Definition: Change management is a term to describe the continuously evolving organizational discipline and processes for actively discovering, developing, introducing, implementing, and maintaining the myriad individual, group, and system-level changes that lead to a desired way of operating.
Note: there is a lot to unpack in that change management definition, including what isn’t said. You are in the right place if you’d like to go deeper.
Table of Contents
- Defining change management
- Why is change management important?
- Change management definition deep-dive
- The three levels of change management
- Change management basics
- Change management frameworks and models
- A brief history of change management
Defining change management
Finding a definition of change management can take you down all sorts of paths. Some define it based purely on the broad academic field of study. In contrast, others define it in the context of a particular implementation, such as a change management process involving subgroups within, say, a cardiology department undergoing a merger.
As you can likely guess, change management can be defined in various ways, from the general (as we did above) to the departmental, field-specific, and even methodology-based definitions as it relates to the proprietary models of academics and change management consultancies.
And it doesn’t end there. But before we go deeper in our definition, let’s take a step back.
Why is change management important?
You are here to learn, and understanding the why of change management will help you maintain the curiosity to learn. It’s critical to understand a few reasons why many change management thinkers and practitioners believe this field is increasingly important.
However, there’s an assumption you should first know about because it undergirds much of what we’ll cover: organizations are built and developed to endure.
Sure, there are businesses that pop-up to ride some wave and then cash out. That organizations are built for the long haul may not seem the case for those working in a grow-or-die startup environment where acquisition seems like the end goal. But get to know the founders and you’ll often hear talk about their want to disrupt an entire industry or improve how the world does X — visionary statements that have surviving as a fundamental part of their being.
Survivability and stability, after all, are hardwired into us as individuals. Most of us live a significant portion of our lives thinking about, working towards, and otherwise ensuring ourselves and our families have both. It makes sense that the organizations we create have those wants and needs woven into their fabric.
Holding that assumption, here are two interrelated but common reasons given for why change management is important:
- External environmental factors
- Shortening company lifespans
External environmental factors involve everything from government policy and movement in the capital markets to changing consumer preferences, global health pandemics, and climate change. They can dramatically and rapidly impact an organization. Responding quickly to these factors, and perhaps even having systems in place to get ahead of them, can make an organization more resilient and better able to deliver beyond whatever happens to be regarded as a great customer experience at the time. All of this makes change management not a luxury but an organizational necessity.
Additionally, company lifespans are shortening, especially according to corporate longevity forecasts for those on the S&P 500. There are various causes at work here, and the collateral consequences touch each of our lives. On a related note, the pace and global scale of technological advancements mean that innovation (and therefore disruption) can happen faster than ever. Stagnancy and complacency are, therefore, more dangerous than ever — thus the need for change management. As such, it could be argued that a company’s survival is as much about its ability to manage the continuous and often chaotic nature of change as it about anything else.
Lastly, we can deepen our understanding of why change management is important by understanding why individual change is so hard.
1. We (individual humans) often struggle with change.
Behavioral science literature routinely suggests that we are more prone to resist change than to embrace it. Very few of us wake up each morning with a sense of urgency and a desire for self-disruption — especially when things are going incredibly well in our lives.
- The first dimension, which Dr. Berkman refers to as “the way,” deals with the skills, capacities, and knowledge that are first required for a change effort. Think about how difficult those are to secure. For example, you may have all the skills and knowledge necessary, but you don’t have the capacity.
- The second dimension of change, referred to as “the will,” is about desire and all of its complexities. For example, one may have plenty of desire, but there may be more desire associated with other goals, which means some goals get prioritized over others.
Expand that individual human element to the organizational level, and it’s easy to see why, when companies are thriving and are doing exceptionally well, it’s hard to change. And yet, much of the change management literature suggests that this is precisely the time for change management. Waiting to change until your organizational back is against the wall is often far too late, but it’s what most organizations do, which is one reason of many why many change management initiatives fail.
2. We struggle with chaos, too.
We want formulas and frameworks, boxes to check and step-by-steps. Therefore, much of the field of change management is a mirror that reflects our want for linear simplicity rather than the complex, chaotic reality. It’s filled with frameworks, some of which are incredibly popular and even useful — in the way that a compass can be useful (we might not know where we’re going or how to get there, but at least we’re going North). And if it’s a framework with an acronym, all the better, because it creates the sense of order we crave. Beyond frameworks, stories, depending on the type, can serve as a salve for the wounds of chaos and help us get more granular than North.
It’s fitting then, that much of the writing (and indeed entire books) about change management fit neatly into these two arenas: they are either in-depth explorations of frameworks, or they tell metaphor-rich stories. Some do both quite well and, though they often lack research, this makes them popular.
Lastly, health research and the field of psychotherapy help shape much of what we know about how individuals change.
A classic 1992 article by James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente titled Transtheoretical therapy: Toward a more integrative model of change (Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice) suggests that individuals are always in one of five stages of change:
- action; or,
If you can simultaneously hold all of this, you’re well on your way to understanding why change management is so important and why it can be so challenging.
