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What is Change Management and Why is It Important?

By Jenna Sedmak - May 05, 2023


Most organizations, regardless of their size, industry or sector, experience change at some point. The desire for organizational change is typically sparked by organizational leaders who envision movement from their current state (where they are now) to a future state (where they want to be) due to responses to the external landscape or internal needs and desires. This might be done as a part of the strategic planning process, which is why understanding change management is a fundamental concept for leaders to successfully guide their organizations and teams to execute their strategy. 

There are many reasons that organizations may face change. They may need to respond to external threats beyond their control, keep up with competition or emerging markets, or adapt their systems and processes as they grow. Some changes may involve the entire organization, while others may involve or impact certain departments or teams.

What is Change Management?

While there are many change management definitions, SME Strategy defines Change management as a concept that considers the critical importance that both people and processes have on successfully implementing a change. Strong change management models consider elements such as: stakeholder engagement, 2-way communication, change readiness and preparation, as well as processes and procedures to implement the change in a way that embeds the change so that it sticks. 

What Types of Change Occur in Organizations?

Organizational change may occur incrementally, for example with the integration of a new project management software to one team at a time, over the course of a year. Some staff may continue to utilize legacy systems while teams and projects are slowly moved onto the new system before it is embedded completely throughout the organization. 

Transformational organizational change may also occur. This typically involves a major change such as offering an entirely new service or product line or entering into a merger or acquisition causing systems and teams to change and amalgamate during different phases of team development. These types of changes are often determined strategically while considering internal and external trends, risks, and opportunities. 

While many changes are planned, such as within the organizational strategy, others may be unplanned, such as in response to an external trend or urgency. For example, when the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the globe in late 2019, it resulted in many pivots and changes, throughout 2020 and beyond, such as the implementation of remote or hybrid workforces, development of virtual products and services, and other reactionary changes that were necessary to adapt businesses to a new environment. 

Regardless of the type of change, they may require the use of new technologies, mindset or behavioral adaptations, or adjustments to processes and procedures, which is why employee engagement and buy-in is critical for long-term successful change. 

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When should change management be considered? 

Not every change requires an extensive change management process. Small changes that don’t impact a lot of people, that don’t entail a lot of risk, or that don’t require a lot of resources may not need to be managed at the same level as others. For example, if the toilet paper brand your office purchases increases its price, and you change to another type, this arguably doesn’t need an extensive change management cycle to implement. 

However, changes that impact many people, require deep engagement, behavioral or systemic changes, or are resource intensive (time, money, labor) are likely more complex and require a higher level of engagement, alignment, and follow through. 

To effectively manage complex change, organizational leaders can consider undertaking a change readiness assessment or change preparation activity (such as the 5 Ps exercise below) and following an established change management process (such as the Kotter Model or the Prosci ADKAR model). 

Additionally, it’s critical that organizational leaders are aligned around why the change is happening and understand who will be impacted by the change so that they can foster engagement and buy-in. This way, employees are more likely to feel that they are a part of the change, rather than viewing it as something that’s unknown and happening TO them (rather than WITH them).

What are the risks if change is not managed effectively?

Several business and academic studies have shown that many changes are not implemented successfully. One study reviewed several reported change failure rates, ranging up to 93%, with an average of 73%. However, other studies argue that there is not enough evidence to support the common belief that roughly 70% of change initiatives fail. 

While not all academics and business experts agree on the rate of change failure, they do agree on one critical aspect: people are at the heart of change, and if they are not consulted with, included in the process, and bought into the change, they are more likely to resist and the initiative is more likely to stall or fail. 

Change Resistance

Change, no matter how positive it is perceived to be, can be stressful for people because it likely means that their day-to-day activities, systems & processes, products, and services, or ways of working will shift significantly. 

While some people may be more prone to resist change than others, personality is only one small factor that may result in change resistance. More often, employee resistance to change stems from unclear, infrequent, inconsistent or one-way communication about the change that results in uncertainties around whether or not the change is feasible due to resource constraints, lack of critical skills and abilities, or lack of support and understanding from those determining the change. 

Furthermore, resistance to change can be contagious (and so can buy-in!). The more people who are resistant, the more they may convince others of the negative impacts of the proposed change, making it harder for leaders to generate engagement, alignment & momentum. 

To mitigate change resistance, it’s important for leaders to understand and accept that resistance is a normal psychological behavior that they can positively impact through strong, 2-way communication, change preparation activities, and change management processes. 

