Leading change - why models matter?

By Alison Gill


How valuable is a strategy that no one buys in to? Or a new set of values that people pay lip service to? Or a new process that no one adopts? How valuable is a new approach to client service if no one feels skilled to deliver it? Change can create value but, when not delivered properly, it can easily erode value too.

The essence of organisational change is that it is only successful when each impacted individual makes their own successful transition. Any organisational initiative that impacts how people do their jobs is only as successful as each employee at making the personal change.

I have, for many years now, been firmly of the belief that when leading any organisational change, no matter how small, it is helped by using a change model as a frame of reference to guide approach, decision making and for monitoring progress; a model of individual change.

A model of individual change is critical because successful organisational change only results when individuals are successful at change.

Change is a human business


Organisations, divisions and teams only change if the individuals within them change. Humans find change challenging but the truth is we are changing all the time. At some time in your life you found it hard to ride a bike, now it is a sixth sense; first you were a child, now you are an adult – each stage of life comes with different challenges and demands different mindsets, knowledge and skills. However, there is a glitch - the brain. The brain absorbs, processes and stores information creating useful short-cuts to improve our efficiency. As we age, we become literally programmed to rely on what we know is right. Uncertainty is inconvenient, it slows us down. It means we have to think differently and apply cognitive effort. Uncertainty is our biggest fear, so we keep the idea that our vision of the world is reality. We construct a picture of the world, unconsciously making sure that it fits with our past image of things. We are safe, calm and efficient in our world as we know it. This is solipsism. When we feel fear, we are compelled to fight or flight. Running away (figuratively speaking) or fighting change is core to change resistance.

While we are all different, as humans we respond to change fairly predictably


At first glance, your reaction might be "oh no, everybody is unique" - and you would be correct. However, the way we as humans all respond to change is actually very similar. For instance, it is basic human nature to be curious about why a change is happening and what has resulted in the need for change. It is also human nature to analyse the need for change, to want choice about whether the change is perceived to be advantageous and to decide whether the effort required to deliver the change is worth it.

The 7 human factors of change


Change always starts with a question of purpose and identity. Whenever we embark on change we will evoke a shift in identity and purpose. If the identity is not attractive and the purpose is not believable or compelling, the change will fail at the first hurdle. Choice is vital to humans; with choice comes a feeling of power and control. Every human at work has the right to choose whether they want to change their identity and the purpose of what they do and to what extent. Making choices visible and tangible and supporting the choice process is the key. Having made a choice to change, people are likely to attend to what they need to do differently and how that might best be achieved. People are best when they feel energised and motivated; resistance to change often comes in the form of lethargy and passivity. Motivated people work towards something with purpose and energy. Motivation and attention add energy and focus to change agendas. Finally, humans are pre-programmed to develop and to nurture the development of others. Nurturing and new habit formation are core to change. Learning new ways of thinking and doing requires practice and feedback. Engraining new habits in groups of people cannot (contrary to popular belief!) only be achieved through the design of a new compensation system.

The Kubler-Ross change curve and Procheska and Diclemente stages of change


Organisational change management research has taken root from mainstream psychological studies. Perhaps the two most cited models are the Kubler-Ross change curve and the Procheska and Diclemente stages of change.

In the 1960’s, psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, studied grieving and developed the now well-known and well researched Kubler-Ross Change Curve. She studied the process of grieving on the basis that experiencing the passing of a close relative is a major change that every human experiences. It is a major event that forces often unwanted change. The change curve demonstrates that there are three major phases that people progress through, which are identified by different emotional states: Stage 1 is characterised by shock, anxiety and denial; Stage 2 by anger and depression and Stage 3 by acceptance and hope.

Procheska and Diclemente developed their model initially by studying individuals working to quit smoking and drug addiction. Over a number of years they have conducted over fifty studies working with thousands of individuals to discover how people overcome lifestyle issues such as problems with smoking, drug addiction and weight loss. They identified six-stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination as the key stages through which individuals must pass in order to successfully change unwanted life-style habits. No one stage is more important than any other and the key to success is appropriately designed interventions for each stage. Procheska, in his book ‘Change for Good’, makes a very important point that the techniques used at each stage can be many and varied and ‘self-changers’ are constantly inventing new techniques. Once you know which stage you are in, you can apply multiple different techniques, different techniques being more or less appropriate for different people.

graph of commitment and productivity against time

Are these models really appropriate to guide organisational change?