Change management definition deep-dive
Let’s get back into unpacking our definition. There’s planned change and unplanned change. There’s the antiquated way of splitting change management into two squeaky clean facets, hard and soft, with hard often representing the technical and business systems side and soft (also an antiquated term) representing the people side of change.
There’s the evolutionary type of incremental, continuous change (also referred to as transactional change), and there’s the deeper, more disruptive type of revolutionary change (also referred to as transformational change).
There’s the rose-colored way of describing change management, which frames the act(s) of implementing change as inherently positive. Then there’s the more nuanced, seasoned way, which makes room for the unintended consequences of change and isn’t afraid to put a few truths on the table, such as how change management can be chaotic, is rarely (if ever) as linear as the many models and frameworks suggest, and quite often fails.
There’s the buttoned-up, paint-by-numbers way of showing how organizational change can be implemented in, for example, three phases. And there’s the messy, nonlinear, on-the-ground reality all organizations undergoing change will experience.
We’ll get into all of this and far more, but keep in mind the working definition we’re using here is an attempt to concisely fuse aspects of the various change management definitions floating around. Let’s dig into its parts.
The continuous optimization of how work gets done is as old as work itself. When we think about teams at work in the context of change, the research is clear: teams, more than individuals, generate more creative, innovative ways to change processes, cultures, and workflows for the better.
It’s also clear that with teams (and teams within teams as an organization in the modern sense begins to form), growth begets an increasing amount of variables, leading to greater operational complexity. Political motivations, interpersonal fears, macroeconomic conditions, communication barriers, and society’s formal and informal belief systems make change across the organization endlessly complex and fascinating.
If change management itself is changing, you can imagine where we’re heading here.
In today’s era of shortening S&P 500 lifespans, global interconnection, and disruptive innovation, many organizations are turning to find wisdom in the paraphrased quote often attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 BC – 475 BC):
“Change is the only constant. There is nothing permanent except change.”
Though the quote’s author is disputed, Heraclitus was known for his thinking about change. He saw change as an essential component of how the world works. This gem is also attributed to him:
“You cannot step twice into the same river.”
Though developing a change mindset, and indeed change stamina, can feel like new topics being discussed by today’s business leaders, a kind of humility and a long-term view can arise when we realize these concepts go back thousands of years.
Several of the eight main points reportedly delivered in the Buddha’s last sermon, for example, provide lessons for today’s change agents. One deals primarily with the idea of impermanence — that everything we can comprehend only appears to be held in place; it’s all undergoing continuous change.
Another point in the sermon addresses the importance of merging what we see as “self” and the world around us. Working to dismantle duality and establish oneness, in this sense, is an important practice to alleviating suffering. As we’ll cover later, organizations suffer when there is a rigid barrier between their world and the external environment. To successfully manage change, leaders must see this relationship as entirely fluid, with one influencing the other to the extent that it’s impossible to separate the two.
This need for organizations (and change management itself) to continuously evolve can give rise to various types of change resistance. Often, resistance to change is due to fear that the core will be lost in the process. Very rarely is this the case in change management. More often than not, organizations thrive when they heed the wisdom within yet another quote, this one from the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885):
“Change your leaves, keep intact your roots.”
Still, while such evolution has always been in place and is part of our human nature, the actual field of study known as change management is relatively new. Focusing primarily on what’s referred to as planned change, whereby a vision is cast and intentional efforts are made to bring that vision to life, the roots of modern change management often take us to Philadelphia, where Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915), a mechanical engineer by trade, was coming up with ways to help steel shops become more operationally efficient.
Taylor is considered one of the first management consultants and the father of a field known as Scientific Management. Many consider Taylor the first person, at least in recorded history, who systematically observed and studied work.
In his classic text, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005), often referred to as the “Founder of Modern Management,” wrote this of Taylor:
“It is fashionable today to look down on Taylor and to decry his outmoded psychology, but Taylor was the first man in the known history of mankind who did not take work for granted, but looked at it and studied it.”
Let’s continue dissecting our definition of change management.
discovering, developing, introducing, implementing, and maintaining
There exists an assumption that change surfaces itself, that, for the greatest of leaders, it somehow makes itself apparent. This is a myth similar to that held by beginning creative writing students: they’ve heard stories about the muse, how, for the most patient of poets, some ethereal force delivers either the spark for or the entire poem. All you need to do, so the myth promotes, is passively receive.
Like creative writing and creativity in general, organizational change management demands dispelling such myths and strengthening our receptivity to the many signals that, like the pieces of a mosaic, form a whole.
This is particularly true as it relates to discovering the most important change levers. There’s an infinite a la carte menu of planned change items from which to choose. Choosing them all, which can feel tempting, is to choose failure. A better approach is to:
- Co-discover a list of potential change items
- Co-develop the capacity to whittle this list down
- Co-determine how to batch the change items
- Co-create a phased roll-out plan
You’ll notice Co quite a bit above. That’s because teamwork is critical here. Research shows that a single passionate change agent can create significant change, but for change to cascade across an organization and ultimately be successful at system levels, it’s critical to involve various stakeholders and entire teams. Nothing builds trust, commitment, and gives organizational change a chance to succeed quite like co-ownership and collaboration at the beginning.
