In this guide, we’ll cover the ADKAR change management framework in detail and learn how this change model can streamline organizational changes.
As many business leaders have realized in recent years – especially during the COVID-19 crisis – adaptation is key to survival.
Many experts argue, after all, that the global economy is undergoing a paradigm shift. To prosper during this transition, organizational change is not only advantageous, it is a necessity.
ADKAR is one of several change models that can help organizations successfully implement change projects or even entire business transformation programs.
What is the ADKAR Change Model?
To better understand what the ADKAR model is, let’s set the stage by defining a few key concepts.
Before diving into the ADKAR framework, it is important that managers grasp terms such as:
- Organizational change. Organizational change refers to a business process aimed at fundamentally altering some area of a business, typically in order to boost the company’s performance. An organization may, for instance, choose to make major changes to the in-house employee training program in order to enhance employee productivity, adaptability, and job satisfaction.
- Organizational transformation. An organizational transformation is more comprehensive than an organizational change. A change project is limited in scope, focusing only on improving specific areas of a business. Organizational transformations, however, consist of multiple interdependent organizational change projects aimed at fundamentally transforming the business from the ground up.
- Change management. The definition of change management: the discipline dedicated to coordinating, implementing, managing, and leading organizational change programs. Larger organizations that undergo regular change will often have in-house change managers or enterprise change management departments.
- Change management framework. A change management framework, or model, acts as a roadmap for change. These step-by-step roadmaps offer a practical approach that managers can follow when implementing change in the organization. As we’ll see below, these frameworks offer a number of benefits when used correctly.
ADKAR, developed by the change management consultancy Prosci, is a practical, five-stage model that change managers can use to successfully pilot change within their organizations.
Before exploring those steps in detail, however, it can be helpful to understand why change models are used in the first place.
Why Use ADKAR to Manage Organizational Change?
There are several advantages to using a change model to implement change, including:
- Ease of use. Roadmaps, journey maps, and project templates are all easy to use, since they provide step-by-step instructions and a straightforward map to follow. Change management frameworks are no different: they outline a general series of actions to take, which help managers better understand and implement new change initiatives.
- Lower costs. Decreased costs are among the many benefits offered by an improved change project. For instance, since change managers know exactly which actions to take, it will be easier to predict, address, and overcome obstacles, which will result in lower change management costs.
- More efficiency. Reduced waste is another benefit to using change models, since managers will spend less time on unnecessary or less cost-effective activities. This increased efficiency can increase the speed of implementation, while also reducing the negative effects of a change process, such as employee frustration.
- Improved employee productivity and output. Most change frameworks, including the ADKAR model, include steps dedicated to improving employee output and productivity. Employee training, for instance, is a crucial step in many change projects, especially in the digital age. Focusing on improving skills represents one of the most important ways to improving employee productivity.
- Better outcomes. Ultimately, all of the benefits covered above result in better project outcomes. In many cases, effective change management can even mean the difference between success and failure.
- Less employee resistance. Resistance to change is one of the most common obstacles faced when implementing organizational changes. This resistance often stems from emotions, such as fear or distrust. Change models recognize and preemptively address such concerns, which can significantly improve employee support and the outcomes of the project.
Prosci’s ADKAR model has become one of the world’s most popular change models, not only because it delivers on many of the benefits covered here, but because it is so simple and straightforward.
A Breakdown of the ADKAR Model
ADKAR is actually an acronym for each of the models’ five stages:
Prior to beginning the actual change effort, it is necessary to make employees and workers aware of the need for a change.
When employees understand the rationale behind a change initiative they will be much less resistant to the project.
During this phase of the effort, change managers should cultivate an awareness of:
- The business reasons for a change. The business case will revolve around metrics such as ROI and organizational performance. This information will help employees understand the logic behind the business decision.
- What the change involves. Employees should understand how the change will take place, well in advance of the actual implementation. If employees are not made aware of the process in advance, they will likely feel alienated and besieged by a new change process.
- The risks of not changing. In many instances, there are downsides to avoiding change. Highlighting those risks can help motivate employees to get behind a change effort.
Providing them with this information up front will help prepare them emotionally and mentally for the road ahead.
The more that employees actually want to change, the more supportive, productive, and motivated they will be.
It is important to realize, however, that employees themselves are the ones who must desire that change – change managers or business leaders cannot make this choice for them.
Instead, the project’s organizers can only influence mindsets and help employees understand why a change program is in their best interest.
Ultimately, every employee also wants to know the answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?”
