What is change management in business?

What is change management

Change management is the professional discipline of managing change or transformation within an organisational environment. At its heart, it is concerned with:

  • Increasing the benefits and return on investment which an organisation is looking to achieve as a result of implementing changes
  • Decreasing disruption to business as usual. As well as effectively managing other potentially negative risks to the business as a result of implementing changes

So, it’s both about maximising gains and managing risk. This is in order to give an organisation the best possible chance of managing change effectively.

But what do we mean by change, and why do we need to manage it?

Organisational change can refer to anything that ultimately requires adjusting. These are adjustments to the ways things are normally done to make way for new ways of working. Examples of common changes that organisations undergo are:

  • Operational change: such as new operating models, refined organisational level structures, or new business processes
  • Technological change: such as new systems, additional functionality in existing systems, or new requirements and processes around data
  • People change: such as the need to acquire new skills and knowledge.As well as changes to the way employees are developed or rewarded, a new people management process, or behavioural. Finally, cultural transformation within your organisation.  

There is a simple answer to why there is a need for change management. Its: because people  (the human race in general) are creatures of habit. 

We live in a world of rules, systems, rituals and habits, in both our daily personal lives and society at large. This is a consequence of our tendency to look for pattern, structure and consistency in our actions.  This has many benefits of course, but also presents challenges when we attempt to change the mindset or behaviour of people. 

Change management enables us to apply a structured and methodical approach to encourage adoption of changes in people. Essentially, we are using change management methods to manage people through a period of change. This is in order to achieve the intended goals. 

What is change management?

The most commonly referred to change management model is probably the ADKAR model. Arguably, most other models are pretty much a version of ADKAR. 

The ADKAR model is an acronym for the five outcomes an individual needs to achieve for a change to be successful.

  • Awareness
  • Desire
  • Knowledge
  • Ability
  • Reinforcement

The model was developed by Jeff Hiatt after studying the change patterns of more than 700 organisations. Although the model was founded over two decades ago, it’s managed to retain its prominence in the change management profession. This is because it articulates a simple yet accurate journey of the way in which we humans tend to experience change.

We move through the stages of becoming aware and wanting to know more. Next is a move to developing our knowledge and ability in order to do things differently. Finally receiving reinforcing support or information which sustains our new behaviour. 

The ADKAR model is also helpful to consider next to the Kubler-Ross change curve. This is since it provides a way of tackling the potential challenges we face as we move through a period of change. These are typically the emotional stages described in the change curve.

Whilst the ADKAR model is a sound basis upon which the change management discipline has been developed. The actual methods and thinking applied across this area of expertise are broad and varied. There is no one size fits all approach when dealing with the topic of change. However, there are several core components to change management which are worth understanding.  They should always be considered in any approach adopted. 

The core components of successful change management:

  1. Vision and outcomes
  2. Strategy and planning 
  3. Stakeholders and impacts
  4. Communications
  5. Training and learning
  6. Adoption and measurement 
  7. Sustaining and reinforcing 

Let’s look at each in turn: 

Vision and outcomes

The starting point of any change programme or initiative is to articulate a clear vision of the to-be. What is the future state, asking yourself where are you trying to get to and why? 

Describing a compelling and engaging vision upfront is absolutely vital if you want people to commit to making change happen. Alongside a vision, or description of the future state, you should also have some detailed outcomes. This will help break down the components of the vision and all the benefits you expect to realise. 

Strategy and planning 

Once you know where you’re heading, you need to think through the process. The what, how and who of how you’re going to get there. This is where your change management strategy and change management plan need to come into play. 

Your Plan and strategy will help you get into the details of how you will implement the changes. The key areas of focus here are: milestones, sequencing, objectives, workstreams, activity, roles and responsibilities, and KPIs. 

Stakeholders and impacts

Before you finalise plans and move into execution, you must spend time understanding your stakeholders. These are those who have influence over the success of the change and those who will be impacted by it. As explained above, people are going to be the single biggest factor in determining success. Your management of stakeholders must be a core part of your change plan. 