Still, the four steps above are easier said than done. Organizational listening, the management strategy of collecting and filtering relevant internal and external business signals, underpins the discovery process. Without at least some foundational organizational listening elements, it’s unlikely that business leaders will be in a position to routinely ask the right questions at the two primary levels:
- External environment. This includes the customer experience, including direct customer questions; cultural and demographic shifts; global economic factors; competitor moves and market positioning; and, capital markets trends, to name a few.
- Internal environment. This includes technology stacks and tooling investment and integration; assessing organizational change capacity; hiring and retainment insights; pricing and product lifecycle management; and, lastly, taking a beginner’s mind approach to asking: what business are we really in?
As if discovering, developing, introducing, implementing, and maintaining weren’t enough, it’s also important to focus on the unclean transitions between. Unclean because they bleed into each other; there isn’t a wall between them. For example, because discovery is co-built, part of it is actually part of introducing.
The transitional elements between discovery and introducing, however, are arguably the most important. Developing is a fragile period, and it’s easy for those initial change agents to get caught up in the excitement or to otherwise — perhaps because the co-discovery stage wore away their patience — roll out change management communications without much thought for how colleagues will receive it on the other end. The developing phase is also one that is missing from some of the popular change management process frameworks; there’s an assumption that leaders simply know how to develop the change plan and can immediately move to the implementation phase.
Introducing, though it is about developing a comprehensive change communications plan to introduce what’s new, is also the time to recognize, honor, and even bring closure to elements of the past. Unresolved tension from past organizational change efforts, for example, can resurface and cause problems in the newly introduced initiative.
This line from Dr. W. Warner Burke’s Organizational Change: Theory and Practice (SAGE, 2017) elegantly ties together the spirit of Co with both the introducing and implementation steps:
“The degree of ease and success with which an organization change is introduced is therefore directly proportional to the amount of choice people feel they have in determining and implementing the change.”
When it comes to implementation and change management, the dearth of information around discovery, developing, introducing, and maintaining stands in sharp relief. Academics, change management consultants, and change leaders have spent the bulk of their time (at least their writing time) sharing their thoughts about implementation.
Implementation is erroneously seen as the primary action phase within organizational change efforts. It’s where those thinking about change management often start, as they are drawn to the various frameworks and to what, at first glance, appears to encompass the doing. As such, it’s also where most change management books place the majority of their focus.
While there are many other change management frameworks, Harvard professor John P. Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change currently holds the crown. Though it is missing a few critical pieces, particularly in the beginning stages, it sits at that sweet spot between being well-regarded and having widespread awareness. When I was an Executive MBA student researching change management, Kotter’s process served as a solid framework for helping me work through an organizational change initiative.
Here are the basic steps:
- Create a sense of urgency
- Build a guiding coalition
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives
- Enlist a volunteer army
- Enable action by removing barriers
- Generate short-term wins
- Sustain acceleration
- Institute change
The process, particularly the questions you should be asking at each step, can be an excellent exercise for channeling the energy of your ideas into the right areas.
And then there’s maintaining, which is perhaps just trailing discovery on the most neglected list.
The world of organisms often serves as a common metaphor for describing organizational systems. In this sense, disruptive events are usually met with a fight to return to equilibrium. In our case, the disruptive event may be a variety of carefully orchestrated events. Still, what we think of as the status quo isn’t likely to dissolve without resistance.
This unwillingness to change, after all, is one reason the status quo became what is likely a more or less positive and widespread norm in the first place.
One dagger to this maintaining phase occurs when those leading change allow the change adjustment period to drag on for far too long. Of course, an adjustment period of some sort is critical, and there’s no precise formula to calculate how long such periods should continue. But, if elements of the status quo that are focal points of the change strategy are allowed to persist, they’ll increasingly find ways to remain sticky. In other words, managing change across change is as important as any of the previously covered elements.
Key to this is maintaining a sense of urgency, even when change adoption seems to be going well. Organizational change leaders must take this seriously. As Kotter put it:
“If urgency drops sufficiently and momentum is lost, pushing complacency away a second time can be much more difficult than it was at first.”
There are many quotes out there about the supposed failure rates of change management initiatives. While it’s difficult to both deny and prove their accuracy, it could be argued that such failure most often occurs during the maintenance phase — that period when:
- the change feels solidified for some but still unfamiliar for others; and,
- where the flood of energy and excitement to effectively roll it all out can begin to fade.
Change leaders must continuously find and reward new short-term wins, all while setting new goals that likely weren’t imagined when the initiative was launched (because unless your change team is both supremely talented and supremely lucky, what you launch isn’t likely to look exactly like what manifests).
Lastly, maintaining demands steadfast attention to the external and internal environmental factors. Just because you did a great job of listening to, compiling, and ultimately leading change based on certain factors, doesn’t mean those factors are preserved in amber.