What are the steps needed to prepare for and implement successful change?

Change Management Steps

Strong change management starts with preparation and analysis, and then moves into the development of processes and plans to implement the change, with consistent communication throughout each step of the way. 

Steps to manage a complex change might look like the following:

  • Preparing for the Change
  • Analyzing & Addressing Gaps & Needs 
  • Selecting a Process to Manage Change 
  • Developing a Change Management Plan (with Continued Communication, Tracking & Assessment of the Change Initiative)

Preparing for the Change:

To best prepare for change, change preparation exercises, like the 5Ps, that build in conversations around change readiness and needs (both organizational and individual) are a great way to begin. 

The 5Ps Exercise to Analyze Gaps & Needs:

During this exercise, there are five areas that your leadership team will discuss and map. If possible, map out the first of the four Ps and then engage in 2-way communication with your people who will be impacted by and will be implementing the change to get their perspective so that you develop a fulsome understanding of perspectives, needs, and gaps.


  • What is the change?
  • What specifically needs to happen?
  • Who is responsible for driving this forward & achieving success?
  • What does the completed change look like?


  • Why is this change important?
  • Why do this at all, and why now?
  • What are the desired outcomes or success metrics? 
  • What are the positive impacts on the organization, departments, teams & individuals?


  • What is needed to enable this change? (Ex: training, tools, more people, new processes, etc.)
  • Are there any systemic, operational, or behavioral barriers to navigate or remove? 
  • Are there any gaps or risks that may make this change more difficult to adopt?


  • Who will be impacted by this change, and to what extent? (List all different groups and/or individuals) 
  • Who will be implementing the changes? 
  • Who do you need buy-in and engagement from? 
  • Are there any potential early adopters or champions who might inspire others? 
  • Are there any potential resistors that may require extra communication?

Note: As mentioned previously, it’s recommended to engage in 2-way communication with your internal stakeholders prior to moving onto the 5th P. While the length of time this takes will depend on your organization and the scale of change you’re undertaking, consider leaving enough time to critically analyze and begin to address gaps and needs that were identified throughout the exercise and engagement.

Process (Model): 

  • This is a structured way to launch, implement, and assess change over time 
  • There are several change management models to choose from, and the most effective models consider both people and processes. 
  • The two models that we prefer are Kotter’s 8-Step Model and the Prosci ADKAR model

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Processes/Models for Management Change: 

The Kotter 8-Step Model

The Kotter model is slightly more process than people focused, but does consider the psychological side of change within practical, systematic steps:

  1. Create a sense of urgency: When leaders explain to their people why the change is happening, why it’s happening now, and how it benefits not only the organization but also the individuals, it is more likely that the positive impacts of the change will be noticed and a sense of urgency will be built. 
  2. Build a guiding coalition: Beyond the leadership team who envisioned the change, others will likely need to be onboarded to lead the change and drive the initiatives forward. Depending on your organization’s needs and the complexity of change, encouraging diversity within the guiding coalition can help to generate buy-in throughout the organization. 
  3. Form a strategic vision: Beyond explaining the why behind the change, it’s important for leaders to also clearly articulate what the end destination looks like, or the vision they are working towards. If everyone who is driving the change initiative forward is aiming for the same end result, it is more likely they will maintain alignment, engagement, and momentum. 
  4. Enlist a volunteer army: For change to truly cascade throughout the teams it impacts or throughout the entire organization, greater buy-in and engagement is essential. People are at the heart of change, and buy recognizing and incorporating those who want to participate in the change early on, there is a potential to spread enthusiasm and galvanize others around working towards the same strategic goals
  5. Enable action by removing barriers: Even if organizations work through a rigorous change preparation process that includes a needs assessment, gap analysis and stakeholder engagement process, barriers and roadblocks often still pop up throughout the process of implementing change. When leaders proactively engage with their people to address and remove obstacles, it will likely increase trust and confidence that the initiative will be successful, which can sustain buy-in and engagement. 
  6. Generate short-term wins: Change can take time, and is often not easy. By acknowledging and celebrating wins and successes, it can remind the people behind the change of the great work they are doing and the positive outcomes it is already having. Recognizing wins along the way is a great way to keep morale strong while implementing change. 
  7. Sustain acceleration: Once the change is underway, it can be tempting for some organizations to relax the rigor of communication, tracking and monitoring. For a change to be successful and have long-term impact, it’s critical that leaders apply the same level of rigor and change management practices until the change is fully embedded. 
  8. Institute change: If a change is implemented, but the systems, processes and behaviors aren’t in place for it to be sustained over time, people might fall back on previous ways of doing things. In order to institute change, it’s important for leaders to assess systems, processes, behaviors, habits, and perspectives that might need to be adjusted before deeming the change complete and successful. 