To help address this question, managers can address common factors that affect personal desire, such as:
- Values and goals. Each person has their own career goals and their own set of values. By explaining how the change effort aligns with both, managers can help employees see why they would personally want to support the change.
- The personal perks and benefits of the change. Another approach is to sell employees on the personal benefits of the change. For instance, if the change project involves employee training, it can be useful to explore how that training will benefit workers’ careers.
- The organization’s track record of change. The workforce will be more likely to support a change project if the organization has successfully implemented change in the past. On the other hand, if the organization has a spotty track record, they will be less confident about the organization’s chances for success – and, consequently, less likely to support the change.
Since communicating these elements requires connection at the personal level, it is important to recruit managers and equip them with the tools they need to motivate their workers.
Change teams must first know how to change if they are to enact change.
Providing them with that information, therefore, is the next step in the ADKAR change process.
To build knowledge, change managers must ensure that employees have the appropriate:
- Skills, information, and behaviors. New skills are often part and parcel of a change project. When an organization adopts new technology, for instance, employees must learn how to use that technology productively. Training and skills development, therefore, have a direct effect on the outcome of the project.
- Tools and processes. Training is also essential for employees to learn new tools, workflows, and processes. Documenting and standardizing those new processes is an essential part of any change project.
- Roles and responsibilities. On the one hand, employees will have roles and responsibilities within the change program. Also, employees may have new roles and responsibilities after the change has been completed. Both should be documented clearly.
Employee training has always been one of the most important methods of imparting information to workers, both during change projects and during the normal course of business.
However, skills training is only one area to focus on. It is equally important to ensure that employees know how to change, that they know new behavioral expectations, and that they are given support at the individual level.
Knowledge and ability are completely different.
A person may know exactly how to complete a task or workflow, but without firsthand experience, they have yet to demonstrate that ability.
For this reason, the ADKAR model advises change managers to help individuals turn knowledge into action.
By involving managers and subject matter experts, employees can gain access to the expertise and support they need when implementing their newly acquired knowledge.
Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Provide one-on-one coaching when necessary. One-on-one coaching provides a personalized approach that can improve employees’ experience as they transition to a new mode of working. It can also help employees feel included, rather than alienated.
- Open two-way communication channels with employees and encourage feedback. Employees who feel listened to will be more likely to engage with a change project, since they will feel more like equal participants. Additionally, their feedback can be immediately useful to change managers, since it will offer insight and information into the project’s performance.
- Allow for hands-on exercises. Hands-on learning is one of the most effective workplace learning methods. With the right exercises and training methods, employees can learn more quickly. As a result, their performance, confidence, and motivation will increase.
- Monitor and assess performance continuously. Performance should be continually monitored throughout the duration of the project. Real-time data, employee feedback, and other data sources can offer insights that can be used to make adjustments.
Though building skills and abilities takes effort, performing this crucial step can minimize employee resistance, instill confidence, and ensure that employees can meet performance expectations.
Implementing change takes effort and it is rarely easy.
Maintaining and sustaining that change over time, however, is just as difficult, if not more so.
There are several mechanisms that can be used to reinforce a change program, such as:
- Recognitions and rewards
- Accountability systems
- Regular audits
Reinforcement techniques should vary depending on the needs of the organization as well as individual employees. As with many of the other techniques covered here, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe that can be applied universally.
A reinforcement mechanism that is uniquely suited to one’s own context will help ensure that the change remains in place for the long term – and once that success has been established, employees will be more ready for change in the future.
ADKAR In-Depth: 3 Key Concepts and Perspectives
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the ADKAR framework by examining some of the foundational ideas and perspectives that set this framework apart:
1. Change happens at the level of the individual
One of the most fundamental concepts underpinning the ADKAR change model is the idea that individuals must change in order for an organization to change.
Organizations, after all, are composed of individuals, and without their support, change simply cannot move forward.
In practical terms, this means that managers, leaders, and change management professionals must focus on people rather than on systems and processes.
Since the human element represents both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge when it comes to organizational change, it makes sense that the ADKAR model focuses so heavily on change at the individual level.
2. Don’t just implement change, build the capacity for change
Continuous change has become the norm in the modern business world.
It is important, therefore, to look beyond an immediate change effort and build a permanent capacity for change.
According to Prosci, a flexible, change-ready culture can be very helpful in this regard.
They also suggest investing in organizational change competency, or enterprise change management.
Among other things, Prosci suggests that enterprise change management can refer to:
- Institutionalized change management practices and competencies
- The integration of “great change management” into the company’s DNA
- The idea that change management is expected and normal in new business initiatives, rather than the exception
Having a capacity for enterprise change management improves the success rate of business projects and enables organizations to change continuously – which is becoming more and more necessary in the modern business landscape.
