Change management is one of the most important strategies for ensuring successful digital transformation. But the ability of organisations to fully engage their staff is often highlighted as a key challenge.

Organisations are now finding themselves managing the introduction of new technologies, the sudden appearances of new opportunities and rapid changes in the way customers and staff, want to interact with their organisation.

In short, modern businesses must manage an increased level of change. Traditional change management strategies were developed in an age that predates the modern digital era and although remain somewhat relevant, they struggle to accommodate the rapid and continual change of an adaptive organisation. Organisations need to rethink their change management strategies.

Harvard Business Review defines change readiness as “the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

The key word for me in this definition is “continuously”.

The ability to continuously address and adapt to change within an organisation is becoming a critical element of survival for many modern businesses in the current digital transformation landscape. Intimately, Digital Transformation isn’t just about updating the technology and process. It’s about putting in place a culture and way of working that can continually adapt to the changing customer or environmental needs.

Traditional change models provide some insights into the challenges faced by organisations, so what are they?

Traditional Change Management models

While definitions vary, change management generally refers to how teams and companies implement organisational change. Although there is no one right or wrong way to mitigate change, over the years there have been a few change management models developed, that organisations return to again and again.

Lewin’s change management model

Lewin’s change management model provides a simple yet effective structure. Within the model, organisational change management can be broken down into three manageable stages:

  • Unfreeze
  • Mould (Change)
  • Refreeze

Lewin drew on his background as a physicist to define a model based on the example of turning a cube of ice into a cone of ice and applied it to organisational change management.

First, a team or organisation must “unfreeze” their current process and perceptions when preparing for upcoming changes. This step helps the team approach the change with a clean slate without bias or unwillingness to let go of the current state.

After the uncertainty created in the unfreeze stage, the change stage is where people begin to resolve their uncertainty and look for new ways to do things. People start to believe and act in ways that support the new direction. It is imperative here that the desired behaviours are recognised, and staff are encouraged to adopt the new way of working.

When the changes are taking shape and people have embraced the new ways of working, the organisation is ready to refreeze. This returns the organisation to a stable state.

The Lewin change model, while too simplistic for some, does have some relevance in digital transformation. The identification of the need to unfreeze and let go of the past, to make the team ready to explore new ways of working, is necessary to open the organisation to new ideas and ways of working.

ADKAR model – 1990s

The ADKAR change model helps facilitate change on an individual level since change is often less about the changes themselves and more about people’s reactions to them. ADKAR is an acronym for:

  • Awareness: Awareness of the need to change
  • Desire: Desire to participate in and support the change
  • Knowledge: Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability: Ability to implement the change
  • Reinforcement: Reinforcement to sustain the change

Since organisational change is directly dependent upon people for successful implementation, individuals must be fully engaged throughout the change. The ADKAR model helps individuals process change through clearly defined stages that enable them to both understand and accept the changes at hand.

The ADKAR model gives good insights into how organisations need to communicate and engage staff not only through transformational change but also to better support an adaptative organisation.

 Kotter’s 8-step change model

The Kotter 8-step change model also focuses more on the people experiencing large organisational changes rather than the changes themselves. The eight steps are:

  1. Create a sense of urgency.
  2. Build a strong coalition.
  3. Form a strategic vision.
  4. Get everyone’s buy-in.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers.
  6. Generate short-term wins.
  7. Sustain acceleration.
  8. Institute change.

Kotter’s change management process attempts to turn possibly resistant individuals into receptive participants through trust, transparency, and teamwork. By identifying the end goal, engaging staff through their involvement, and executing the changes together, this process remains one of the most successful change management models.

Of all the models I think this one reflects Digital Transformation the best. Although developed in 1995, before many of the adaptive digital capabilities were available, it reflects the path to a change-ready organisation. It shows a desire to empower staff to act on the organisation’s vision as a mechanism to drive further change.

Kubler-Ross change curve

Also known as the five stages of grief, the Kubler-Ross change curve can be thought of as a change management strategy due to its breakdown of how people process change. Organisations can better prepare for change when they also anticipate the possible reactions of their workforce. The five stages are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

If teams and organisations lose sight of whom their changes impact the most, then their attempts to make those changes will likely fail. Changing an organisation can encounter emotional factors that need to be considered.

One caveat to consider with this change management strategy is that these stages are not always sequential and that individuals and organisations can progress through them differently, so its effectiveness is not always predictive. As such, it can also be used to supplement other change management models to increase their effectiveness.

