What is change management?
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Updated: 19 March 2024
Contributors: Alexandria Iacoviello, Amanda Downie

What is change management?

Change management (CM) is the method by which an organization communicates and implements change. This includes a structured approach to managing people and processes through organizational change.

A change management process helps ensure that employees are equipped and supported for the entirety of the transition. Several reasons constitute a need for change management. Mergers and acquisitions, leadership adjustments and implementation of new technology are common change management drivers. The organizational development needed to compete with rapid digital transformation across the industry leads companies to implement new products and new processes. However, these innovations often disrupt workflows, presenting a need for effective change management.

Successful transformational change goes beyond a communication plan; it involves implementing change throughout the company culture. A change management strategy can help stakeholders to adopt proposed changes more readily than in situations where such a strategy is not employed. By activating employees as change agents by involving them in the workflow, business milestones can be achieved. Leaders can and should establish the benefits of change through developing a comprehensive change management plan.

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How does change management work?

Change management should be a thought-out, structured plan that remains adaptable to potential improvements. How change leaders choose to approach organizational change management varies in size, need and potential for employee buy-in.

For example, employees who lack change efforts experience may need a more tailored approach, like receiving guidance from human resources (HR). Employees who experience change on an organizational level may serve as good candidates on the change management team, offering insightful support to leadership and fellow employees.

Successful change management is a cumulative result of all the key stakeholders’ success in understanding the change initiatives. This requires proactively engaging and supporting a positive employee experience—invite employees to give constructive feedback and continuously communicate the business process or scope changes.

Different methods of change management

Psychologists and change leaders have developed several methods of organizational change management:

Bridges' Transition Model

Developed by change consultant William Bridges (link resides outside ibm.com), this framework focuses on people’s reactions to change. The adjustment of critical stakeholders to change is often compared to the five stages of grief, but instead, the Bridges’ model is described through three stages:

  • Endings: The discontinuation of old processes.
  • Neutral zone: The uncertainty and confusion as new roles are being identified.
  • New beginnings: The acceptance of new ways.
IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL)

Owned by a joint venture between Capita and the UK Cabinet Office, Axelos developed the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). The framework uses a detailed guide to manage IT operations and infrastructure. The goal is to drive successful digital transformation through incident-free IT service implementation throughout the change management process.

Over the years, ITIL was improved and expanded upon to enhance the change process. The ITIL framework has four versions, with the latest being ITIL v4. This version prioritizes the implementation of proper DevOps, automation and other essential IT processes.1 Created to aid in modern-day digital transformation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution prompted ITIL v4.

Kotter's 8-Step Process for Leading Change

John Kotter, a Harvard professor, created his process for professionals that are tasked with leading change.2 He collected the common success factors of numerous change leaders and used them to develop an eight-step process:

  1. Creating a sense of urgency for change.
  2. Building a guiding coalition.
  3. Forming a strategic vision and initiatives.
  4. Enlisting a volunteer army.
  5. Enabling action by removing barriers.
  6. Generating short-term wins.
  7. Sustaining acceleration.
  8. Instituting change.
Lewin's change management model

Psychologist Kurt Lewin developed the "unfreeze-change-refreeze" framework during the 1940s.3 The metaphor implies that the shape of an ice block remains unaltered until it shatters. However, transforming an ice block without breaking it can be done by melting the ice, pouring the water into a new mold and freezing it in the new shape. Lewin drew this comparison for change management strategy, indicating that introducing change in stages can help an organization successfully attain employee buy-in and a smoother change process.

McKinsey 7-S

In the late 1970s, McKinsey consultants Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman wrote a book called In Search of Excellence.4 In that book, a framework was introduced through its ability to map out interrelated factors that can influence the ability of an organization to change. Around 30 years later, this framework became the McKinsey 7-S Framework. The intersection of the elements within the framework differs depending on the culture or institution. Listed in no hierarchical order, those seven elements are:

  • Shared values
  • Skills
  • Staff
  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Style
  • Systems
Prosci Methodology

The Prosci Methodology, developed by the firm Prosci, is based on various studies that examine how people react to change. The methodology comprises three main components: the Prosci Change Triangle (PCT), the ADKAR model and the Prosci 3-Phase Process.

PCT Model

Sponsorship, project management and change management drive the PCT Model framework. This model puts success at the center of these three elements and is used in the overall Prosci Methodology.


The ADKAR model addresses one of the most essential change management pieces: the stakeholders. The framework is an acronym that equips change leaders with the right strategies:

  • Awareness of the need for change.
  • Desire to participate and support the change.
  • Knowledge of how to change.
  • Ability to implement desired skills and behaviors.
  • Reinforcement to sustain change.

The Prosci 3-Phase Process

A 3-phase process that has a structured but flexible framework. The three phases of the Prosci Methodology are to prepare an approach, manage change and sustain outcomes.5

Who are the stakeholders in the change management process?

Stakeholders can vary depending on the size of the organization and the nature of change. For example, if you are changing a process that directly impacts a product you offer clients, then your clients are essential stakeholders. Whereas if you are changing an internal technology tool, your clients might not be critical stakeholders.

To determine the stakeholders necessary for your change management strategy, define the scope of change first. Next, determine who consistently uses and operates these current processes. Begin by engaging those stakeholders; as you go, it may be determined that there are more key stakeholders to consider. As discussed, it is important to be flexible with adjusting your change management process. Additional stakeholders may need to be included in the change management strategy at different stages.

Common stakeholders in change management are typically executives and leadership, middle managers, front-line employees, developers, project managers, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and potentially, clients. To identify the stakeholders involved in change management, consider asking these questions:

  • Who leads the business unit undergoing change?
  • Who owns the process undergoing change?
  • Who are the people sponsoring change?
  • Who are the people executing change?
  • Who are the people most affected day-to-day by the change?
Six change management best practices

With the advent of rapid digital transformation and continual innovation, change management is a crucial tool for organizations to succeed. Among the various methodologies of change management are some best practices to consider:

  1. Clearly define the vision and make goals measurable.
  2. Ensure employee buy-in is as important as executive sponsorship.
  3. Be willing to adjust your process, especially if it is not driving the coveted outcomes.
  4. Engage employees in decision-making when necessary.
  5. Collaborate with project management on the automation of processes.
  6. Create your change management plan based on organizational risk tolerance.
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1 ITIL Definition (link resides outside ibm.com), Tech Target

2 Definition (link resides outside ibm.com), Kotter Inc.

3 Kurt Lewins Change Management (link resides outside ibm.com), Tech Target

4 7-S Framework (link resides outside ibm.com), McKinsey, 2008

5 Methodology Overview (link resides outside ibm.com), Prosci