These are the 3 Best Theories of Change Management

What are the best theories of change management?

There are many theories of change management out there – especially in an age dominated by digital change and transformation.

Change management models can include theories that:

  • Describe group psychology and group dynamics
  • Explain processes and procedures
  • Offer step-by-step action plans

Below, we’ll look at the 3 best theories of change management. 

We’ll explore what they are, details about each one, and why they matter.

3 of the Best Theories of Change Management

Change management principles, models, and theories are very useful to change practitioners.

These models give change managers the materials they need to succeed in organizational change.

The best ones include:

  • Ideas that are grounded in psychology, social dynamics, business, and other disciplines
  • Frameworks that act as a lens, which helps practitioners understand why they do what they do
  • Practical action plans designed to execute change

As we will soon see, the change models mentioned below are just that. 

They are steeped in change theory, real-world research, and real-world experience. 

But they are useful because they take these ideas and apply them in the context of the organization.

Let’s start by examining the oldest change model:

1. The Lewin Change Model

Kurt Lewin is considered to be one of the forefathers – if not the forefather – of change management, organizational development, and social psychology.

His ideas have been critical in all theories of change management. 

His change model is very simple, yet it’s this simplicity that makes it so powerful.

Every change, he says, follows a 3-step process that starts by addressing existing mindsets.

These steps are:

  • Unfreezing – First, a process must shift away from its current state. To accomplish this, it’s necessary to overcome inertia, bypass defense mechanisms, and dismantle current viewpoints.
  • Transition – The second stage is where the change occurs. It can involve confusion and uncertainty. The end goal is not always clear.
  • Freezing – The final stage of transition involves replacing the old ways of thinking and operating. During this stage, people begin to return to their comfort zone and feel more comfortable with this new status quo.

This model has been applied heavily in change management and organizational change.

The model itself is easy to grasp, making it easy to understand change processes from a high level.

Change practitioners who use this theory exclusively can leverage its simplicity, then create their own roadmaps and tactics.

However, people who want step-by-step action plans will likely prefer one of the theories mentioned below.

2. Kotter’s 8-Step Model for Change

John Kotter is a leading authority in the change management industry.

His theory of change management is specifically tailored for change management and organizational change.

It has eight steps:

  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Build a guiding coalition
  • Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  • Enlist a volunteer army
  • Enable action by removing barriers
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Sustain acceleration
  • Institute change

This change model is useful for those who want more than just theory – they want a framework to follow.

It is applicable, straightforward, and easy to map out.

Because it is a roadmap, it is easier to follow and implement.

John Kotter’s approach is quite famous.

Information about this theory can be found on his consultancy’s website.

3. Prosci’s ADKAR Model

The ADKAR framework is another change management theory designed as a roadmap and execution plan.

It consists of 5 stages:

  • Awareness of the need to change
  • Desire to support change
  • Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability to demonstrate skills and behavior
  • Reinforcement to make the change stick

Like Kotter’s model, this change model is ideal for change managers who want theory plus application.

It was developed by Jeff Hiatt, the founder of Prosci.

Today, Prosci teaches the ADKAR model to students, offers consulting services, and more.

Anyone interested in applying this model can attend workshops and obtain change management certifications from Prosci.

Conclusion: Change Theories Are Designed to Be Used

Two of the models above take theory and apply it.

Examined from a bird’s eye perspective, we can see how Kotter’s model and ADKAR follow a similar pattern to Lewin’s model.

Each model starts by loosening up previous ideas. 

Then we execute a series of actions designed to transition people to a new normal.

For most change managers, this is the end aim – applying change theory in their organization.

However, using someone else’s change framework may not always cut it.

Anyone interested in deeper ideas around change management can investigate:

  • Lewin’s other ideas and theories
  • Social psychology
  • Group dynamics
  • Contemporary change management research

Change management literature and its historical development are often used to develop new change frameworks, beyond the ones mentioned here.

For example, many change managers in healthcare use their own models. 

These, however, are still based on change management theories such as those mentioned here.

Someone who wants to hone their skills should gain an understanding of the history of change management, organizational development, and group dynamics.

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.