Managing change


Change is a dominant force in today’s business and people’s lives. “From the simplest everyday changes to most difficult situations encountered by” (Brisson‐Banks 2010) organizations dealing with downsizing and/or cutbacks change is central. In acknowledging this, one has to take note that the ability to adapt to change is a crucial factor in the effectiveness and sustainability of any organization (French and Delahaye 1996).

Arguably we live in a complex world. Competition is rife across all industries. There is continuous change of business conditions. Yesterday’s assumptions and practices may well be outdated and no longer work (Bridges and Mitchell 2008).

Today’s fast paced economic environment has also added a new dimension to change: It needs to be immediate instead of over an extended period. Disruptive technologies and global competition are adding to the confusion of the subjects affected by change in such a volatile environment.

Under any circumstance where change needs to take place it is of paramount importance to understand the nature and environment of the transformation required. Still, as per my own observation, change is often being demanded by leaders who determine a plan independently and then leave it up to the organization to implement it. “Many leaders imagine that to make a change work, people need only follow the plan’s implicit map, which shows how to get from here (where things stand now) to there (where they’ll stand after the plan is implemented)” (Bridges and Mitchell 2008). “’There’ is also where the organization needs to be if it is to survive, so anyone who has looked at the situation with a reasonably open mind can see that the change isn’t optional, it is essential” (Bridges and Mitchell 2008).

Relevant theories of change management

When analyzing the reasons for failed changes, leaders most often find the details in planning of the intended change are not the primary causes of lack of success. However, the biggest misconceptions occur in the failure to address the fundamental psychological barriers in humans to change, e.g., behavior and mindset. Change programs need to address these aspects as part of a required psychological reorientation, also called transition that “is the state that change puts people into” (Bridges and Mitchell 2008). William Bridges and Susan Mitchell describe this very aptly: “The change is external (the different policy, practice, or structure that the leader is trying to bring about), while transition is internal (a psychological reorientation that people have to go through before the change can work)” (Bridges and Mitchell 2008).

Since Change Management has become a scientific field of activity, various theories and change theories have been developed. These models differ substantially: in its intended target group, some are addressing change on an organizational whilst others on team or individual levels.

An overview of relevant transition models of change is provided in the following table:

Kotter’s 8-Step change model

Dr John Kotter’s widely published 8-step process for leading change was amongst the first change templates that focuses “less on the change itself and more on the people behind it, albeit from a top-down point of view” (Mulholland 2017). “By inspiring a sense of urgency for change and maintaining that momentum, Kotter’s theory can be used to a great effect in adapting one’s business to the current climate” (Brisson‐Banks 2010). Kotter points out that “the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees” (Kotter 1995).

Lewin’s 3-step change management model

One of the earliest change models was developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin’s model is one of the most popular approaches in this regard. He suggests splitting the change process into three stages: “unfreezing, changing, and refreezing” (Armstrong 2016).

  • “Unfreezing – is altering the present stable equilibrium which supports existing behaviors and attitudes. This process must take account the inherent threats that change presents to people and the need to motivate those affected to attain the natural state of equilibrium by accepting change”
  • “Changing – developing new responses based on new information”
  • “Refreezing – stabilizing the change by introducing the new responses into the personalities of those concerned” (Armstrong 2016).

Tuckman’s forming–storming–norming–performing model of team development

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman first came up with the description of “forming, storming, norming, and performing” in an article, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” (Tuckman 1965).  In Tuckman’s approach this term is used to describe the change path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. Later, he added a fifth stage, “adjourning”.

Tuckman theorizes that all phases are necessary and inevitable for a transition to be successful. It is emphasized that the success of this approach depends on appropriate leadership strategies, considering the various team development stages:

Linking team development stages to leadership strategies (Manges et al. 2016)

Bridges’ transition model

Bridges’ model is a more recent approach that strongly focuses on transition of the individual rather than the change itself. This may seem an irrelevant difference; however, this notion alters the entire change management approach fundamentally.

Created in 1991 by William Bridges, it recognized that change is usually thrust onto individuals despite what the affected individual wants. Ultimately, they are forced to adapt to the change, despite their own feelings on the issue; thus, change is considered intrusive. To counteract this, Bridges suggests three stages (Brisson‐Banks 2010):

  • “The Ending Phase – Saying goodbye to the way things were, a particular job, associates, a
    location, etc.”
  • “The Neutral Zone – New environment, new responsibilities, the rules have changed, there
    are different people to work with and report to, etc.”
  • “New Beginnings – This period requires the final adjustment to new ways of doing many different tasks or even similar tasks but in handling them in a new manner, etc.”