As you’ve hopefully gathered at this point, large-scale change initiatives can take years. In addition to unpredictable market shifts, there may have been all types of unplanned disruptions internally that will force those managing change to at once work to maintain while focusing on the micro-pivots along the way.
The three levels of change management
Change management is often discussed in general, which can become confusing when the speaker is referring to one of several levels. For example, an IT leader may refer to the large project of upgrading their technology stack as change management. When you peel back the many levels involved in such a project — evaluating existing and future architectures, phasing departments from the old systems and onto the new, etc. — change management can serve as an adequate description to represent the totality of the pieces.
Still, though it’s essential for change leaders to keep their sights on the forest, it’s also important to see the trees (individuals) and the stands of trees (the groups and subgroups).
A change management strategy must approach each of these interconnecting levels in different ways, taking into account that there are different types of change management. While a change to some individual level element can create a ripple effect that changes some aspect of the organization, this is not Change with a capital C (that is, change at the total system level).
Here’s one way to visualize the link between an organizational structure and relevant change management elements:
Note: to convey the fluid nature of change management, there are not arrows in this fishbowl diagram. However, it may be helpful to imagine moving from right (the head) to left as organizational change at the larger system level is typically what inspires and guides the group and individual-level changes.
We discussed earlier how discovering, developing, introducing, implementing, and maintaining all bleed into each other. Well, so do our three levels here. Within a large marketing department, for example, there are likely to be several subgroups (such as internal communications, content marketing, creative, public relations, etc.), but they may all work together on a regular basis. On certain projects, two or more subgroups may merge to form an unofficial separate entity before disbanding at the project’s end.
As we covered in our definition, change occurs at the individual, group, and total system levels. Though organizations are far more complex than these three levels (for example, there are subgroups within groups with overlapping but different mandates), they serve as a way to structure our thinking.
I begin at the individual level because it humanizes the field of change management and builds from there. Many change management initiatives fail because change leaders become so enthralled with the mechanics of it all that they lose touch with the human element and the accompanying empathy.
There’s a tendency to start with either the group level (because this level accomplishes large projects) or at the total system level (for two primary reasons: either because it can be an easy way to speak generally about change management or because it feeds egos).
Let’s explore each of these.
Change management at the individual level
As alluded to, change can occur at this level without being part of a larger change initiative.
Unfortunately, many consultants use the term change management when they are actually describing architecting change purely at the individual level. Change at this level can of course be complex, but that doesn’t make it organizational change. For our purposes here, we are referring to individual change that is tied to the larger systems-level change.
Consider a long-standing hardware company pivoting towards offering software and cloud-based services. They may need to downsize certain departments, re-skill others, and bring in various types of new talent they haven’t had before. In other words, as they shed some of their legacy ways and move fast to catch up in a competitive landscape, they are thinking about individuals.
Yes, there is focus at the group/departmental level, but the key to this process is a deep focus at the individual level. Individuals are being assessed, trained, and hired — all to serve the organization’s desire to operate in a new way.
Perhaps as part of this change process, the company is also phasing out its legacy way of moving individuals into managerial roles based on tenure. They plan to conduct a battery of assessments to decide who serves the company best as an individual contributor and as a manager of people. This is yet another complex individual change element, but because it’s part of the company’s effort to build itself into a more modern and agile organization, it’s tied to the larger change.
On the other hand, enrolling half the company in a leadership training program, announced somewhat randomly and with seemingly no apparent link to some larger organizational change, can change the organization but isn’t the type of individual-level change we’re talking about.
The Kübler-Ross stages of grief model, created by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, is often used as a frame to show how individuals process such change. The parts, often referred to by the DABDA acronym, are as follows:
- Denial: an attempt to maintain equilibrium by clinging to the status quo or the existing reality.
- Anger: occurs after denial and is characterized by frustration and attempts to blame.
- Bargaining: recognition that change is happening, but with an underlying want to negotiate or otherwise create a compromise.
- Depression: a “what’s the point?” response upon awareness both that the change is happening and that their negotiation/compromise isn’t likely to have its anticipated impact.
- Acceptance: understanding that the change is happening, and often that acceptance is more advantageous than apathy or resistance.
When we move to the group level, it’s important to remember our focus on Co when we covered discovering.
Change management at the group level
The group level is where work gets done; it’s the arena most employees place themselves in when asked to share a sense of their work. This encompasses all subgroups, from the top management team (often referred to in change literature as the TMT) to the regional internal public relations firm.
Though our image above was split into its clean parts, the group level can be seen as a bridge between the individual and total system levels.
When viewed as an independent entity, change needs at the group level are often easiest to see when we observe some of the inherent challenges baked within high-functioning teams, such as how they work:
- in silos, which can make them productive but also susceptible to losing sight of the larger organizational purpose; and,
- in flow, which can mean they consistently ship solid work but are resistant to new ideas or new members (a recipe for stagnancy).
Note: for an in-depth read that addresses how some of the elements that make teams successful also make them weak, check out Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic article titled Dilemmas of managing participation (Organizational Dynamics, 1982).
