What is Change Management? | Definition, Principles, Process

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.

Defining change management

Change Management 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.

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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?

Why is change management important: a venn diagram showing external environmental factor, shortening company lifespans, and the constant need for change down the center

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:

  1. External environmental factors
  2. 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.

A 2018 article by Dr. Elliot T. Berkman titled The neuroscience of goals and behavior change (Consulting Psychology Journal) frames why change is challenging in two dimensions:

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.

  1. 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 Professor James O. Prochaska and Professor 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:

  1. precontemplation;
  2. contemplation;
  3. preparation;
  4. action; or,
  5. maintenance.
The 5 individual stages of change management: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance

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 5 steps of change management process: Discover, Develop, Introduce, Implement, Maintain

continuously evolving

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:

  1. Co-discover a list of potential change items
  2. Co-develop the capacity to whittle this list down
  3. Co-determine how to batch the change items
  4. Co-create a phased roll-out plan
The four steps to change management planning:  1. Discover: Co-discover a list of potential change items;  2. Whittle: Co-develop the capacity to whittle this list down;  3. Batch: Co-determine how to batch the change items;  4. Plan: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Enable action by removing barriers
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Institute change
Kotter's Change Management process:   1. Create a sense of urgency;  2. Build a guiding coalition;  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives;  4. Enlist a volunteer army;  5. Enable action by removing barriers;  6. Generate short-term wins;  7. Sustain acceleration;   8. 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:

The structural levels of change management: Individual, Group, Total System

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:

  1. Denial: an attempt to maintain equilibrium by clinging to the status quo or the existing reality.
  2. Anger: occurs after denial and is characterized by frustration and attempts to blame.
  3. Bargaining: recognition that change is happening, but with an underlying want to negotiate or otherwise create a compromise.
  4. 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.
  5. Acceptance: understanding that the change is happening, and often that acceptance is more advantageous than apathy or resistance.
Kubler-Ross stages of grief: 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:

  1. in silos, which can make them productive but also susceptible to losing sight of the larger organizational purpose; and,
  2. 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).

Note: see our interview with Dr. Kasper Edwards, the paper’s lead researcher.

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 Professor John R. Kimberly and Warren R. Nielsen, is titled Organization Development and Change in Organizational Performance (Administrative Science Quarterly).

Note 1: 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).

Note 2: To further explore the connection between organizational development and change management, read my interview with change management researchers Dr. Karl Moore and Dr. Nicolay Worren.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”
The three orders of change management: First-order (who to impact); Second-order (who will the impacted impact?); Third-order (how will performance be impacted?)

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.

Basics of change management diagram shows: External Environment Factors, Organization System, and Change Management

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:

Change management diagram: a box with "External Environment Factors" inside it

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.

Change management diagram shows a box with "Organizational System" inside it.

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.

Diagram showing a box with "Change Management" inside it.

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

Kotter's change management process in 8 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

2. Prosci’s ADKAR Model

Prosci’s ADKAR Model: The Prosci change management model includes 5 parts: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement

3. Kurt Lewin’s 3-Stage Model of Change

Kurt Lewin's change management model includes 3 parts: Unfreeze, Move, Refreeze

4. The McKinsey 7-S Framework

The McKinsey 7-S Framework: this framework was introduced in the late 70s and grew in prominence when it was featured in the book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies (1982). Graphic includes a quote: "...The framework maps a constellation of interrelated factors that influence an organization's ability to change."

5. The Virginia Satir Change Process Model

The Virginia Satir Change Process Model - The Virginia Satir Change Management process involves 5 components: Prior Status Quo, Exposure to a Foreign Element, Chaos, Integration and Practice, New Status Quo

6. The Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change

The Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change is perhaps the most complex change management model as it covers Work Unit Climate, Motivation and other factors.

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.”

1909: Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coins the term “rites of passage

In doing so, van Gennep describes it as a three-step process that includes: separation, transition, and reincorporation. This process informs and inspires other thinkers on change.

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.”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 and articles.

Quotes about change

Ready to create change and need some inspiring quotes about change? Below you will find the quotes about change that consistently top the various internet lists. May you find what you are looking for.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Here’s an actual quote from him: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

―Rob Siltanen

“Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”

―Stephen Chbosky

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

―Leo Tolstoy

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

―Margaret Mead

“Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”

―John Green

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

―Nelson Mandela

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

―Lao Tzu

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

―Albert Einstein

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

―Rumi

“It’s only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.”