Bridges’ transition model is one of the few that helps guiding affected individuals “through the reaction and emotions they will encounter when dealing with changes” (Mulholland 2017). William Bridges notably stated that “the new beginning is established as soon as people feel emotionally committed to doing something new. One important note is that endings are often longer for people further down in the organizational hierarchy, which is why managers, who have already reached the new beginning, need to be patient with their employees´ transition” (Bridges and Mitchell 2008).

Kübler-Ross’ change curve

The Kübler-Ross model is based on the crucial five emotional stages that are experienced by a person who is approaching death or is a survivor of a near death. This model has been scientifically recognized to fulfill a specific niche in change management.  It allows to deal with and focus on the emotional response of individuals affected by change.

In a transition phase, all training to meet new requirements and systems to follow will be affected by the emotional state that affected individuals are in. It is these individuals that are responsible for carrying out the ordered changes. Even with all the help that these persons may receive, change will not occur on its own if the individual is opposed to it emotionally. The Kübler-Ross approach recognizes that emotions affect productivity considerably.

By recognizing to deal with the five stages of emotional change, this model helps to anticipate individuals’ reactions and helps to plan appropriate responses.  The stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

The Kübler-Ross change curve

Notable is the observation that affected individuals can move through these stages at random order, move backwards or repeat stages altogether.

Practial application of relevant theories and models

Looking back at many business transitions initiated and managed in my professional career, I have recognized my personal shortcomings in certain areas of the transitions, particularly individual elements of personal transition. In hindsight I now realize that the changes as they were often orchestrated in conjunction with superiors and line managers was brought upon the affected departments through a directive and forceful manner.

Reflecting on the various models of change I believe that each of these can be used independently or in combination, appropriate for the transition at hand and the type of personnel who will be involved.

This situational design of a fitting solution is supported in literature and described as “the skill of effective change management” (Lockitt 2005). Bill Lockitt refers to five different broad strategies for effecting change (Lockitt 2005):

  • “Directive strategies”
  • “Expert strategies”
  • “Negotiating strategies”
  • “Educative strategies”
  • “Participative strategies”


In the context of the many business transitions I was part of or have managed myself I have drawn the following strategies from the insights gained:

  1. Improve on involvement of affected individuals in the change management process; negotiate rather than dictate, but also highlight and discuss the effects if the changes are not made.
  2. Build strong support groups and foster interdisciplinary alliances to support staff that need more information and training.
  3. Establish a wider & supporting power base in the organization at an earlier stage. Identify and work with key people within the organization to win broad based support also in other departments affected by the changes (aka stakeholder management).

The primary model that I keep in mind in any change process is Tuckman’s team development model. Though change is often orchestrated on board or top-executive level, substantial elements of it do take place on departmental or work-team levels. For this reason I believe in the strength of this model, particularly in coaching work-teams to perform well over an extended period. As per my own observations, deep rooted changes affect team performance for up-to three years, thus before a team is ready to take on new challenges it ought to reach its “performing stage” first.

Broadly speaking the Tuckman team development model may work very well for a leadership team. Mainly due to the positive energy that would be released in the process of shaping a common path forward it helps to channel the emotions of individual team members.

On the side of personal relationships in any work environment, recognizing the Kübler-Ross model is most crucial. Reflecting on my own feelings and emotions I appreciate its clarity and practical value in any situation change is put into effect. As this model relates very appropriately to individuals and their personal transitions, it aids any leader of change in the formation of a better relationship with individuals affected by the transition.

However, reflecting on the many business transitions initiated and managed personally, I conclude that the notion of individual emotional change is often overlooked. In a number of cases such business realignment creates a positive impact for many affected, however, for a few individuals the change impact will likely be substantial and potentially negative.

Additionally, the commonly chosen strategy for change communication is mostly directed at obtaining broader effects for change and effects on the individual teams or their job roles rather than the individuals themselves. Thus, though everything factual is being said and everybody is aware of the changes rationally, emotionally some staff will still not be well prepared for the change. Therefore it is not surprising that these affected individuals oppose the change vehemently.

In such situation to not jeopardize the overall progress of change two aspects are most crucial:

  • The attitude of the work-team leaders towards the broader sense of the required transition.
  • Maintaining an open dialogue with each staff member, by the team-leaders as well as by departmental heads throughout the entire process.

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