From a change management perspective, it’s often at the group level where change leaders first begin to see change cascade across the organization. All of the individual fears (and changes) are brought to bear precisely in the arena where work gets done.
It’s important to note here that, like a tennis student learning a new but better way to deliver a backhand, the initial change may appear like a step in the wrong direction. Performance, for a period, may decrease.
Like the tennis student, the group may experience a dip in productivity. They knew their old way of working or their old systems so well that they built operational efficiency. It’s essential to bring awareness to and hold patience for this learning curve. For high-performing teams, this can feel like an especially crushing blow if they are at once instructed to embrace the change while still expected to deliver at the level of their previous performance benchmarks.
Lastly, the elements of resistance we see at the individual level can grow into a more potent force at the group level. The Kübler-Ross stages of grief model is again applicable here: as individuals voice their stage they can take collective solace, which can lead to a move from, for example, “I can find a compromise here” to “We can push back.”
Many change management resources suggest ways to push through this push back, but this is an occasion for listening and empathy. Step into the mindset of the push back, ask questions. There are likely some great ideas fueling the resistance that can and should be integrated into your broader change management strategy.
This brings us back to center, to our Co.
The majority of today’s successful change management initiatives are co-created through various discussions, workshops, and internal communications. For an example of co-created success, see A Model of Cascading Change: Orchestrating Planned and Emergent Change to Ensure Employee Participation (Journal of Change Management, 2020).
See also: my interview with the lead author
Change management at the total system level
Despite what some of the literature suggests, the complex changes at the total system level rarely begin at the total system level.
The seed of change (and the resulting stages of change) typically occurs at the individual or group level after someone brings awareness to the need for a significant change. Though it may not always be obvious, these changes within individuals and groups often create a ripple effect that, eventually, inspires the larger, more complex change initiative.
There are so many change management frameworks because thinking about change management at the total system level can be daunting. Change leaders often need some scaffolding to structure their thinking. For marketing purposes, many articles and books about organizational change position a framework as the solution. No, it’s the frame, the scaffolding. The solution comes through grappling with the complex, nonlinear, and often chaotic work.
As modern as change management feels, it’s an article from the Organizational Development (OD) literature from 1975 that continues to be taught by academics and used by change practitioners to help make sense of change at the total system level.
The article, by John R. Kimberly and Warren R. Nielsen, is titled Organization Development and Change in Organizational Performance (Administrative Science Quarterly).
Note: Nielsen is a co-author of The OD Source Book, a classic OD text from 1982 that walks you through how to conduct 17 different types of change efforts (referred to as “interventions” in the OD literature).
Here’s a breakdown of Kimberly and Nielsen’s three orders of change. Though the particular change they focused on had to do with changing attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors, you can plug in the basics of your change initiative.
- First-order change: who do you directly want to impact? First-order change is typically at the group (or subsystem) level, and it involves only those explicitly meant to change as a result of the change program.
- Second-order change: the ripple effect. Who else between the groups may be impacted? “Change of this sort [first-order change] may produce changes… in other parts of the organization, for instance, reducing absenteeism among hourly employees, as a consequence of the interdependencies that exist or are created between subsystems in the organization.”
- Third-order change (though they don’t refer to it as such): “Finally, change in indices of the performance of the organization as a whole [total system level], indices which reflect aggregated individual behaviors, may occur as a consequence of first-order change alone or the combination of first- and second-order change.”
Change management basics
What pressures led to the need for a change management strategy? How do you implement change management processes at the individual, group, and system levels? What’s the relationship between the markets and the organization? These are the type of questions you can begin to answer when you have an understanding of the basics.
Consider the following visualization. We’ll break each piece down.
The External Environment Factors box
Take a look at the External Environment Factors box. This includes changes that occur outside of the organization but that both push towards the Change Management box and have a back-and-forth (although not equal) dynamic between the Organizational System box. Let’s break these down.
Consider a new government regulation, which is one type of external environment factor. Depending on what it entails, this could significantly impact how an organization operates (this is the fundamental reason why large companies employ government lobbyists).
Phased regulatory requirements involving consumer data collection and emissions, to name just two examples, force organizations that aren’t already ahead of the curve to think about what aspects of their current operations must change so they can comply in the future. Changes may include everything from the individual (such as sensitivity training) and technological (software and other systems updates) to revamping the organizational structure. In this sense, there’s a clear push from the external to the Change Management box.
Other external environment factors, represented by the four small rectangles connected into the main box, include demographic changes, public health pandemics, climate change, the impact of capital markets, and changing consumer preferences, among many others. Anything happening outside of the business but that the business will, in some way, need to respond to, can be considered an external environment factor.
Let’s zoom in a bit:
You’ll notice those four rectangles are layered. This represents that each element impacts the business differently and that some are perhaps at a deeper, more fundamental layer. Let’s consider a public company, such as Microsoft.
While climate change, for example, is undoubtedly impacting how Microsoft’s change management leaders are thinking about and preparing for the future, one could argue that the capital markets, at a day-to-day level, have a more significant impact on the company. How is Microsoft’s stock performing? How are they viewed in the eyes of their investors? Moves in the capital markets will, directly and indirectly, inform their change management strategy.