―Roy T. Bennett

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

―Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.”

―C. JoyBell C.

“Even if you cannot change all the people around you, you can change the people you choose to be around. Life is too short to waste your time on people who don’t respect, appreciate, and value you. Spend your life with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel loved.”

―Roy T. Bennett

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

―Eric Roth

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

―Barack Obama

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”

―Friedrich Nietzsche

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.”

―Paulo Coelho

“Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby- awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.”

―Lemony Snicket

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

―Andy Warhol

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

―Rainer Maria Rilke

“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”

―C. JoyBell C.

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

―George Bernard Shaw

“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.”

―Steve Maraboli

“I have accepted fear as part of life – specifically the fear of change… I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back….”

―Erica Jong

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.”

―Kiran Desai

“Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.”

―Maya Angelou

“We are not trapped or locked up in these bones. No, no. We are free to change. And love changes us. And if we can love one another, we can break open the sky.”

―Walter Mosley

“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

―Neil Gaiman

“We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.”

―Katharine Hepburn

“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”

―Libba Bray

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

―Mother Teresa

“Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.”

―Eckhart Tolle

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

―Wayne W. Dyer

“It’s never too late to change your life for the better. You don’t have to take huge steps to change your life. Making even the smallest changes to your daily routine can make a big difference to your life.”

―Roy T. Bennett

“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”

―Fyodor Dostoevsky

“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”

―Rick Warren

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

―Buckminster Fuller

“Believe something and the Universe is on its way to being changed. Because you’ve changed, by believing. Once you’ve changed, other things start to follow. Isn’t that the way it works?”

―Diane Duane

“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”

―Philip Pullman

“One day spent with someone you love can change everything.”

―Mitch Albom

“What you’re supposed to do / when you don’t like a thing is change it. / If you can’t change it, / change the way you think about it.”

―Maya Angelou

“I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.”

―Aldous Huxley

“You cannot change anyone, but you can be the reason someone changes.”

―Roy T. Bennett

“No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always change, become a better version of yourself.”

―Madonna

“All that you touch You Change. / All that you Change Changes you. / The only lasting truth is Change. / God / is Change.”

―Octavia E. Butler

“Every woman that finally figured out her worth, has picked up her suitcases of pride and boarded a flight to freedom, which landed in the valley of change.”

―Shannon Alder

“Change, like healing, takes time.”

―Veronica Roth

“Anger, resentment and jealousy doesn’t change the heart of others– it only changes yours.”

―Shannon Alder

“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”

―Sophocles

“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.”

―Ovid

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

―Jon Krakauer

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

―Malala Yousafzai

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

―Alan Watts

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

―Brene Brown

“When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.”

―Andy Warhol

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

―Winston S. Churchill

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

―Haruki Murakami

“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.”

―William S. Burroughs

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”

―Martin Luther

“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled ‘This could change your life’.”

―Helen Exley

“Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.”

―Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots.”

-Victor Hugo

“True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”

―Leo Tolstoy

“We are the change we have been waiting for.”

―Barack Obama

“Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives, the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth. Lives have swiveled and changed direction on the strength of a chance remark.”

―Bryce Courtenay

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”

―Audre Lorde

“Change is the end result of all true learning.”

―Leo Buscaglia

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

―Steve Jobs

“We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”

―Carl Jung

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

―Reinhold Niebuhr

“A wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.”

―Spanish Proverb

“Moving doesn’t change who you are. It only changes the view outside your window.”

―Rachel Hollis

“Change is painful, but nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”

―Mandy Hale

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”

-John Maxwell

“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”

―Hermann Hesse

“Growth and comfort do not coexist.”

―Ginni Rometty

“Courage is the power to let go of the familiar.”

―Raymond Lindquist

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

―William Arthur Ward

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by discomforts.”

―Arnold Bennett

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

―John F. Kennedy

“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.”

―Abraham Maslow

“You must welcome change as the rule, but not as your ruler.”

―Denis Waitley

“Dreams are the seeds of change. Nothing ever grows without a seed, and nothing ever changes without a dream.”

―Debby Boone

“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”

―Gail Sheehy

“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.”

―Hugh Prather

“There is nothing permanent except change.”

―Heraclitus

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetary.”

―Harold Wilson

“Things do not change, we change.”