With the understanding of the process of change at an individual level, we can more accurately describe what will need to be done and how we will achieve organisational goals and objectives. Thankfully, there is now an increasing body of research based on practical experience and academic study which has translated some of these more clinical research programmes in to practical models to help guide leaders through organisational change. The crux of these models is that they provide the key building blocks for successful individual change and hence successful organisational change, with the so called ‘soft issues’ actually at the centre of meeting the goals of projects and strategic initiatives.

The Kotter 8 stages of change brings face validity to organisational change


One of the most published researchers on change management is John Kotter. Kotter has translated clinical psychological models about change in to models that have face validity in an organisational context. His approach places individual change process in an organisational context.

Kotter’s 8 stage model particularly emphasises the importance of leveraging groupthink and peer pressure in enabling change in organisations. Energising and motivating change is more likely when groups of people commit to change and start the actual process of changing themselves.
A mistake many leaders make when working with Kotter’s model is to assume that change can be led without changing themselves. Done well, the creating a sense of urgency and building a coalition stages are creative processes using techniques to engage leaders emotionally and intellectually to challenge their own thinking and beliefs about the need for change, (personally) as well as organisationally.

Like any model, the power comes from understanding the critical success factors at each stage, using the right tools and techniques at each stage and most importantly, ensuring these tools and techniques tap in to the 7 human factors of change, with each segment of the organisation working through each of the 8-stages.

The rhythm of decision making


A factor often missed and misunderstood during the organisational change process is the importance of effective decision making. Because of the fluid nature of change, the way decisions are taken about the change agenda provides a momentum and rhythm to the change process. Building a framework of informing, consulting, considering and deciding, which has regularity and rhythm, delivers a change process with momentum. The more networked and decentralised the organisation, the more important this factor is in delivering change. Giving rhythm to change helps work through the organisational anxiety experienced in the early stages of change.
Four factors required for all change agendas

At Crelos we use a simple model of change which we think neatly packages the focus on key deliverables that enable the 7 human factors of change. Our model is based on the simple concept that….

  • I will change if I believe in the reason for change and see how the change will contribute to a better future identity for myself – this requires me to create a compelling story that is underpinned by my values.
  • I will change if I have choice to contribute to creating the future through the decisions I take and can influence. The decision making process will provide rhythm and help me attend consciously to the changes I am making.
  • I will change if I have the capability in the form of the required skills, knowledge and behaviours and if I can help others to develop the skills.
  • I will be helped to change if I see others changing around me and I am persuaded and supported by their enthusiasm and capability, which gives me something to aspire to.

role models and advocates, compelling stories & values, Rhythm of decisions, Behaviour knowlage and skill

Models of change – why bother?


Models help deliver value. Research from McKinsey suggests that 70% of major businesses anticipate the rate of change in their organisations will increase over the next five years. Disruptive technology and globalisation are just two forces driving the pace of change. Effective change management can greatly enhance both an organisation’s ability to successfully change, as well as the return on investment from those changes. Therefore, businesses that allocate significant dollars to change projects have a strong economic incentive to invest in a structured approach to change for employees. Change research experts Prosci (www.prosci.com) suggest that the probability of achieving a desired business result is nearly six times higher for organisations effectively applying change management models.

Models provide focus and a framework to organisational change management activities. For example, it is commonly accepted that communication is critical to change. But what should we communicate about and in what form is the communication best delivered? If your change audience has no sense of urgency, your communication will be about building awareness and providing evidence for the need to change, whereas if people have already made the choice to join the change journey, your communication will be more about building awareness of actions people can take.

Models help to educate people about change processes and bring clarity to what is being experienced. Change at its various stages invokes a variety of emotions, some of which are troublesome and difficult to stomach, particularly in the early stages. Helping people understand and recognise the nature and necessity of these stages is an important motivator in encouraging people to stick with it and work through the phases of change.

Models provide a means to measure progress. Groups of people will progress through change at different speeds. Using a model enables change leaders to collate data from different groups to understand how well people are progressing and what corrective action might need to be taken. For example, it might be appropriate to measure the readiness for change, by monitoring how well people understand and believe the need for change, before moving in to a skill development phase.

There are many different models of change, which one you chose to work with is to some extent academic; having a model which is based on the solid foundation of taking care of the individual, human elements of change is vital. Successful organisational change happens when individuals change.


Alison Gill (2012) Leading Change – Crelos Working Paper
John Kotter (2006) Our Iceberg is Melting
John Kotter (2012) Leading Change
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss.
James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross & Carlo C. Diclemente (1998) Changing for Good