A series of dominos, representing change management
A series of dominos, representing change management

What Is Change Management?

Nothing will ever be the same again. At least, that’s what you tell your people after revealing the changes the company will be going through. Maybe you’ve secured a funding round, acquired a competitor, or are undergoing a complete reorganization. When you’re working on something that will fundamentally change your business, a change management strategy will help everyone emerge from the other side as a stronger, more cohesive group.

But what is change management, anyway? And how does it work?

A change management definition

Change management is an umbrella term covering multiple methodologies designed to handle big changes. Even if these methods are all a little different, they have this in common; each one covers the particular difficulties of making changes at the organizational level. They account for all the moving pieces and the challenges that can pop up when change affects multiple teams.

Change management originated in grief studies. Stick with me here. What is grief but a reaction to an unexpected, irreversible change? In the 1960s, consultants saw a correlation between the grief someone might feel after a personal loss and what teams and employees feel when deep changes affect their work life — think losing a department or leaving one job for another.

The various methods that people use to progress grief became the inspiration for early change management methods. Concepts that transferred over include the importance of time, communication channels, and the emotional impacts of change on the people affected.

The change management model

Dealing with change can be tough. It can be fraught with emotion as well as being unpredictable. That said, there are proven methods your organization can use to manage change at any level. All of these processes are based on the four following elements:

  • Determine the need for change: In an ideal situation, you’re the one in control of the change your organization is undergoing. Maybe you’ve decided to seek out new funding or your HR processes need a complete revamp. In these scenarios, the first step to making changes — and managing the fallout — is knowing change needs to happen. Otherwise, you turn situations you could have controlled into situations you won’t.
  • Prepare and plan: Now that you know changes are coming, you need to figure out what you’re going to do. Figure out whose help you’re going to need and get those people together early. Start mapping out which collaborators, teams, and partners will be affected by coming changes. Make a plan so you can figure out the impact of coming change and find ways to mitigate it.
  • Implement: Time to act! Take the plan you’ve created and put it into motion. Communicate excessively and transparently with everyone involved, keep track of the contributions of people you’ve recruited, and so on.
  • Sustain: Keep the change going. This might involve offering support to people affected by the change, adapting processes and workflows throughout the organization, and doing retrospectives to see how the change went.

Now that you have a better understanding of the foundation of change management, let’s go into specific processes you can use.

3 ways to handle the change management process

Now that you know what change management is, here are two of the most well-known change management models and how they work.

John Kotter’s 8-step process

This method is a holistic approach to change management that distills the whole process into eight actionable steps:

  1. Create a sense of urgency: Big changes will be easier if you get buy-in from your organization. Build a value proposition tailored to your people and present it in a high-energy, enthusiastic way.
  2. Build a guiding coalition: Change doesn’t trickle down. In order to successfully enact change within your company, you need guides from every level of the hierarchy. Find highly-motivated people and organize them into a group that you can rely on as your organization goes through this change.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives: Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. It’s a saying for a reason. When you build your strategy, you’re planting a flag in the ground that says “this is where we need to be.” Taking the time to craft initiatives tied-in with that vision gives you guiding posts you can follow to the end.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army: The guiding coalition is just the starting point. Important changes need to become a movement, something that inspires people to buy-in. When your organization has to undergo tremendous change, you need to get people on board.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers: With your volunteer army and your guiding coalition in place, you should have the information you need to identify blockers as they happen. Double-down on finding solutions for and breaking down the barriers between your company and your objective.
  6. Generate short-term wins: As Kotter himself says: “wins are the molecules of results.” When you set your initiatives, keep them achievable. When they’re completed, celebrate them! Making wins visible, no matter how small, gives your team the fuel they need to push through change.
  7. Sustain acceleration: Speaking of fuel, keeping the foot on the gas is important. As initiatives are completed, create and add new ones. This gives your teams something to focus on through change.
  8. Institute change: In the last stage of this methodology, it’s all about giving visibility to the benefits of change. When your organization sees improved results, make sure to tie them with the changes you’ve made. This helps solidify the new changes as they replace old habits.

Plan Do Check Act (PDCA)

Where Kotter’s system might focus more on the initial ramp-up to change management, the PCDA method is built with the cyclical nature of change in mind. There are four main steps to PDCA, which any change management initiative passes through:

  1. Plan: Any change begins with planning. Think of what needs to happen, what could happen, and potential blockers you might encounter.
  2. Do: Put your plan into motion. Execute on small aspects of your big change, collecting data as you do.
  3. Check: After collecting all that data, it’s time to examine the results. You might find that the change you implemented had unintended consequences.
  4. Act: Do your processes need adjustment? This is when you tailor your approach to the results of your observations. Then, you go through the whole cycle again.

The Prosci ADKAR model

The two previous processes are best suited to organizational and enterprise-level changes, whereas this option from Prosci is specifically tailored to individual change. This has five main elements:

  • Awareness of the need for change: As you’ve seen in the foundations of change management, knowing a change needs to happen is crucial.
  • Desire to participate and support in the change: This is an important element of individual level change. It’s tough to get commitment or buy-in from a whole organization, and sometimes you have to tell people they need to go along with your plan. But when you’re dealing with individual change, it’s important that you have the right mindset.
  • Knowledge of what to do during and after the change: This element encompasses planning for the right actions before the change but also checking in regularly to make sure what you’re doing is still contributing to your goal. It also has a focus on incorporating the change into your routine once it’s happened.
  • Ability to realize or implement the change as required: Knowledge is one thing, ability is another. You can sit, ponder, and plan for weeks, but that won’t mean you’ll be able to do what needs doing. That can depend on having the right resources, skills, or even just time.
  • Reinforcement to ensure the results of a change continue: Do you have the means to make sure the change is worth it? Change can be great, but if it peters out after a few days there’s not much point. What needs to happen to make the change permanent? Can it be done?

These five elements need to be evaluated before change is implemented to know just how ready you are. Before you proceed with a specific change, you should have at least four of these elements figured out. Any less and you need to find ways to shore up your weaknesses.

Empowering change management with the team coordination workflow

Change management is about bringing people together to reach a common goal. That needs to be done across teams and across departments. But it can be tough to keep the visibility you need to make sure that happens.

The team coordination workflow covers everything that needs to happen to keep a team of any size organized. It includes meetings, managing workload, and removing blockers. It’s about promoting collaboration and visibility.

These are things you need, no matter what change management model you implement. When you optimize your team coordination workflow, you’re making your organization better at handling change. This optimization can mean integrating multiple work management tools into one, so you can more clearly see what everyone’s working on. It might mean prioritizing asynchronous methods of communication so everyone has fewer meetings.

When you improve your workflows, your teams can promote and enact change rather than feeling like they’re just getting another thing added to their plate.

Change it up

Change is hard enough at a personal level. Make it company-wide and you’re dealing with a whole slew of challenges. With change management methods, you can plan ahead, react with agility, and make sure your organization comes out stronger on the other side.