going, and what we need to do to get there. 

Kotter’s Change Theory

I’m pretty sure it's a mortal sin to develop a change management guide without mentioning Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, as he’s written most of the foundational change management books that change consultants refer to today. 

Kotter has explored change through many different lenses, but his 8-step change model is the most popular across the literature. 

Unlike some of the other models mentioned above, Kotter’s model is a step-by-step guide to driving change and focuses on what to do rather than individual’s reactions or feelings.

For this reason, Kotter’s model is often used by highly process-driven groups who want a roadmap to change completion. 

Kotter's 8 step change model.

I like using Kotter’s model as a hands-on tool with new change practitioners because it provides a guide for what to do. I do however typically overlay the Satir Change Model on top of Kotter's model as a macro view of how people are going to react over time as the change progresses. 

Example Of Conscious Change Management

A friend of mine once worked for a website design agency that had been tasked with revamping the online presence of a large retailer. The agency had a talented team of designers and developers who were excited to take on the project, but they quickly realized that the client's internal team was resistant to change. 

The retailer's team had been managing their website for years and were set in their ways. They were hesitant to embrace new ideas or approaches, even if it meant improving the user experience and increasing sales. 

To be blunt, the retailer’s website was running on infrastructure that was so outdated that they couldn’t support adding more items to the catalog. Clearly a change was needed, but the retailer’s employees had resisted change so dutifully that they had reached a physical limit which forced the change. 

The agency knew that artful change management would be crucial to the success of the project. They began by building relationships with key stakeholders within the retailer's organization. They listened to their concerns and ideas, and worked collaboratively to develop a plan that would meet everyone's needs.

As you could imagine, it was slower to start than anticipated because the retailer’s employees really didn’t want the change! Change was being thrust upon them, and their hard work was now being criticized.

The agency had to be careful about how they critiqued the current website and had to lead the retailer’s employees through an activity to identify changes that needed to be made. 

Next, they focused on communication. The agency made sure that all parties involved were aware of what was happening at each stage of the project, including any changes or updates. This helped build trust and transparency between both teams. 

Similar to the website team at the retailer, some leaders were also very set in their ways about how the website looked and functioned; the agency team had to work through that hand-in-hand with leadership. 

The agency also provided training and support throughout the process, making sure that everyone understood how to use the new website features and tools.

This not only helped ease heightened fears about change but also empowered employees to take ownership of their work in new ways. Retailer employees began maintaining and adding sections to the new website, and finally started to embrace the change as potentially, maybe, perhaps, positive.

As the project progressed, it became clear that the change management efforts of the agency paid off. The retailer's team became more engaged in the process and started contributing more actively to its success. And when it came time for launch day, everyone was excited about unveiling their newly designed website together.

Thanks to effective change management facilitated by the agency, this website redesign project exceeded expectations. It not only improved user experience but also increased sales for the retailer and allowed their catalog to grow online. 

Most importantly, it showed how collaboration and a conscious attempt to guide and influence using proven change management methods can lead to remarkable outcomes for businesses big and small alike.

Read more change management examples here.

Change Management Vs. Change Leadership

Change management and change leadership are two distinct concepts that are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings.

Change management refers to the processes, tools, and techniques used to manage change. It involves planning, implementing, monitoring, and leading changes in an organization's structure, processes or technology.

Change management typically focuses on minimizing resistance to change and ensuring that changes are implemented smoothly.

Change leadership is about driving organizational transformation by inspiring and motivating individuals to embrace change. Change leadership involves creating a strategic vision for change, communicating it effectively to stakeholders, and empowering them to take ownership of the transformation process.

Unlike change management, which is focused on managing resistance to change, change leadership seeks to create a culture of innovation, adaptation, and continuous improvement.

In short, change management is concerned with the technical aspects of implementing changes while change leadership is focused on inspiring people to drive those changes forward and adopt new behaviors. After all, change is learning, and learning is behavior change. 

Change Management Software

Project managers should not go into change alone, including without tools! Proper tools are critical to effective project management and change planning (because, of course, these two tasks have a ton in common!). 

Here are a few reasons you should consider change management software

  • Change management software can help streamline your change management process by providing a place for managing all aspects of the process over time including tracking the 7 Rs, changes, communications, and more. 
  • Change management software can improve collaboration among team members and stakeholders. By providing a shared platform for communication and documentation (such as communication plans), everyone involved in the change management process can stay on the same page and work together more effectively.
  • Change management software can help ensure compliance with regulatory requirements or industry standards. Many industries have strict regulations around how changes are managed, documented and approved. Change management software can provide an auditable trail of all changes made to systems or processes, which is critical for compliance purposes.
  • Adopting change management software can save time and reduce errors associated with manual processes. Manually tracking changes using spreadsheets or email chains is time-consuming and prone to errors. Change management software automates many of these tasks, freeing up project managers to focus on higher-level tasks.
  • Change management software provides valuable analytics that can be used to improve future change efforts. By analyzing data and metrics such as success rates of past changes or areas where resistance was highest, project managers can identify areas for improvement in their approach to managing organizational changes.

Adopting change management software can help project managers streamline the change management process, improve collaboration among team members and stakeholders, ensure compliance with regulations or industry standards, save time and reduce errors associated with manual processes and provide valuable analytics that inform future improvements. 

If these are not valuable in your organization or from your perception as a project manager, a) I’m impressed because it sounds like you’re doing all of these things manually and with accuracy, b) you’re probably working too hard and need a vacation. 

Consider these change management and project management software tools to make your life better:

Prepare To Change!

Whether you are implementing a new technology or restructuring your organization, effective change management can be the difference between success and failure.

By understanding the different models of change management and utilizing software tools to automate and streamline the process, project managers can ensure that changes are implemented smoothly and efficiently.

So now it's over to you—what are your favorite or most effective change management models?

I shared mine, and now I want to learn about yours! Let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter to stay up to date on all things digital project management and change. 

By Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is an agilist and digital project manager with a passion for people, process, and technology and more than 15 years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting, and technology firms. In her day-to-day, Liz works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR software company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. Liz also teaches an Operations Leadership course in the MBA program at the University of Portland, and is working towards completing a Doctorate at the University of Southern California in Organizational Change and Leadership. Liz holds numerous project management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work.