Charles Darwin described a system in nature where the species that best adapt to new surroundings have the highest probability of survival.
It turns out that the theory of evolution holds true for modern organizations, too. Where would Amazon be if it didn't evolve from selling books to selling, well, everything?
The difference is that organizational change doesn't just happen by natural selection. It takes an intentional plan to guide a team from one way of doing things to another.
That's where change management models come in.
Change management models are methodologies developed by business leaders and sociologists that help guide teams through organizational shifts and transformations. They’re like roadmaps with signposts and waypoints leaders can use to plan and check progress.
But organizational changes don’t all happen on the same scale. Some are complete paradigm transformations, and others are incremental improvements. So change models can’t be one-size-fits-all either.
In this guide, we’ve mapped six of the most popular types of change management models to three types of organizational change. With the right change management strategy, your organization will evolve in the most efficient way possible and become the fittest to survive.
Developmental change is an incremental improvement to a preexisting process or procedure. It’s sometimes called adaptive change and is the type of transition teams will see most frequently.
Amazon’s anticipatory shopping model is an excellent example of a developmental change initiative. The online marketplace giant built algorithms into their stock prediction model that guess when you’re likely to order a product. They then make sure to keep stock located as close to you as possible so that when you order it’s magically at your door in three hours.
Adding those algorithms did alter how Amazon managed stock. But it didn’t significantly disrupt the organization, cause large cultural shifts, or put any major systems at risk of failure. So it also didn’t meet with a lot of internal resistance—all characteristics of a developmental change.
Developmental change management models
Frequent, low-risk, low-resistance changes call for organizational change management models that focus on continuous improvement and tactical guidance. A common use case is implementing new technologies that improve, rather than disrupt, workflow.
Kotter 8-Step Process
This model, created by Harvard University Professor John Kotter, pairs well with developmental changes because it works by promoting short-term wins and following up to make sure a single change “sticks.”
The linear design of the framework moves users through eight intentional steps designed to get buy-in quickly and complete the change process.
Each step of the model builds upon the previous one.
Create a sense of urgency: Get people fired up to take action quickly
Build a guiding coalition: Recruit a team of peers to manage the change
Form a strategic vision: Codify the ideal future
Enlist a volunteer army: Create a list of people who will enact the change
Remove: look for obstacles that will slow or stall the change and remove them
Generate short-term wins: Publicly celebrate each milestone of the process
Sustain acceleration: Repeat the vision, reiterate the wins, and keep stakeholders excited
Institute change: Make sure management backs the change and continues to review it until it’s solidified
While the number of steps involved in the Kotter model makes it feel more cumbersome than others on this list, you can do each one quickly. In a single meeting, you can create a sense of urgency with a team of process leaders while sharing the strategic vision.
Plan, Do, Check, Act
The PDCA cycle is a circular organizational change management strategy for continuously evaluating and completing iterative changes. You’d complete each of the four steps in order to conceive, enact, and improve a change.
During the Plan stage, you’ll identify the problem you need to solve, the resources and steps it’ll take, and the indicators that the change was successful.
The Do stage is for applying the plan in a small subset of situations or over a set period. The idea is to have a low-risk event to review in the next step.
You’ll review the results of the test in the Check stage. Did it net the outcome you hoped for? If not, adjust and run it through another trial.
Once satisfied with the outcome, take what you learned in the first three steps and launch it in the Act phase.
Transitional change initiatives are more extensive in scope than developmental shifts. It often involves replacing an existing system with something new instead of simply improving it.
Amazon’s move to electrify its delivery fleet is the perfect example. They’re still doing the same job of selling and delivering goods via an online marketplace. But they’re replacing the current delivery method—gas-powered vehicles—with electric trucks, drones, and robots. They’ll need to reskill mechanics, adjust accounting methods (no more gas to buy), and figure out a recharging infrastructure that keeps trucks on the road.
These changes are less frequent but can cause some discord in company culture—like if you’re a diesel mechanic asked to now work on electric vehicles.