3. Reimagine the workplace for today’s changing world
Today’s digital workplace and the business landscape have been changing for years, and organizations should be prepared to rethink their business models to change with it.
Among other things, Prosci’s methods can help companies:
- Rebuild the workplace for the remote world
- Cultivate a culture that is ready for change
- Build a more flexible business and workforce
In the years ahead, we can expect to see more volatility and change in the economy, which will make qualities such as these even more relevant.
ADKAR vs. Other Change Models
ADKAR is one among several change models that focus on the human side of change management. Below, we’ll look at two other prominent change models in use today.
The Lewin Change Model
The Lewin change model was developed by Kurt Lewin, a psychologist often credited as one of the founders of change management.
While his model is less practical than the ADKAR framework, it does offer useful insights into change management and how change takes place within an organization.
This model consists of three stages:
- Unfreeze. During the first stage of any organizational or social change, existing habits, behaviors, and norms are unfrozen. Dismantling those existing norms is a necessary first step to change, otherwise new processes cannot be put into place.
- Change. The second stage of a change process is a transitory period. This period is characterized by uncertainty and confusion, since new processes have not yet been instilled.
- Freeze. During the final stage of a change, new processes and norms are put into place. Over time, as these changes crystallize, people become more comfortable and the new status quo eventually becomes viewed as normal.
This overall model of change can offer insights into group psychology and how people react to change.
It is, however, less practical than other change models. For those who want a step-by-step roadmap, they should turn to the ADKAR model or another practical model, such as the Kotter change model.
Kotter’s 8-Step Model
In the 1990s, change management expert John Kotter published Leading Change, a book that focused on change management and introduced his change model.
In 2014, this model was updated and is now called the 8-Step Process for Leading Change.
Like ADKAR, this model is designed to be applied directly within organizations, and it can be used as a journey map by change managers.
Its steps include:
- Create a sense of urgency. Employee engagement depends on emotional engagement. Creating a sense of urgency can help employees stay engaged and motivated throughout the change process, a necessity for any organizational change effort. To cultivate that sense, it is useful to explain that there is a temporary window of opportunity – and change needs to happen before that window closes.
- Build a guiding coalition. The core team that will guide this project should be a cross-functional team composed of members from across the organization. They should be allowed to work outside the traditional hierarchy to a certain extent, since that ability can help make change happen.
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives.Another key motivating factor for employees will be the strategic vision. This vision represents the “after” state that the organization is moving towards, and it should be compelling enough to earn support from employees. The strategic initiatives, in turn, will be those activities that turn the vision into reality.
- Enlist a volunteer army. To actually execute a project and move it forward, the guiding coalition must have employees to guide. Recruiting motivated volunteers from across the company will be essential for building and maintaining momentum.
- Enable action by removing barriers. Old habits, processes, and rules can get in the way of new ones. Those barriers, in turn, can become a hindrance to progress, which is why change managers should proactively remove them.
- Generate short-term wins. Milestones and accomplishments should be rewarded, since those rewards will further incentivize action. Ideally, accomplishments should be meaningful and replicable. Those that are will spread more quickly across the organization and fuel further activity.
- Sustain acceleration. To maintain momentum, it is important for change leaders to continually push the project forward. To do this, managers can renew the sense of urgency, continue removing barriers to success, and enlist more volunteers.
- Institute change. Like ADKAR, the Kotter model emphasizes the need to reinforce change even after a project has been completed. By linking new behaviors to the organization’s success, managers can prevent employees from slipping back into old behaviors.
Though the steps differ, many of the principles of Kotter’s model align with ADKAR. Both, for instance, emphasize the need to engage employees and reinforce change over the long term.
ADKAR: Tips, Strategies, and Best Practices
When implementing ADKAR or any other change model, it is important to adhere to a few principles and best practices – after all, a change framework cannot substitute for poor execution.
Clearly Delineate Teams, Roles, and Responsibilities
Prosci advises delegating several teams to implement a change program, including:
- Sponsors. Sponsors are those that fund and actively support a change project through activities such as building coalitions and communication.
- People managers. Managers will actively coach their teams, listen to feedback, foster communication, and be an advocate for other stakeholders.
- Change practitioners. Change managers must ensure that the change teams are fully equipped and supported throughout the change project.
- Project managers. Project managers help contribute to the success of a project by focusing on adoption and usage, while also maintaining a close connection with project stakeholders.
- People and impacted employees. Employees take responsibility for adopting and using changes.
Each of these groups will bear a certain amount of responsibility in the management of a change program, so it is important to define and assign these early on.