The other element which needs to feed into your plan is understanding your change impacts. Detailing out how you envisage the changes will impact the business from a process, technology and people perspective. 

Execution of the changes needs to be done in such a way as to minimise negative impacts.As well as accelerating or increasing business benefits, as described above. You can’t do this if you haven’t applied a structured approach. 

This approach should be used for determining all the ways in which the changes are going to impact the business. Additionally, you need to create a plan that will respond accordingly to these changes.


Engaging with your stakeholders, both internally and externally as required to develop their understanding, knowledge and commitment to the changes. This is more often than not the initial change execution activity you’ll need to undertake. Before anything really gets going with implementation, communication must take place. You are likely to need to communicate what, why and how to the right people. 

Communication requires a strategic approach to ensure you’ve considered audience needs. As well as the channels, messaging and timing, and communications planning is often a key next step in managing change. 

Training and learning

Training and learning are broad topic areas which can involve many different approaches and activities. This is all depending on the type of change you are implementing. 

With small, tactical change, it may not be required at all- communicating new information may be enough. Whereas, with significant transformation projects, developing new knowledge, skills, behaviours, and ways of working is likely to be required. To do this effectively, other interventions normally go alongside formal training to help embed changes and to support overcoming resistance. 

Examples are things such as: 

  • leadership role modelling and engagement across the business
  • Change Ambassador networks
  • Intensive communications campaigns
  • User journeys and personas. 

There are many ways in which new ways of working can be implemented. Advancements in technology now mean we have a lot more choice when it comes to channels and methods. These can include such things as virtual reality and gamification.  

Adoption and measurement 

Ensuring long-term adoption of changes is probably the most challenging part of managing change. A key aspect of change management is therefore to ensure you measure whether success was achieved, for example: 

  • Are new skills being applied in the workplace? 
  • Are desired savings being realised as a result of process efficiencies? 

To measure whether change has been implemented effectively, you need to set appropriate KPIs upfront, with clear measurement criteria. These might be both qualitative and quantitative, and should consider

Kirk Patrick’s 4 levels of evaluation

1) Reaction

Looking at how changes were received by those impacted (e.g., a simple employee feedback survey)

2) Learning

Looking at whether learning was achieved (e.g., via post-training knowledge tests)

3) Behaviour

Looking at whether learning is being applied in the workplace and is evident in daily activities and behaviours (e.g., through customer feedback, managers’ reports on team members etc.)

4) Results

ooking at whether business results have been achieved- i.e. has employees adopting the new ways of working actually had the desired impact on business results? This is the most challenging area to accurately measure as it can be difficult to directly link business results (such as revenue increase), with the changes implemented with certainty as there are of course many other attributing factors to consider 

If desired outcomes are not being achieved, you need to determine what’s not working by examining all the component areas of your change management activity to identify where further action is required. For example:

  • Has training been delivered effectively and was learning achieved and applied?
  • Is there resistance to adoption and how can we gather more information to determine what intervention is required to fix this?
  • Are leaders sufficiently supporting the changes?
  • Was the vision set out clearly enough upfront?
  • Are key stakeholders supporting adoption? Do we need to amend how we engage them? Do some stakeholders require more attention?
  • Are there any existing processes that are not aligned with the new ways of working we desired?
  • Where are we seeing adoption versus where aren’t we? What could be causing this? 
  • Are there any underlying cultural challenges that we haven’t addressed?

Sustaining and reinforcing 

Once change has been implemented, the crucial thing is to make sure it is sustained for the long-term: old processes popping back up, or short-term behaviour change which seems to vanish after formal programme activity has ended, is not what you want when time and money has been invested in creating the new! 

It’s therefore important to establish a period of review whereby you can check and review whether changes are being sustained. You might also want to consider periodic activity to reinforce the changes- such as refresher training to further encourage long-term adoption. 

Your change management team

Lastly, in addition to the above methodology components, the other critical factor to remember is that the change management effort applied will only be as good as the team working on it! Effective change management requires the right blend of people with project management, leadership, and teamworking skills, and most change practitioners achieve the best outcomes when they work alongside project managers. 

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