But not all shifts in the external need to be factored into a change management strategy — otherwise, the company would be working to change everything and would likely change nothing in the process.
Notice how the main box funnels down into a more focused circle. This circle represents those external factors the company has deemed necessary. The factors mentioned earlier are just a few elements within capital markets that create pressures for a company like Microsoft to take the practices of organizational listening and organizational learning seriously. A company focused on building and shipping products, but without a sound strategy for absorbing outside information, will eventually find itself building and shipping far less.
But this isn’t a one-way street; as noted by the arrows on the far right, there’s a relationship between the external and the organizational.
Consider, for example, Levi Strauss & Co. They had their first initial public offering in 1971. That lasted until they went private in 1985. They remained private for 34 years before going public again in 2019. These shifts from public to private and back to public offer a fascinating change management case study. But, for our purposes here, they also show the relationship between the external and the organizational. Market dynamics changed Levi Strauss, and Levi Strauss changed the markets.
The Organizational System box
Let’s take a closer look at the Organizational System box.
You’ll notice there are two small rectangles connected into it. The main box represents what many organizational development leaders refer to as the total systems level. This level includes all of the elements you consider at the organization level, including the overall strategy, the company culture, etc. The two rectangles, then, represent the individual level and the team/group level.
We provided a glimpse into the interplay between the individual, group, and total systems levels earlier. What’s worth our time in this image, however, is the small circle. Note that unlike the External Environment Factors box, which pushes from the circle down to the Change Management box, the Organizational System box is receiving a push (and itself helping to pull) from the Change Management box.
The circle, in this sense, represents the filtering mechanism. Change leaders, especially independent change management consultants, often want to undertake wide-reaching changes — sometimes more extensive than the company can take on.
The circle represents the organizational change leaders’ filtering process. What will they implement? Who will it impact? Who runs point on each part? What will the journey of the internal communications strategy look like? These are a few questions that start spinning in the circle before the change plan is pulled into the organization.
The Change Management box
Though change management is an integrated approach, this box represents the space needed between the external environment and the organization for sound decision-making.
Change is frequently thought about purely from within the system by people who either haven’t studied change management beyond a cursory review of the common frameworks or aren’t fully plugged into the dynamic shifts occurring in the external environment.
The result is often a change initiative based almost exclusively on either direct observational experience (which has some value) or on gut feel (which also has some value). However, both are based on the insight (some would say whims) of a single “visionary” leader. While individuals can serve as the spark for change, moving forward with a complex change strategy without tapping into colleagues’ collective wisdom (and often independent consultants to help you see your blind spots) can be a recipe for disaster.
Organizational change should be continuous. While there’s often C-suite excitement around radical transformation overhauls, such moves are often the result of not continuously changing. When the drip irrigation of change has been shut off for a long time, it leads to a situation where a radical move (flooding the field) feels like the only way to survive.
For most organizations, the drip irrigation approach to change isn’t exciting enough to take seriously. However, modern leaders who recognize the importance of organizational resiliency increasingly understand the need to build internal systems, including teams tasked with listening, to serve this purpose.
In his book Trailblazer, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff wrote about several situations in which a colleague or members of an internal affinity group tracked an external situation, such as in 2015, when Indiana’s state legislature passed a discriminatory bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
This mechanism of built-in listeners allows Benioff and his company to keep a pulse on critical external factors and how his internal colleagues feel about those issues. This allows him, an executive who can’t possibly be fully plugged into so many societal issues at once, to be informed on the topic and decide how to respond in a way that best reflects the values held by those in the company.
In this regard, the listeners are the leaders. Their insights flow down, like water, until they reach Benioff at the bottom. This equips Benioff and his larger leadership team to quickly assess the situation and often be the first company to take a public stand on a particular issue.
This system at Salesforce is one primary reason other major companies first turn to Salesforce to see how they are going to respond when there’s a major social or political event.
Circling back to our Change Management box: think of it as a visual representation to show change management as a connected conduit. In the Salesforce example, the organizational listeners created change but likely weren’t part of an official change management department. In our diagram, the thin lines connecting each box are critical. They are the information pathways without which change happens in dramatic and often unsuccessful spurts rather than steady drips.
Change management frameworks and models
Below you will find a few of the more popular change management models out there. Depending on your goals, I’d recommend pulling elements from each of these to create your own change management process.
1. Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change
2. Prosci’s ADKAR Model
3. Kurt Lewin’s 3-Stage Model of Change
4. The McKinsey 7-S Framework
5. The Virginia Satir Change Process Model
6. The Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change
A brief history of change management
1879: Wilhelm Wundt establishes the first psychology laboratory
At the University of Leipzig, Germany, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) opened the first psychology laboratory. In 1881, Wundt then founded Philosophische Studien (“Philosophical Studies”), the first academic journal dedicated to psychology, the field that would come to have an immense influence, both directly and indirectly, on many of the elements that underpin what we refer to today as change management.
