This paper describes best practices in organizational change, including change models supported by academic and popular literature. We review the history of organizational change theory and the development of two unique styles of organizational change models, processual and descriptive. We look to see how these models are used in organizations today and what constitutes a best practice. We describe why the integration of existing models can provide better project success. We also analyze three unique case studies in light of these best practices. This analysis provides a deeper understanding of how each of these cases succeeded or failed based on the implementation plans employed by leaders in each organization.
Keywords: change management, change leadership, transition management, leading change
Errida and Lotfi (2021) tell us that leaders in organizations are constantly working to change and adapt their business practices to increasingly complex and dynamic environments. However, many organizations struggle to implement successful change projects, and 60-70% of change efforts fail. Failure is often due to change managers ignoring best practices from change models and methodologies (Phillips & Klein, 2022). This paper will review the history and variety of organizational change theories, including those from popular literature. We will analyze what constitutes best practices based on analyzing the literature in this field of study.60-70% of change efforts fail Click To Tweet
In the second half of this paper, we will review three separate case studies. We uncover what leaders did right and where they fell short of best practices. Through this analysis, we can better understand how these organizational change theories and models can work in the real world. For this analysis, we will look at the successful implementation of a project management methodology at a Moroccan construction company, the failed implementation of new surgical sutures at a Dutch hospital, and the successful reformation movement in ancient Judah by King Josiah.
Best Practices in Organizational Change
One of the undeniable facts about change is that it keeps on changing, as do change management methodologies. Studies in change management began in engineering management and industrial engineering more than 100 years ago with the work of Fredrick W. Taylor (Ratana et al., 2020). However, Kurt Lewin provided the first real contribution to change management. He popularized a three-step planned approach to change in 1951. This approach required top managers to plan and project change from the top of the organization. Lewin described the organizational change process as unfreezing, moving and acting, then refreezing in a new form (Ratana et al., 2020). This top-down, management-driven approach to change was considered the “theoretical foundation of planned change management” (Errida & Lotfi, 2021, p. 1).
Lewin’s planned approach to change management proved ineffective with the pace of environmental, technological, and organizational change in the 1990s. In 1991, strategic management consultant Arnold Judson expanded Lewin’s work into a five-phase step-by-step model, which included analysis, communication, gaining acceptance, changing from the status quo, and consolidating the new conditions (Ratana et al., 2020). This five-step model led to many other multi-step change management models, such as Kanter’s ten commandments, Hamel’s eight-step insurrection method, and Luecke’s seven steps of managing change (Ratana et al., 2020).
During this renaissance period of process-driven change management programs, John Kotter launched his eight-stage leading change method in 1996 (Ratana et al., 2020). This method became the best-known (Kang et al., 2022) and most influential approach in the change practitioner community (McLaren et al., 2022). Kotter created his approach based on his observations as a consultant and Kanter’s ten commandments (Ratana et al., 2020). Kotter was also heavily influenced by Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze methodology, as evidenced by penguin and iceberg metaphors in his writings (McLaren et al., 2022).John Kotter's eight-stage leading change method became the best-known model Click To Tweet
Over the years, organizational change management models have evolved along two different lines of thought, processual and descriptive. Like Kotter’s eight-stage leading change method, processual models assume that a “change process can be successfully managed by following a series of pre-planned steps” (Errida & Lotfi, 2021, p. 7). On the other hand, descriptive models worked to identify and explain the causes and effects of change initiatives. Errida and Lotfi (2021) identified 18 different processual models and 19 different descriptive models being used globally.
On the processual model side, Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze methodology strongly influenced processual change model development. The concept is that unfreezing destabilizes the status quo and creates the need and buy-in for change. The transition involves moving to the new future state. Refreezing occurs after the change is complete to cement the new culture, processes, and behaviors. After Lewin’s methodology, the most notable processual model is Kotter’s eight-stage leading change method (Errida & Lotfi, 2021).
Kotter’s eight stages include establishing a sense of urgency, creating a powerful guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering broad-based action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and anchoring new approaches in the culture (Kotter, 2012). The stages should be followed in rigid order, although Kotter later revised this idea in 2014, acknowledging that the steps can also be run concurrently (McLaren et al., 2022).
