Main Change Management Theories and Models

Change Management Theories refers to how people see or imagine changes in individuals, groups or organizations

When you start researching change management, one of the first things you notice and are taken aback by is the fact that there are a lot, and I do mean a lot, of change management theories and models out there. Given that the whole concept of organizational psychology (a main component of change management overall theory) is a very diversified field of study among psychologists, this should come as no surprise.

The problem comes in trying to pigeonhole these change management theories and models into “good, better, best” etc. This is because it really depends on your philosophy, your company’s, and what your environment is like going in.

That means that there’s no end all model or theory that’s “the best” or one that’s “the worst”. Oh sure, I can venture an opinion on which ones I personally think work better than others, but anyone who is not me is bound to have very disparate views on what’s what in that regard, and neither of us would be right or wrong.

So, let’s just take a quick glance at three of the most widely used models, their strengths and weaknesses, and then leave it to you to decide which of the three, if any of them, is most suited for your needs.

#1 – Kurt Lewin’s Model

This is the granddaddy model of all change management theories, as Lewin pioneered organizational psychology in the 20th century. A byproduct of this was his basic three step model to change management.

This model basically consists of the unfreeze or thaw, transition and refreeze steps that most other models have migrated away from. Basically, this is a bare bones template that heads off opposition right away through the unfreeze, and leaves the finer points of transition and reinforcement in the refreeze up to you. It’s not a very deep model, and it burns a lot of oil fighting that opposition as an impassible first step. It remain a source of debate among many people in the field.

#2 – John Fisher’s Model

Fisher’s model oddly resembles in some respects the stages of mourning in that it’s a step-by-step set of stages for the transition phase

It consists of stages such as anxiety or denial, happiness, fear, threat, guilt and disillusionment, depression and hostility, gradual acceptance and moving forward.

Personally, I think this is a bit wishy washy and really does little more than give you a set of prediction markers for reception of change. I kind of think it’s not suited to be an actual change model itself. However, as a supplement to other models for handling human reactions, it does have serious merit.

#3 – John Kotter’s 8-Step

This theory is most wide-spread these days, and you can use Fisher’s transition diagram to supplement addressing the human element of this. Basically, it entails eight steps of establishing urgency, forming a powerful coalition of guidance, creating a clear vision, communicating this vision, empowering staff to affect change themselves, planning for short-term wins, consolidation on a small level cycle and finally institutionalizing the changes per cycle before beginning on further progress of change.

Using Fisher’s model to anticipate human reception during these steps, thus marrying these models, I have found to be powerful. Learn from Lewin about opposition reinforcement, use Fisher’s understanding of human fragility during change, and implement Kotter’s logical steps. This super hybrid is what I find to work the best.

These change management theories and models are alleged to stand on their own (Kotter’s I can believe more than Fisher’s or Lewin’s these days), so you can try different ones and see which works, but I recommend considering the hybridization I described – most managers use that kind of approach rather than being cookie-cutter about it.

Christopher Smith
Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.
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