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change management

What is change management?

Change management is a systematic approach to dealing with the transition or transformation of an organization's goals, processes or technologies. The purpose of change management is to implement strategies for effecting change, controlling change and helping people to adapt to change.

change management plan
This checklist can be used to create a simple change management plan.

To be effective, the change management strategy must take into consideration how an adjustment or replacement will impact processes, systems and employees within the organization. There must be a process for planning and testing change, communicating change, scheduling and implementing change, documenting change and evaluating its effects. Documentation is a critical component of change management -- not only to maintain an audit trail should a rollback become necessary, but also to ensure compliance with internal and external controls, including regulatory compliance.

How does change management work?

To understand how change management works, it helps to apply its concepts and tools to specific areas of business. Below are examples of how change management works for project management, software development and IT infrastructure.

Change management for project management

Change management plays an important role in project management because each change request must be evaluated for its impact on the project. Project managers, or the senior executives in charge of change control, must examine how a change in one area of the project could affect other areas and what impact that change could have on the project as a whole. Project areas that change control experts should pay particular attention to include the following:

  • Scope. Change requests must be evaluated to determine how they will affect the project scope.
  • Schedule. Change requests must be assessed to determine how they will alter the project schedule.
  • Costs. Change requests must be evaluated to determine how they will affect project costs. Labor is typically the largest expense on a project, so overages on completing project tasks can quickly drive changes to the project costs.
  • Quality. Change requests must be evaluated to determine how they will affect the quality of the completed project. An acceleration of the project schedule, in particular, can affect quality as defects can occur if work is rushed.
  • Human resources. Change requests must be evaluated to determine if additional or specialized labor is required. When the project schedule changes, the project manager may lose key resources to other assignments.
  • Communications. Approved change requests must be communicated to the appropriate stakeholders at the appropriate time.
  • Risk. Change requests must be evaluated to determine what risks they pose. Even minor changes can have a domino effect on the project and introduce logistical, financial or security risks.
  • Procurement. Changes to the project may affect procurement of materials and contract labor.

When an incremental change has been approved, the project manager documents the change in one of four standard change control systems to ensure all thoughts and insight have been captured with the change request. Changes that are not entered through a control system are labeled defects. When a change request is declined, this is also documented and kept as part of the project archives.

Change management for software development

In software development project management, change management strategies and tools help developers manage changes to code and its associated documentation and enable chief information officers (CIOs) to keep projects on track. Agile software development environments encourage changes that are made to satisfy requirements and/or adjust the user interface. Change is not addressed in the middle of an iteration, however; changes are scheduled as stories or features for future iterations.

Version control software tools assist with documentation and prevent more than one person from making changes to code at the same time. Such tools have capabilities to track changes and back out changes when necessary.

Change management for IT infrastructure

Change management tools are also used to track changes made to an IT department's hardware infrastructure. As with other types of change management, standardized methods and procedures ensure every change made to the infrastructure is assessed, approved, documented, implemented and reviewed in a systematic manner.

Changes made to hardware settings are also referred to as configuration management (CM). Technicians use CM tools to review the entire collection of related systems and verify the effects that a change in one system has on other systems.

Types of organizational change

Change management can be used to manage many types of organizational change. The three most common types are the following:

  1. Developmental change. Any organizational change that improves on previously established processes and procedures.
  2. Transitional change. Change that moves an organization away from its current state to a new state to solve a problem, such as implementing a merger and acquisition or automating a task or process.
  3. Transformational change. Change that radically and fundamentally alters the culture and operation of an organization. In transformational change, the end result might not be known. For example, a company may pursue entirely different products or markets.

Popular models for managing change

Best practice models can provide guiding principles and help managers align the scope of proposed changes with available digital and nondigital tools. Popular models include the following:

  • ADKAR. The ADKAR model, created by Prosci founder Jeff Hiatt, consists of five sequential steps:
    1. Awareness of the need for change;
    2. Desire to participate and support the change;
    3. Knowledge on how to change;
    4. Ability to implement desired skills and behaviors; and
    5. Reinforcement to sustain the change.
  • Bridges' Transition Model. Change consultant William Bridges' model focuses on how people adjust to change. The model features three stages: a stage for letting go, a stage of uncertainty and confusion and a stage for acceptance. Bridges' model is sometimes compared to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
  • IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). The ITIL framework offers detailed guidance for managing change in IT operations and infrastructure. It is owned by Axelos, a joint venture between Capita and the U.K. Cabinet Office.
  • Kotter's 8-Step Process for Leading Change. Harvard University professor John Kotter's model has eight steps:
    1. Create a sense of urgency.
    2. Build a guiding coalition.
    3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives.
    4. Enlist a volunteer army.
    5. Enable action by removing barriers.
    6. Generate short-term wins.
    7. Sustain acceleration.
    8. Institute change.
  • Lewin's Change Management Model. Psychologist Kurt Lewin created a three-step framework that is also referred to as the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze
  • McKinsey 7-S. Business consultants Robert H. Waterman Jr. and Tom Peters designed a model to look holistically at seven factors that affect change:
    1. shared values
    2. strategy
    3. structure
    4. systems
    5. style
    6. staff
    7. skills

What are the benefits of change management?

As laid out in other sections of this definition, taking a structured approach to change management helps organizations mitigate disruption, reduce costs, reduce time to implementation, improve leadership skills, drive innovation and improve morale.

