Five Change Management Models in Business

Professionals reviewing management strategies

The period of disruption created during the implementation of a new process or procedure is a delicate time for any business. Employees need time to adjust to the new way of doing things, and holdovers from the old methods bleed over into the new. Change management systems mitigate the negative effects that arise during the disruption period and allow companies to accomplish changes more efficiently.

What Is Change Management?

As organizations change and evolve, managers must update policies and procedures to meet the new requirements of the business. Unfortunately, changes from management take time to percolate through various layers of staff. Companies implement change management systems to educate employees about the changes and assist them through the transition. When used correctly, a change management system smooths the transition with a structured approach that encourages employees to buy into the changes.

Five Major Change Management Models

In the United States, there are five change management models that dominate business philosophy.

Lewin Model

Designed by Kurt Lewin in the 1950s, the Lewin model remains incredibly popular because of its simplicity. The Lewin model is a three-step process that he labeled the Unfreeze, Change, and Refreeze phases.

  • Unfreeze — The Unfreeze, or evaluation step of the process, forces a company to take a deep look at its problems to understand why change must occur. Metrics, such as low sales numbers, low productivity, or a high volume of customer complaints are all catalysts to move a company into the Unfreeze phase. Management must determine how to reshape the foundation of the business and re-center the core.
  • Change — With a set of goals in mind, management moves on to the Change phase. Here, the company institutes the necessary changes and allows employees time to adapt to the new reality. During the Change phase, management may tweak the changes to arrive at a more effective or efficient plan to move forward.
  • Refreeze — after a predetermined period of time or upon reaching benchmarks, management refreezes the policies and procedures. Staying too long in the Change phase generates confusion and may lead to the development of alternative, and unapproved, methods of completing a task by employees. Refreezing puts an end to accept changes to policies until the company is ready to re-evaluate.

The Lewin model does have its detractors, most of who argue the model is too linear and simplistic for the complex nature of 21st-century business.

Kotter’s Model

The leading challenger to the Lewin model was developed by John P. Kotter, a Harvard professor, and change management theorist. His model seeks to anticipate the resistance employees have to change and how companies can work around those issues. He developed an eight-stage model that includes factors like:

  • Building a team — Management must place the right people in the right jobs during the transition.
  • Instill urgency — Motivate employees to feel a sense of urgency about embracing the change.
  • Short-term goals — keep the focus on short-term goals so employees feel a sense of accomplishment as the changes roll out.

The model is praised as proactive and easy to follow, especially for small businesses. Opponents claim the model is too dependent on linear progression through the phases, so when there are hiccups, companies have little flexibility to move forward.

McKinsey 7-S Framework

In the 1980s, McKinsey & Company reinvigorated change management models with the creation of the 7-S Framework. This describes the seven stages through which a company must progress when implementing a set of changes. The steps include:

  • Structure — An analysis of how the structure of the business affects the ability to implement change.
  • Systems — An evaluation of existing systems and which pieces need to be removed or updated.
  • Skills — The strengths of each employee and department in the company that can be utilized to make the change more efficient.
  • Style — Culture of the business, while sometimes hard to diagnose, should be addressed and understood during changes.
  • Staff — Insights into the people of a business, the turnover structure, and the strengths of diversity is important when implementing change.
  • Strategy — Strategizing through competitive analysis and the implementation of an adaptive model can lead to a successful future of the business.
  • Shared values — Superordinate goals must be clear and reinforce what the organization is trying to achieve.

Proponents of the model praise its focus on company self-reflection and insight from management about what the company does well. Supporters also argue a model is a balanced approach that treats each element of change equally. Detractors believe the integrated nature of the steps and their dependence upon one another make drafting a cohesive plan for a large company very difficult.

The Change Curve

The Change Curve is closely related to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. In the Change Curve, companies accept that change occurs over four distinct stages, each of which evokes a response for employees.

  • Status Quo — In this stage employees feel shocked and a sense of denial that problems exist within the existing procedures. They hold on to the policies and procedures with which they are the most familiar.
  • Disruption — As management forces the changes to occur, employees fight back with anger and fear. Productivity and performance lag as employees adjust to the new paradigm.
  • Exploration — Once employees realize the change is permanent, they begin to explore the possible benefits of the change. Soon they realize the change has a positive overall impact on their jobs.
  • Rebuilding — In the final stage, companies experience accelerated growth as the changes take root and performance reaches a higher level than it was before.

Supporters believe the Change Curve model is the most natural of all of the change management systems and meets the least resistance from employees. On the negative side, management loses much of its agency in introducing change and suffers from the whims of the staff.


Unlike other models that emphasize immediate and systemic change, the ADKAR model recognizes the need for small, incremental changes over time. Managers measure success in the ADKAR model by the impact of cumulative goals and the sequence of progression for the duration of the model. Changes are orderly and moderate, so employees have a chance to adapt before the next wave of changes strikes.

ADKAR stands for:

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to make the change
  • Knowledge of the strategic vision
  • Ability to enforce change
  • Reinforcement to instill long-term change

The ADKAR model is a powerful tool that provides ongoing assessments of the changes as they are implemented and creates breaks where the company has time to adjust or solve problems, without addressing all problems at one time. The problem with ADKAR is that it is best used in conjunction with another model that has a better strategic view of the long-term effects of changes.

Businesses must react to the ever-evolving needs of the market and their consumers, and change management models allow companies to make the change with as little disruption as possible. Finding the right model for the business, its staff, and it’s strategic needs is a task for an experienced manager or decision-maker.

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Annual Reviews, “Beyond Lewin: Toward a Temporal Approximation of Organization Development and Change”
Horizon Research Publishing Corporation, “Universal Journal of Management”
Science Direct, ” The integration of project management and organizational change management is now a necessity”
McKinsey, “Enduring Ideas: The 7-S Framework”