Wundt is often referred to as the “father of experimental psychology” and he played a significant role in building psychology into an academic discipline. In a 1991 article titled Historians’ and chairpersons’ judgments of eminence among psychologists in the American Psychological Association’s official academic journal, American Psychologist, psychology historians ranked the 10 most important psychologists of all-time. Wundt ranked first.
His book, Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (Principles of Physiological Psychology), sought to link physiology with psychology, and became one of the most important works in the history of psychology. In the introduction to the translated fifth German edition of this work, Wundt writes:
“Physiology and psychology cover, between them, the field of vital phenomena; they deal with the facts of life at large, and in particular with the facts of human life. Physiology is concerned with all those phenomena of life that present themselves to us in sense perception as bodily processes, and accordingly form part of that total environment which we name the external world. Psychology, on the other hand, seeks to give account of the interconnexion of processes which are evinced by our own consciousness, or which we infer from such manifestations of the bodily life in other creatures as indicate the presence of a consciousness similar to our own… The division of vital processes into physical and psychical is useful and even necessary for the solution of scientific problems. We must, however, remember that the life of an organism is really one.”
Note: Download the full text of Principles of Physiological Psychology (PDF here)
1911: Frederick Winslow Taylor publishes The Principles of Scientific Management
Frederick Winslow Taylor, often considered the first management consultant, ushered in a new way of thinking about work. Today, when you hear leading management thinkers frame businesses processes as “a machine,” it’s a throwback to Taylor — who often wrote about organizational productivity through this metaphor.
Taylor’s idea of “scientific management” is represented by the following four facets. Here is an excerpt from the book describing them:
“Under scientific management the ‘initiative’ of the workmen (that is, their hard work, their good-will, and their ingenuity) is obtained with absolute uniformity and to a greater extent than is possible under the old system; and in addition to this improvement on the part of the men, the managers assume new burdens, new duties, and responsibilities never dreamed of in the past. The managers assume, for instance, the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work. In addition to developing a science in this way, the management take on three other types of duties which involve new and heavy burdens for themselves.
These new duties are grouped under four heads:
First. They develop a science for each element of a man’s work, which replaces the old rule-of-thumb method.
Second. They scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman, whereas in the past he chose his own work and trained himself as best he could.
Third. They heartily cooperate with the men so as to insure all of the work being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.
Fourth. There is an almost equal division of the work and the responsibility between the management and the workmen. The management take over all work for which they are better fitted than the workmen, while in the past almost all of the work and the greater part of the responsibility were thrown upon the men.”
Note: Download the full text of The Principles of Scientific Management (PDF here)
1924-1933: The Hawthorne Studies
The Hawthorne Studies were a fascinating series of workplace productivity and morale experiments conducted by the Western Electric Company. One intent here was to discover how the immediate environmental factors impacted workplace performance. A few take-home points:
- The illumination experiment. With a test group of women, the researchers tested the impact of brighter lights. Worker productivity improved. Surprisingly, worker productivity also improved when researchers dimmed the lights.
- The relay assembly group experiments. Groups of 6 women were monitored as they assembled a telephone. The women were observed by a researcher and the study considered variables such as incentivized pay and personal well-being (shorter working hours, for example). Productivity skyrocketed 30% over 2.5 years.
In many ways, these were the first studies to show that when workers feel seen, respected, and cared for their productivity will improve. Today this may seem like common sense, but during this time many managers still believed a more authoritarian / manipulative form of management was key to driving productivity. In the case of the illumination experiment, worker productivity improved not because of the lighting but because the workers felt the psychological impact of having researchers both show interest in their work and care enough to change the physical environment.
1935: Kurt Koffka publishes Principles of Gestalt Psychology
Put far too simply, Gestalt therapy situates the therapist-client relationship in the here and now. It seeks to improve self-awareness by helping individuals (clients) understand how they react in the moment and respond to their surroundings. Just as the individual is part of and contributing to a complex network, so is an organization. As such, some change management researchers find important links between Gestalt psychology, which Kurt Koffka helped put on the map, and the field of change management.
In a 2013 article titled An organisational change approach based on Gestalt psychotherapy theory and practice (Journal of Organizational Change Management), Dr. Marie-Anne Chidiac wrote:
“This article stems from my life-based action research as an organisational consultant in the field of OD since the 1990s and how encountering Gestalt Psychotherapy theory and practice has fundamentally modified and shaped my OD practice. Initially schooled in the notion of organisational change as a process that can be created, planned and managed, I was soon to discover as a young consultant on a large transformational project, that total control of a change situation was a myth. Turning to Gestalt theory and practice clearly supported my presence and ‘use of self’ as a practitioner. Yet more than that, it also offered me a framework from which to view organisational change and development that is more relational and constructionist than objectivist in orientation.”
1938: B.F. Skinner publishes The Behavior of Organisms
Besides machinery, the organism is often used as a metaphor for how businesses operate. For decades, leading change management thinkers have built upon this metaphor to describe how planned change happens (and why it doesn’t). Much of this interplay is inspired by The Behavior of Organisms, B.F. Skinner’s classic work that introduced operant conditioning (learning based on reward and punishment) to the world.