Developmental change management models
Change models that address transitional changes should consider the practical job of replacing a system or process and managing the resistance to change.
McKinsey 7S Model
The McKinsey 7S model has been around since the 1980s. The strength of this model is that it helps you visualize how multiple aspects of your organization or project interact. That way, project management happens more holistically rather than piecemeal.
There are seven organizational components in the McKinsey model.
Structure: How your project or organization is structured (i.e. hierarchical vs. flat)
Systems: All of the procedures and processes needed to complete a change
Strategy: A plan of action based on company values that will lead to a competitive advantage
Skills: Core competencies required to complete a transition
Staff: The project’s available workforce
Style: The culture and code of conduct, usually dictated by the management’s style
Shared values: The ethos and mission of an organization or project team
The McKinsey model is often used to determine which changes should be made instead of just managing the act of changing. The idea is to review each step and locate which elements aren’t aligned with the others.
Instead of focusing on management, the Prosci ADKAR model frontloads individual contributor education and motivation in the change process.
The plan is built around five elements, each carrying participants through a distinct phase of transition.
Awareness: Introduce the need for change
Desire: Share evidence of benefits to gain confidence and excitement
Knowledge: Train employees on the new process
Ability: Implement the procedure
Reinforcement: Sustain the change
Following the ADKAR method pushes you to consider how contributors at all levels should prepare for new business processes.
Transformational change is defined by a complete redirection of a company or project’s identity, product, and market. It may include restructuring an organization until it’s almost unrecognizable. A true transformation is a rare event, especially for mature teams.
However, this is precisely the type of change Amazon experienced when, in 1998, the company expanded beyond its role as an online bookseller and became a marketplace with millions of products on offer. Employees that may have been in it for the love of literature had to become true e-commerce professionals.
Change initiatives like these can completely disrupt culture. Few systems remain the same. And there’s a lot of potential for risk as the organization aims for new goals.
Transitional change management models
With the upheaval that comes from such drastic transformations comes shock, apprehension, and confusion. Change management processes will need to help guide their employees and collaborators through the transition.
Lewin’s change management model
Kurt Lewin was a German-American physicist and psychologist that pioneered organizational psychology in the 1940s. His model for organizational change initiatives is based on the transformation of water from an inflexible solid to a malleable liquid and back to a solid again.
Lewin believed that leading change means understanding the forces that drive change and the forces that resist it. Then you “unfreeze” the system by increasing forces that drive change, reducing forces that resist change, or both. Finally, you “refreeze” the organization by reinforcing the new system.
Lewin’s model is focused on the collective psychology of a team. So the forces he mentioned are the beliefs and values of the organization. Those are what need to be understood, unfrozen, changed, and refrozen.
The value of this model for transitional changes is its focus on adopting culture and attitudes—an important aspect of large paradigm shifts.
Satir change model
Like Lewin, Virginia Satir was also a psychologist interested in how people adapt to change. Also like Lewin, Satir’s change model is more about helping people adjust to new ideas rather than the nuts and bolts of implementing change.
The Satir framework is built around five stages of change.
Late status quo: Business as usual just before a change
Resistance: Pushback against changing after an event that suggests the need to do something differently
Chaos: Stress and confusion during uncontrolled
Integration: Trying out ideas to adapt
New status quo: New methods become the norm
With Satir’s model in mind, a change leader can offer their team the correct type of support, feedback, and information at the right time.
Align everyone during change
Unlike the evolution of the duck-billed platypus or Darwin’s finches that took place over thousands of years, organizational change is measured in months.
Efficient transitions at that speed only happen when the entire team is aligned. That's particularly true for large projects that rely on coordination across multiple organizations.
To get buy-in from thousands of people working for multiple companies, you’ll need to create a compelling case for change and bring receipts. That means providing a clearly stated vision of the post-change world. It also means delivering proof of that vision on a common platform everyone can access and interact with. Whether it’s financial data, resource plans, or a real estate portfolio, timely transformation hinges on the free flow of information across all the teams that make change happen.