While this model is in step format, it’s not always linear, and organizations may sometimes fall back into a previous phase, or they may need to revisit steps throughout the process. 

The Prosci ADKAR Model 

The Prosci ADKAR model is fairly evenly weighted between the people and process elements of change, with an increase in components that address psychological and behavioral aspects alongside the systemic needs for effective change. 

Prosci: The three phases in the Prosci component of this framework are developed to guide organizations systemically through change. Within these phases, each person is working through the change process on an individual level. 

  • Phase 1 - Preparing: During this phase, it’s important for leaders to define the change, align around timelines & a vision, and determine their approach to assessing organizational and individual needs for the change to be successful.
  • Phase 2 - Managing: During this phase, it’s important for leaders to work with their people and adapt/adjust systems and processes to implement and monitor the change. Developing a clear action plan, implementing a system to track progress to adjust actions is another important component of this phase.
  • Phase 3 - Sustaining: During this phase, it’s important for leaders to review organizational and individual performance, debrief and assess where there are any remaining gaps, and discuss which systems and processes need to be further embedded throughout the organization to sustain long-term success. 

The ADKAR acronym refers to the phases that an individual works through (alongside the organization) during a cycle of change:

  • Awareness: This is when individuals become aware of the change. During this phase, it’s critical that leaders foster two-way communication with individuals so that they are not only aware that the change is happening, but also why it is happening and how it might impact them, their team, and the organization.
  • Desire: This is the level to which an individual will buy-into, engage with, and support the change. During this phase, it’s important that leaders work with individuals to mitigate potential resistance or fear. Continuing with regular, open communication and addressing concerns and roadblocks along the way can foster trust and increase desire to engage with the change initiative.
  • Knowledge: This is the level to which an individual understands how they can make the change. During this phase, it’s important for leaders to assess any knowledge or awareness gaps that their people may have and to answer any questions that arise along the way so that resistance doesn’t emerge at a later time.
  • Ability: This is the level to which an individual is able to execute the change they are being asked to make. If individuals lack skills, abilities, accommodations, tools, information, or resources like time, people, or financials, they may feel like implementing the change is not possible. It’s critical that leaders continue to communicate with their teams to address individual and team gaps and needs in order to remove barriers and roadblocks to effective execution.
  • Reinforcement: This is the level to which an individual will stick with the change without reverting back to old behaviors, systems, or processes. Debriefs, celebrations, feedback, accountability models, and check-ins on processes are all ways to help reinforce and sustain change. Without this, long-term change may not happen, or individuals may lack the engagement and accountability to make it stick.

When it comes to deciding between various change management models such as the Prosci ADKAR model or the Kotter model, it's worth noting that there's no single model that reigns supreme. What matters most is whether the model you choose takes into account the people involved and the necessary processes and fits with your organization's specific needs. With this in mind, leaders can successfully apply the concepts from any model to plan for and execute change initiatives.

Developing a Plan for the Change

Once you’ve chosen which process you will apply to your change initiative, it’s important to develop a plan that will take you from your current state (where you are now) to your future state (where you are aiming for).

Utilizing a change management model will help guide your plan implementation, but it’s important to also have: 

  • A clearly articulated vision & destination that you are all aiming towards
  • A project charter or team agreement that highlights roles and responsibilities for leading and implementing the change initiative 
  • Milestones, or large steps along the way, with deadlines and a person who is accountable for them 
  • An action plan broken down into smaller action items with deadlines and a person who is responsible for each one 
  • Communication processes that include synchronous and asynchronous methods of communication regarding the change initiative 
  • A process to track and monitor progress towards both outcomes (metrics) and actions (tasks)

Connecting change management to strategy development and Implementation 

If you are in the process of developing or implementing a strategic plan, it likely involves some level of change. Developing your leadership team through change management training where they can gain awareness, processes, and tools to support the organization, teams, and individuals through change is a great way to start. 

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