Kotter’s model is influential in the change leadership community but has faced criticism. Critics say it is practitioner-based, not robustly founded in theory, and has been referred to as “pop management.” Still, it is often cited in academic literature, is widely used in change management education, and is commonly deployed in change management efforts (McLaren et al., 2022). Kotter’s model was developed with consultancy-based observations but is generally considered a “recommendable reference” in academic literature. (McLaren et al., 2022).
Kotter’s change model has been deployed in various industries but has been especially successful in guiding change in higher education settings, specifically for dealing with administrative and technical changes (Kang et al., 2022). Kang et al. (2022) documented its use in a three-year change process in an engineering department at a university in the southwestern United States. They concluded that with some modifications, Kotter’s model worked well in an institutional setting. They found a non-linear approach to be more effective and integrated ideas from the design-based implementation research (DBIR) model (Kang et al., 2022).
Other modifications have been suggested to Kotter’s model as well. McLaren et al. (2022) suggest that “establishing a sense of urgency” can create anxiety and stress in employees, leading to increased resistance to change. Instead of vilifying the status quo, they recommend emphasizing the things from the status quo that will remain the same after the change initiative. In this manner, employees can have a firm anchor and reference point, reducing stress and increasing acceptance of the change (McLaren et al., 2022).
Fredberg and Pregmark (2022) share a similar concern. They say a sense of urgency can be a double-edged sword, supporting and preventing change. A sense of urgency and dissatisfaction with the current state created through negative management cues will create stress, anxiety, and fear. These undesirable emotions will block the needed change capabilities of the team. Pregmark (2022) agrees that a sense of urgency and dissatisfaction with the status quo alone are insufficient for a successful transformation in the current fast-paced business environment.
On the descriptive model side, Errida and Lotfi (2021) tell us that at least 19 different descriptive models are being used in business today. The 7-S Model was the first framework developed in this category. Former McKinsey consultants Tom Peters and Robert Waterman developed a model to assess the changes necessary to ensure operational effectiveness by looking at seven organizational elements: strategy, structure, systems, staff, style, skills, and shared values. Chmielewska et al. (2022) show where the 7-S Model was used to evaluate the organizational effectiveness of public hospitals in Warsaw, Poland. Their study showed that social factors play a significant role in the operation of these businesses, and change managers need to consider this when planning change initiatives.
Several notable works have shaped change management practices outside the processual and descriptive models of organizational change. One is the influencer model introduced by Grenny et al. (2013). It provides valuable insights into the art and science of influencing change in people and organizations. The authors emphasize the importance of identifying the vital behaviors that drive change and focusing on them. They provide four strategies to discover these vital behaviors: noticing the obvious, looking for crucial moments, learning from positive deviants, and spotting culture busters. They also describe six different sources of influence that can be used to create lasting change: personal motivation, social motivation, ability, structural motivation, structural ability, and cultural motivation.
Leaders have used the ideas in Grenny et al. (2013) in various industries to enact significant change. For example, Eng and Donnelly (2020) used these techniques and the success of the Delancey Street Foundation to model a reduction of crime and addiction in North America’s second-largest Chinatown in Vancouver, Canada. Holmes (2021) used these techniques to create beautiful, clean common spaces in Detroit. Saver (2022) used vital behaviors to reduce retained surgical items in hospital patients nationwide.
Another essential concept outside the processual and descriptive models of organizational change is the idea of the “human side” of change. Bridges and Bridges (2016) provide a distinct process for dealing with this critical aspect of organizational change by focusing on the transition management of employees. Their method has similarities to Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze concept. Bridges and Bridges (2016) tell us that people process change through a psychological and emotional transition which includes a three-phase process. Those phases include an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. Their methodology focuses on managing the human aspects of change through these three phases. The human side of change management is often overlooked in favor of more technical, procedural, and logistical concerns.
With so many change management methods, programs, and philosophies available for change practitioners today, it is hard for practitioners to determine which ones should be used to lead change initiatives effectively. Errida and Lotfi (2021) tell us that leaders should not rely on just one or even a few models because “certain factors may be omitted or neglected, which could result in failure if the model is inappropriate to the change context” (p. 2). They tell us that 60-70% of organizational change efforts fail because of the increasingly complex and dynamic business environments in which organizations operate. In their literature review, they looked at 37 organizational change models and determined the top 12 factors for success that were common throughout the research.