In certain cases, it may be necessary to extend these core change management roles by adding, for instance, subject matter experts, business analysts, or other support roles.
Begin with a Compelling “Why”
One common theme in the ADKAR model, Kotter’s 8-step model, and other change frameworks is the need to engage employees emotionally.
That emotional engagement is crucial to earning employee support, reducing resistance, and maintaining productivity.
A compelling why, says Prosci, helps to quickly transform the awareness of a change project into the desire to support change.
To construct that reason, Prosci suggests clearly defining and communicating four key areas:
- Logic. The logical explanation for a change program revolves around the business case for the change. To build this argument, managers can focus on concepts such as ROI, the investment capital, timelines, and other data-driven facts.
- Emotion. All stakeholders want to have an answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” Adding a personal, emotional dimension to the logical argument will help employees become emotionally invested in the project and, as a result, more engaged.
- Visual. Since people think in pictures, it is useful to visualize the process for change teams and stakeholders. Journey maps, diagrams, and other tools can help people grasp the process more quickly than words alone.
- Story. Stories are memorable and they are more engaging than straight facts and figures. When describing a proposed change plan to stakeholders, it can be useful to frame that plan as a narrative, replete with characters and a happy ending.
With all of these elements in place, change managers will have a much easier time developing a compelling why – and, as a consequence, motivating and engaging the workforce.
Educate Employees on Change Management
One of Prosci’s main offerings is change management training, so it should come as no surprise that they promote the benefits of change management education.
Effective training is one of the chief means by which a company can build change competency and change management maturity.
For those interested in applying the ADKAR model, it is useful to visit their website and learn about their training solutions, which include:
- Basic change management certification programs
- Advanced change management certifications
- Training for trainers
- Advisory services
Many of their courses are available virtually, and some are also available in-person. Training programs such as these are ideal for companies that are serious about building enterprise change management.
ADKAR Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions about Prosci’s approach to change management:
What are the biggest challenges to implementing ADKAR?
According to a survey conducted by Prosci, the most challenging step in the ADKAR process was the second step.
This makes sense, since employees must choose for themselves whether or not they want to change.
Though cultivating desire can be a challenge, there are solutions. Highlighting personal motivators and gaining support from business leaders, for instance, can both help to create that desire.
It is also worth noting that a desire for change can help overcome one of the most common obstacles to change, employees’ resistance to change.
Training vs. consulting: which is the better choice?
Training and consulting each have their benefits, drawbacks, and use cases.
- Training helps build a permanent capacity for change
- Consulting allows organizations to leverage the knowledge of change management experts
- Implementing both training and consulting offers the best of both worlds
Companies intent on building an enterprise change management function will ultimately need to train employees on change management or hire experienced change leaders. In this regard, training will prove essential.
Consulting can be useful not only for implementing change, but also for speeding up the formation of an enterprise change management function.
What is the best way to earn executive support for change?
According to a white paper by Cloudbakers, executive buy-in and leadership is the top factor contributing to employee engagement.
To earn leaders’ support, it can be useful to follow Prosci’s “5 B’s of Executive Buy-In”:
- Best practices. Familiarization with change management best practices will ensure that change advocates can confidently answer any questions that executives may have about a proposal. That knowledge and confidence will, in and of itself, go a long way towards earning trust and buy-in.
- Business case. From a business leader’s perspective, one of the most important aspects of a change project is its potential business value. All business projects are, after all, investments, replete with risks, rewards, and returns. Making a strong business case will ensure that executives can connect the change program to the bottom-line ROI.
- Be specific. Business leaders will be much more likely to support change proposals that are detailed and specific. Specificity offers granular insight into a change program, which reassures executives and gives them the information they need to make a decision. After all, business leaders must entrust their own resources and reputation to the initiative.
- Be assertive. Logic certainly plays a role in business decisions, but so do emotions. If a change advocate lacks confidence and appears timid, then executives could easily assume a lack of knowledge or ability. Being assertive is a remedy for this problem.
- Bring in an expert. An outside expert can offer a fresh perspective and new information, which can be influential in negotiations. In some cases, an expert’s insight can mean the difference between buy-in and a lack of support.
Once this buy-in has been obtained, change managers will have a much easier time leading and managing their change initiatives.
Prosci’s ADKAR model is one of the most widely used and well-known change management frameworks in the world.
The proper implementation of this framework can dramatically improve the efficiency, performance, and outcomes of any change project.
Since today’s world is evolving quickly, and continuous organizational change has become so common, frameworks such as ADKAR are becoming more and more relevant.
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.