In addition, here are some ways that change management can help add structure to IT and operations:

  • improved documentation of enterprise systems;
  • greater alignment between suggested change and what gets implemented;
  • better starting point for automation initiatives;
  • understanding of why systems were made;
  • ability to reverse-engineer changes made to existing business processes and infrastructure; and
  • better ability to identify what can be safely eliminated or updated.

What are the challenges of change management?

Companies developing a change management program from the ground up often face daunting challenges. In addition to a thorough understanding of company culture, the change management process requires an accurate accounting of the systems, applications and employees to be affected by a change. Additional change management challenges include the following:

  • Resource management. Managing the physical, financial, human, informational, and intangible assets and resources that contribute to an organization's strategic plan becomes increasingly difficult when implementing change.
  • Resistance. The executives and employees who are most affected by a change may resist it. Since change may result in unwanted extra work, ongoing resistance is common. Transparency, training, planning and patience can help quell resistance and improve overall morale.
  • Communication. Companies often fail to consistently communicate change initiatives or include employees in the process. Change-related communication requires an adequate number of messages, the involvement of enough stakeholders to get the message out and multiple communication channels.
  • New technology. The application of new technologies can disrupt an employee's entire workflow. Companies can improve adoption of new technology by creating a network of early learners who champion the new technology to colleagues.
  • Multiple points of view. In any change initiative, success factors differ for people based on their roles in the organization and incentives. Managing these various priorities is challenging.
  • Scheduling issues. Deciding whether a change program will be long or short term and clearly defining milestone deadlines are complicated. Some organizations believe that shorter change programs are most effective. Others believe a more gradual approach to change reduces resistance and errors.

Importance and effects of change management

As a conceptual business framework for people, processes and the organization, change management increases the success of critical projects and improves a company's ability to adapt quickly.

Business change is constant and inevitable, and when poorly managed, it has the potential to cause organizational stress, as well as unnecessary and costly rework.

By standardizing the consistency and efficiency of assigned work, change management assures that the people side of an organization is not overlooked. As changes to work occur, change management helps employees understand their new roles and build a more process-driven culture.

Change management also encourages future company growth by enabling it to remain dynamic in the marketplace.

Principles of change management

Three principles of change management build on the three stages of change management introduced by Kurt Lewin in his seminal book, Principles of Topological Psychology:

  • Unfreeze the current state. Change agents need to identify what precisely they want to change. At this stage, they need to formulate a "why" that other participants are likely to buy into. In essence, they need to reverse-engineer the future state and translate this benefit to other possible participants. Then, they need to enroll people who can participate in the new idea. This could include executive sponsorship for a big change or co-workers for a departmental change.
  • Change the system. At this stage, change agents and any collaborators can begin to put the change into practice. The change agents need to work with collaborators to communicate the idea and bring other participants on board. It is important to pay attention to any pushback and find areas of shared understanding to either help move the change forward or shift its implementation in response to feedback. Tensions might be high as everyone gets used to the new system. It's important to be respectful of their feelings and ideas.
  • Refreeze. Eventually, people get used to the new system, or they revert back to what was working before. At this stage, it is important to declare that the change is over -- whether the change was accepted or rejected. Even if the change was rejected, declaring it over gives everyone a chance to relax. It is also helpful at this stage to document what happened for future reference.

Popular change management tools

Digital and nondigital change management tools can help change management officers research, analyze, organize and implement changes. In a small company, the tools may simply consist of spreadsheets, Gantt charts and flowcharts. Larger organizations typically use software suites to maintain change logs digitally and provide stakeholders with an integrated, holistic view of change and its effects.

Popular change management software applications include the following:

  • ChangeGear (Serviceaide). Change management support for DevOps and ITIL automation, as well as business roles.
  • ChangeScout (Deloitte). Cloud-based organizational change management application for evaluating sea changes, as well as incremental changes.
  • eChangeManager (Giva). A cloud-based, standalone IT change management application.
  • Freshservice (Freshworks). An onlineITIL change management solution featuring workflow customization capabilities and gamification features.
  • Remedy Change Management 9 (BMC Software). Assistance for managers with planning, tracking and delivering successful changes that are compliant with ITIL and Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies, or COBIT.

Change management certifications

Change management practitioners can earn certifications that recognize their ability to manage projects, manage people and guide an organization through a period of transition or transformation. Popular certifications for change management are issued by the following organizations:

  • Change Management Institute (CMI). CMI offers Foundation, Specialist and Master certifications.
  • Prosci. The Change Management Certification validates the recipient is able to apply holistic change management methodologies and the ADKAR model to a project.
  • Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP). ACMP offers a Certified Change Management Professional certification for best practices in change management.
  • Management and Strategy Institute. The Change Management Specialist certification attests to the recipient's ability to design and manage change programs.
  • Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business. The Change Management certification program was developed to authenticate a change agent's ability to carry out a change initiative. The certification requires four core courses and two leadership electives.

Overcoming resistance to change

In general, no one likes to change, even it is for the better in some way. Here are some best practices to help mitigate this resistance to change:

  • Clarify the goal of the change being made, and identify how it can benefit others.
  • Listen to objections, and find ways to address them.
  • Take the time to build consensus rather than bulldoze dissenters.
  • Consider feedback as a guide rather than an obstacle.
  • Celebrate success at the end to plant the seeds for further change.
  • Be willing to backtrack when the change does not meet desired goals.
This was last updated in May 2022

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