The 12 factors that impact organizational change management success, according to Errida and Lotfi (2021), are the following: clear and shared vision and strategy of change, change readiness and capacity for change, change team performance, activities for managing change management, resistance management, effective communication, motivation of employees and change agents, stakeholder engagement, leadership and sponsorship, reinforcement and sustainment of change, approach and planning for change, and monitoring with measurement. They also point out that companies should integrate project management into their change process.
Phillips and Klein (2022) took a similar approach and found 15 common strategies in 16 different change management models. They interviewed change practitioners to see how many used strategies similar to those in the change models. They discovered that most change practitioners ignored the popular change literature but found five common strategies between the models and the practitioners. These strategies included the following: communicate the change, involve stakeholders at all levels of the organization, focus on organizational culture, consider the organization’s mission and vision, and provide encouragement and incentives to change.The best practice in organizational change management is to integrate existing models Click To Tweet
Each of these models and methodologies gives change practitioners various ways to think about organizational change. While there is no preferred change management model in practice today, there is a way to think about best practices in change management. Phillips and Klein (2022) tell us that there is no “universal change management approach that works in all settings” (p. 189). They say that the best practice is to integrate the existing models. Errida and Lotfi (2021) agree and say that integrating existing models will “lead to an integrated understanding of how to ensure successful organizational change” (p. 2). The best way for leaders to beat the odds and lead successful change initiatives is to have a broad understanding of the change literature and employ the right tactics for the given situation.
Case Studies in Organizational Change
In order to gain a better understanding of what organizational change management looks like in the real world, we considered three case studies. These case studies demonstrate many of the practices highlighted in the first section of this paper. We first looked at a successful implementation of a project management methodology at a Moroccan construction company. We then reviewed a failed implementation of new surgical sutures at a Dutch hospital. Finally, we analyzed a successful reformation movement in ancient Judah by King Josiah.
The first case study we reviewed was the implementation of a project management methodology (PMM) at a Moroccan construction company. This company had around 300 employees and sales of $35 million. Errida and Lotfi (2021) conducted this study to validate the findings from their literature review. They reviewed two organizational change initiatives over two years. One of those initiatives failed, and the other was considered successful. We reviewed the successful change program, which involved the implementation of a PMM.
Errida and Lotfi (2021) report that company management knew the current way they were running projects was inadequate and resulted in financial losses. The leadership team agreed implementing a new PMM was necessary to improve company performance. Company executives sponsored the project and actively supported the implementation team by providing them with all the resources needed for a successful project. Those resources included a change leader and funding for training, consultants, certification, and project management software. From the start, there was a sense of urgency, dissatisfaction with the status quo, executive sponsorship, and a guiding coalition.
Errida and Lotfi (2021) also found that a strong change leader led the project. In post-project interviews, they discovered that the leadership skills of the project change leader had a visible positive impact on the project outcome. Interviewees stated that the project change leader established a “clear vision and roadmap on how to implement the PMM” (p. 9). They also said he provided effective communication, regular meetings, personal coaching, and team motivation. The project change leader provided a vision for change, and he communicated that vision successfully throughout the project.
The project change leader also generated broad-based support for the project by successfully convincing influential supervisors and project managers to become active in the change process. Errida and Lotfi (2021) say that he “helped them overcome their fears and misconceptions and made them aware of the advantage of the new methodology” (p. 9). By making key employees early adopters and supporters of the new process, he was able to get those still resisting the change on board. Getting the blockers on board helped remove many obstacles for the overall project.
Errida and Lotfi (2021) also said this project succeeded because management adopted a “no blame” philosophy and encouraged employees to participate actively in meetings and discussions throughout the implementation. They effectively used two-way communication to help employees deal with the emotional side of the change. Bridges and Bridges (2016) remind us that change often means a loss for employees, and leaders need to allow employees to talk about those feelings. Leaders must bring the losses out in the open and acknowledge them openly and empathetically. They did this well in this project.
Finally, Errida and Lotfi (2021) pointed out the effective use of learning, coaching, and empowerment throughout this project as a success factor. Employees received training covering the principles, processes, and tools of the new methodology. The project leader assisted employees into the new way of doing business by doing as Bridges and Bridges (2016) suggest. Bridges and Bridges (2016) tell us that we can help employees adopt a new beginning by explaining the purpose, giving them a picture of what the future will look like, telling them the plan for the implementation, and giving them a part to play in the new beginning. The management team did all of that in this project.