This model also reflects the importance of enabling staff to let go of the past and prepare for the future. Of all the models I think this best reflects behaviours and is an important pointer for organisations in planning their approach. As a rule, the longer an organisation has gone without change, the greater the impact of the ‘stages of grief.’ For example, for organisations that have been operating largely the same way for many years, Public Sector I’m looking at you, the elements of Shock, Denial and Frustration will be significant as staff have become very familiar with the way of working. As shown in the ADKAR model, information and knowledge are key and are acquired through work experiences.

McKinsey 7s model

The McKinsey 7s model was developed in the 1970s to evaluate how the different parts of an organisation work together. According to the model, there are seven fundamental elements of every organisation:

Hard elements (easiest to identify and control)

  • Strategy
  • Structure 
  • System 

Soft elements (more subjective and difficult to change)

  • Shared values 
  • Staff 
  • Style 
  • Skills

These elements are interconnected, and if one element is altered, the change will ripple out and affect the other elements. Companies tend to use the 7s model when they implement changes in the organisation and need to align different departments and processes. 

The McKinsey model is useful as it provides insights into different elements of an organisation that are impacted by the change. I have seen many organisations that drive change through their systems but fail to take into account the impact on the other organisational aspects. I find this model useful to highlight the holistic nature of an adaptive organisation as all these elements have to support the adaptive nature of a change-ready organisation.

PDCA model

Also known as the Deming wheel or control cycle, the PDCA is an acronym which stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act, the PDCA model is a cyclical and iterative process for continuous change and improvement. 

The concept of PDCA is based on the scientific method, as developed from the work of Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620). The scientific method can be written as “hypothesis–experiment–evaluation” or as “plan–do–check”. The intent is that action should be taken based on the conclusions of an evaluation. It was in the 1920s, in Japan, that the steps were shortened, to the now traditional plan, do, check, act.

It helps organisations make improvements by following a simple process: devise a plan, test the plan, implement the plan, evaluate the plan’s success, and make the necessary changes. This process can then be repeated as much as is required. 

As a powerful and versatile cycle, PDCA is best used when prototyping, innovations, exploring performance improvements and developing new processes. 

Multiple iterations of the PDCA cycle are repeated until the problem is solved.

A fundamental principle of the PDCA model is iteration, once a hypothesis is confirmed (or negated), executing the cycle again will extend the knowledge further. Repeating the PDCA cycle can bring its users closer to the goal, usually a perfect operation and output.

Here we see that the concept of iterative change and a learning-based model goes back to the 1600s and the agile cycle many now aspire to, is over 100 years old.

Bridges Transition Model – 1979

Like the Kubler-Ross change curve, the Bridges Transition Model is another people-centred approach to change management.

According to the Bridges Transition Model, the key to change management isn’t the results of the change, but the way the employees let go of the old and accept the new. The Bridges Transition Model is best used during large changes to help employees through the process. Three stages occur when people transition to change: 

  1. Ending, losing, and letting go: The first step in the transition model begins with an end and is typically the most emotional for employees.  Failure to acknowledge employees’ feelings may cause them to reject the changes so it is important to clearly communicate the purpose and benefits of the change.
  2. Neutral zone: During this phase, staff adapt to the change and get up to speed with new processes.
  3. New beginnings: The last stage of the transition is acceptance. Employees have a sense of direction and understand why the changes needed to happen.

Again, this model shows the importance of engaging staff to enable them to resolve their past work experience and be ready to move into the change. Understanding how that occurs, in a repeatable and rapid manner, is key in a change-ready organisation.

Change Management in Digital Transformation

The change challenge in Digital Transformation is two-fold. Organisations are moving away from their legacy culture and way of working, but they are also building a change-ready culture. The traditional change management approach may be able to deliver the former, but the same approach to ongoing adaptive change is unlikely to deliver the organisation flexibility required.

Change management strategies are critical to the success of any change initiative in an organisation, whether it’s a specific, targeted transition within a department or a significant digital transformation.

To support the delivery of digital culture and the promised adaptability organisations require a culture that supports continual change.

There is a good reason that many of the traditional change models are still used many years after their inception. They provide key insights into organisational behaviours that inform how organisations need to plan their transformation journey.

For example, both the Kubler Ross and Bridges Transition Models, show us that early in the change lifecycle, staff are dealing with many emotions and a significant sense of uncertainty. In traditional change projects, this is the time that most organisations are engaging their teams to capture their requirements for the new system or process. This may give us some pointers into why so many technology projects fail.

Using these models’ organisations can better understand how their management and governance processes need to change to support a change-ready culture. Without considering how an organisation operates, its change initiative is just a technology refresh and will fail to deliver the benefits of a change-ready business.

Next Steps

If you would like to talk more about the challenges to building a change-ready culture and how to get started on your transformation journey, or how I could help with your own initiatives, contact me via the link below.