Editorial Note: We earn a commission from partner links on Forbes Advisor. Commissions do not affect our editors' opinions or evaluations.
No company or organization can operate the same way forever. Whether you’re a rapidly growing startup with agility baked into your DNA or a decades-old corporation responding to market shifts, you need to adjust to progress and improve. How well you can do that depends on how your organization approaches the process of change management.
Free version available
From $10 monthly per user
Zoom, LinkedIn, Adobe, Salesforce and more
Via monday.com's Website
Free version available
Yes, for one member
Free version available
Slack, Microsoft Outlook, HubSpot, Salesforce, Timely, Google Drive and more
On ClickUp's Website
Free version available
From $9.80 monthly per user
Google Drive, Microsoft Office, Dropbox and more
Via Wrike's Secure Website
What Is Change Management?
Change management is a structured process for planning and implementing new ways of operating within an organization.
Many academic disciplines have studied and developed theories about the best ways to approach change in an organization. Central to theories across disciplines is the goal of making change happen—i.e., moving an organization forward—with the full support and cooperation of everyone who’s affected by it.
Change management models recognize change can’t happen within one position or department without affecting the entire organization. Theorists developed the models to approach change in ways that acknowledge its effects across an organization, prepare everyone for those effects and get everyone on board for the transition.
Several change management models exist, and your organization can choose which makes the most sense for you. One of the most prominent thought leaders in the field is John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School and founder of the management consulting firm Kotter International.
Kotter’s model for change management involves four key principles and eight steps.
4 Principles of Change Management
Kotter’s four change principles include:
- Select few + diverse many
- Have to + want to
- Head + heart
- Management + leadership
Select Few + Diverse Many
Who drives change in your organization? Do decisions and directives tend to come from the same small group of managers or leaders? These are known as the “select few”—and there’s a danger to this approach to change.
Everyone within an organization is affected by change. It’s the “diverse many”—the broader group of people that makes up your company—who have to adjust their processes and activities day to day to accommodate change.
When the directives come from a select few, you skip the step of understanding what everyone else needs to effectively implement change. You also miss out on an opportunity to get them on board, so they’re eager to welcome change when it comes.
Get representatives from across your organization involved at every stage of a change process—from identifying challenges and planning improvements to implementation and reflection.
Have To + Want To
Getting the diverse many involved is your first step to moving change from something they feel they have to do to something they want to do.
A workforce filled with people who feel like they have to implement changes or initiatives is a recipe for complacency. One filled with folks who want to make change is a formula for action.
When the people in your organization are involved in identifying challenges and recommending improvements, they’ll understand the reasoning behind changed processes and new initiatives. They’ll be invested in improvement. They’ll be eager to take the steps needed to implement—and sustain—change that moves your organization forward.
Head + Heart
You must drive decisions and directives for change from both:
- The head: appeals to logic, data and reason
- The heart: appeals to how people feel and what they desire
Putting hard data behind organizational decisions is smart, but implementing change requires more. It also requires employees who are inspired by what the change will mean for their day-to-day work and the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.
This means digging a little deeper when you communicate change to your employees.
You can’t just share what the change is and how you’ll implement it. You also have to explain the why behind it, the ways it’ll move the needle for the company, your customers or clients, your employees, and the mission they come into work every day to achieve.
Management + Leadership
Navigating change in an organization requires both management and leadership.
That is, you need both the technical skills to manage projects, make a plan and oversee deliverables; and the emotional skills to communicate a vision, inspire action and empathize with concerns.
Any business leader has certainly heard an earful about the differences between managing and leading — but we’re not saying one or the other is better here. To make effective change in an organization, you need the combined strengths of both management and leadership.
Kotter’s 8 Steps to Change Management
Kotter’s eight-step process for leading change within an organization includes:
- Create a sense of urgency. Rather than simply presenting a change that’s going to happen, present an opportunity that helps the team see the need for change and want to make it happen.
- Build a guiding coalition. This group of early adopters from among the diverse many will help communicate needs and initiatives to guide change.
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives. Draw a picture of what life will look like after the change. Help everyone see—and long for—the direction you’re headed, rather than focusing myopically on the steps in front of them right now.
- Enlist volunteers. You’ll need massive buy-in across the organization to effectively implement change. Use your coalition to keep up the momentum on the sense of urgency and continue to communicate the vision.
- Enable action by removing barriers. Learn where employees face challenges to implementing a change because of structural issues like silos, poor communication or inefficient processes, and break them down to facilitate progress.
- Generate short-term wins. Keep up the momentum and motivation by recognizing early successes on the path to change. Continue to recognize and celebrate small wins to keep everyone energized and aware of your progress.
- Sustain acceleration. Lean into change harder after the first few small wins. Use those successes as a springboard to move forward further and faster.
- Institute change. Celebrate the results of successful change. How do changed processes or initiatives contribute to the organization’s overall success? How do they continue to help employees contribute to the mission they care about?
Creating change within the organization can make people balk, but ensuring that all parties understand why a change is necessary, how it benefits them and the organization as a whole and allowing them to give input on how to implement said changes leads teams to feel invested in the process.
Building a clear vision and celebrating the small wins along the way will make sure that no one is left wondering what’s happening, and encourage them to take the next step forward. Before long you’ll be achieving your goals as a team—use that as an opportunity to get feedback on the process overall so that the next time flows even more smoothly.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are good change management skills?
To effectively drive and lead change in an organization, you need a combination of leadership, management and strategic strengths. You should be strong in both communication and listening, as well as strategic thinking and analysis.
What is change management risk?
Change management risk refers to factors that could derail an initiative or make it fail to achieve its purpose. Part of change management is identifying these risks and creating a plan to mitigate them.
Why is change management difficult?
Implementing change in an organization is hard because of inertia. The easiest way to operate seems to be the way we’ve always operated. Effectively implementing change means stopping and redirecting that force across dozens, hundreds or thousands of employees.
Is a change management strategy necessary to implement?
To achieve the best success with a planned change, it’s best to have a change management plan in place beforehand. It allows the operation’s leaders to create and work with change within the parameters of certain guidelines, concepts, approaches and language.
Is risk management part of change management?
Yes. Creating a plan for change in an organization involves a risk assessment to determine what effects the change will have, as well as the level of risk regarding whether you’ll face resistance to change.