―Henry David Thoreau

“There is nothing so stable as change.”

―Bob Dylan

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

―Flannery O’Connor

“Change before you have to.”

―Jack Welch

“Everything is constantly changing, including ourselves.”

―Buddha

“By assessing our behaviors in terms of our own unmet needs, the impetus for change comes not out of shame, guilt, anger, or depression, but out of the genuine desire to contribute to our own and others’ well-being.”

―Marshall B. Rosenberg

“Changing ourselves changes each other. / Each other is ourselves.”

―Cameron Conaway

“Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

―Viktor E. Frankl

“It only takes one person to make a change, you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.”

―Ta-Nehisi Coates

“The change in goal changes everything.”

―Stephen Denning

“Throughout our lives, forces can push us toward or away from reaching our creative potential: a teacher’s compliment, a parent’s tolerance for tinkering, or an environment that welcomes new ideas. What matters most in the end, though, is this: your belief in your capacity to create positive change and the courage to take action.”

―Tom Kelley

“Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can’t change what we refuse to see.”

―Robin DiAngelo

Bonus quotes about change from change management leaders

“Thus, managers must be effective change agents who understand how to overcome resistance to change, deal with the inevitable stresses associated with change, and implement appropriate change strategies.”

―Linda A. Hill, Becoming a Manager

“Considering organization change through a sociotechnical lens means that one would gather data about both the social and technical systems but would then consider and act with the perspective that the two are interdependent: A change in one system will directly affect the other, and this effect must be treated as another leverage in the change process.”

―W. Warner Burke, Organization Change

“To become effective, productive, and satisfying to members, organizations need to change. It will come as no surprise to any observer of today’s organizations that change is a significant part of organizational life. Change is required at the organizational level as customers demand more, technologies are developed with a rapidly changing life cycle, and investors demand results.”

―Donald L. Anderson, Organization Development

“An essential condition of any effective change program is that somebody in a strategic position really feels the need for change. In other words somebody or something is “hurting.” To be sure, some change efforts that introduce new technologies do not fit this generalization. As a general rule, if a change in people and the way they work together is contemplated, there must be a felt need at some strategic part of the organization.”

―Richard Beckhard, Organization Development

“Changes, whether driven from inside or outside, eventually require some form of structural adaptation. Restructuring is a sensible but high-risk move. In the short term, structural change invariably produces confusion and resistance; things get worse before they get better. In the end, success depends on how well the new model aligns with environment, task, and technology.”

―Lee G. Bolman, Reframing Organizations

“But even when change is meticulously planned, the unexpected and unforeseen still occurs. Strategies for overcoming potential obstacles can be prepared for but the unanticipated happens. Changing towards an unknowable future is always going to have elements of unpredictability and this is part of the paradox of change management.”

―Patrick Dawson, Managing Change

“Although Louis never said so explicitly, he felt the most remarkable change of all was in how so many members of the colony had grown less afraid of change.”

―John P. Kotter, Our Iceberg Is Melting

“We believe that an approach to change based on task alignment, starting at the periphery and moving steadily toward the corporate core, is the most effective way to achieve enduring organizational change. This is not to say that change can never start at the top, but it is uncommon and too risky as a deliberate strategy. Change is about learning. It is a rare CEO who knows in advance the fine-grained details of organizational change that the many diverse units of a large corporation demand. Moreover, most of today’s senior executives developed in an era in which top-down hierarchy was the primary means for organizing and managing. They must learn from innovative approaches coming from younger unit managers closer to the action.”

―Michael Beer, Russell A. Eisenstat, Bert Spector, Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change

“If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”

―Kurt Lewin, as attributed in Charles W. Tolman’s Problems of Theoretical Psychology


Continue Learning About Change Management

Below are a few articles and interviews with change management experts.

  1. Change Management and Software Engineering: The Intersections
  2. Change Management Leadership: Embody the Planned Change
  3. Change Management: On Embracing Stillness
  4. From Organizational Development to Change Management
  5. Managing Change: From Theory to Effective Implementation
  6. Modeling Change Within Workplace Hierarchies
  7. Organizational Change: An Exploration of Change Uncertainty and Employee Well-Being
  8. The Model of Cascading Change: A Change Management Success Story
  9. The Role of Diversity Intelligence in Change Management
  10. Transformational Leadership and Organizational Change
  11. Viparinama-Dukkha: The Suffering of Change (Management)

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