1946: Kurt Lewin establishes T-Groups
Even a cursory glance at the history of change management will take you into the work of Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). There are many avenues we could go here, including Lewin’s change management model which we covered earlier, but we’ll focus on his development of T-Groups.
T-Groups, also known as training groups or sensitivity-training groups, were created by social and organizational psychology pioneer Kurt Lewin. According to the story told in Alfred J. Marrow’s The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin, Lewin was asked by Frank Simpson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Interracial Commission, for help “in training leaders and conducting research on the most effective means for combating racial and religious prejudice in communities.”
According to The Journal of Negro Education, which published part of the 1947-1948 Report of the Connecticut Interracial Commission, “The primary aim of the commission is ‘to foster, through education and community effort or otherwise, good will among the groups and elements of the state.’ To achieve this the Commission is empowered to study the problems of discrimination in all or specific fields of human relations; to compile facts concerning discrimination in employment, violation of civil liberties and to administer the Fair Employment Practices Act.”
T-Groups are used in a variety of settings today, and in much the same spirit that Lewin worked to establish in 1946. Lewin believed that, through psychologically safe dialogue, an exploration of self and other(s) could lead to the types of awareness critical for change at both individual and group levels. T-Groups are used, for example, within businesses undergoing some form of organizational change management and in, for example, graduate psychotherapy programs, where cohort members form T-Groups to establish close, authentic relationships while deepening their awareness of self and other—a foundational component for being a successful psychotherapist.
For Lewin, T-Groups had some type of change experiment baked into them. The workshops, therefore, were at once about the training and development of others and about the want to gain as many insights (and data points) as possible about how and why changed occurred (or didn’t).
With its origin story of attempting to combat racial and religious prejudice, T-Groups have always been about inclusivity and an open-mindedness to ideas. Dialogue with this level of openness, Lewin believed, could yield insights and change not otherwise achievable through reading or sage-on-the-stage lectures.
Six months after Lewin’s initial workshop came to a close, 72% of participants reported that they were using the skills they learned, and 75% reported that they felt more skillful in group relations.
The shape of T-Groups
Each group typically includes around 8 members, with 14 or 15 as the typical maximum before another group is formed.
Goals of T-Group
As with change management in general, the goals of T-Group can be established along the common three perspectives: that of the individual, the group, and the organization.
At the individual level, participants (sometimes referred to as delegates) develop an awareness of how they are perceived by others. From here, inquiry can begin. In understanding the perception of others, delegates can explore how that perception may differ from how they thought they were perceived. This practice can develop self-awareness.
Group-level dynamics include what we refer to today as culture, but it also includes an examination of elements such as power and norms. The goal here, again, is awareness. Understanding these dynamics at a deeper, more conscious level can allow participants to recognize them, for example, back in the workplace, so they can skillfully and perhaps proactively manage them rather than be unconsciously reactive to them.
At the organizational level, the lens zooms out further to developing greater awareness around hierarchy, communications, and a larger view into the collective culture than can be had at the group level. Lewin’s work, after all, occurred within what could be referred to as subgroups of a community, but while he wanted to see change within these subgroups he also wanted to see change occur at the community level.
1947: Rensis Likert and questionnaires
Rensis Likert (creator of the Likert Scale, arguably the most widely used way to measure attitudes/opinions) and Daniel Katz started the Organizational Behavior Program to study how organizational structures and leadership impact organizational performance.
The Likert Scale, which you have likely worked through at some point in your life, is a five or seven-point scale where you choose how much you agree or disagree with a particular statement. The ability to systematically survey employees within an organization opened up avenues for more scientific feedback collection that was previously based on either in-depth interviews (which can’t scale) or what managers felt or sensed was going on (which still has value).
1953: Industrial-organizational psychology and the work of Dr. Edwin A. Fleishman
Industrial-organizational psychology (often called I/O psychology) studies people’s behavior in the particular context of organizations and work.
As W. Warner Burke wrote in Organization Change (SAGE Publications), “As early as 1953 [due to the work of Edwin A. Fleishman], therefore, the knowledge was available that organization change was not likely to occur as a result of an individual change strategy unless the objective of the training was in the same direction as the desired overall organization change.”
Burke went on to say:
“There have been many other contributions to our understanding of organization change from industrial psychologists during World War II and the decades that followed. The Fleishman study was singled out because it illustrated a critical point about organization change: the difference between focusing on the individual and focusing on contextual variables (such as group norms and organizational culture) and systemic factors (such as structure).”
1960s-Present: Organizational Development (OD) and Change Management
The various psychology disciplines, the increasing research around managerial and project effectiveness, and the rise of management consulting all merge with the use of T-Groups and other humanistic approaches to form the field of Organizational Development (often abbreviated as OD). The developments since then are captured in various books, but I’d recommend starting with my interview with the authors of the 1999 classic article titled From Organizational Development to Change Management: The Emergence of a New Profession.