In this successful case study, we see effective use of the concepts of both Kotter and Bridges. We also see validation of the literature review of Errida and Lotfi (2021). The 12 factors they identified that impact change management success were all used in this project. This use of various change management tools and techniques also further supports the idea that the best practice for change management is often to integrate ideas from several existing models.
The next case study we considered was an organizational change effort in the Netherlands that Graamans et al. (2020) studied. At the end of 2014, management in a large university hospital in the Netherlands launched an effort to find cheaper surgical suture material. Hospital management was looking to reduce costs and standardize sutures throughout the hospital. The hospital purchasing manager invited vendors to bid their most economically advantageous suture. The tender was awarded to a new supplier who produced a high-quality, lower-cost alternative to what the hospital was currently using.
Top hospital managers and the purchasing manager then implemented a small-scale change initiative using Kotter’s eight-stage leading change method. This project was a test case for further cost-cutting projects. The suture project was considered by management to be relatively easy to implement in both scale and complexity. However, hospital management failed in the most basic way. They failed to establish a sense of urgency and articulate why the status quo was problematic (Kotter, 2012).
Next, they put together a small guiding coalition that included outside medical experts and some of the hospital’s department heads. They did not include any of the surgeons who would be the ones using the new sutures. Management assumed they could communicate the change to surgeons by other means. They failed to create a true guiding coalition that could work together like a team to implement the change (Kotter, 2012). They left out a key stakeholder in the formation of the coalition.
Kotter (2012) tells us that the next two stages of the change process are developing a vision for the change and communicating that vision. Hospital managers believed cost-cutting was necessary, and this suture cost reduction was a test case for further cost-cutting projects. However, they failed to develop a clear vision to communicate to all hospital stakeholders. They also made the mistake of communicating this change primarily by email to the hospital staff. Information about the tendering process, the vendor decision, the verification process, the introduction of the new sutures to the hospital, and training workshops were all sent to hospital employees via email. Kotter (2012) tells us that change managers should be “using every vehicle possible to constantly communicate the new vision” (p. 23). Hospital management failed here as well.
Kotter (2012) says the next step in creating major change is to empower broad-based action and eliminate obstacles. Unfortunately, this is the stage where this project died. Management failed to create a sense of urgency, build a true guiding coalition, develop a vision, and properly communicate that vision. Because they fell short in these stages, they ran straight into a brick wall of unexpected opposition (Graamans et al., 2020).
Graamans et al. (2020) tell us that hospital management “anticipated some resistance” (p. 321). However, the hospital’s cardiothoracic surgeons met them with fierce defiance. Graamans et al. (2020) say that the surgeons “adamantly refused to work with the new suture material” (p. 321). Surgeons expressed anger at management, stockpiled their own supplies, and refused to operate. They told managers they would hold them accountable for potential patient deaths that could arise from using the new suture. They also threatened to go to the press if that were to happen. Management was surprised by the emotional reaction of the surgeons in accepting this small change in sutures.
What hospital managers failed to grasp is the emotional and psychological side of change management. Changing sutures resulted in an ending for surgeons. Bridges and Bridges (2016) remind us that “when endings take place, people get angry, sad, frightened, depressed, and confused” (p. 32). These surgeons felt that they weren’t consulted, communication about the change was poor, and management didn’t understand the critical nature of sutures and their use. Cardiothoracic surgeons consider the surgical suture as the lifeline a surgeon relies on to keep the patient alive. A small cost reduction could never justify the potential loss of a surgery patient.
In the end, management canceled the contract for the new sutures and stopped the project but not without a lot of hurt feelings on both sides. Management failed to involve critical stakeholders in the change process, and they failed to anticipate the emotional reaction to the change. This failed change initiative created hurt and mistrust between the surgeons and management. It also jeopardized all future cost-reduction efforts. (Graamans et al., 2020).
The final case study we considered was the organizational change effort led by Josiah, the king of Judah, from around 640 to 609 B.C. Josiah was the son of king Amon and the grandson of Manasseh, both of whom were disobedient kings of Judah. 2 Kings 21:20 tells us that Amon “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done” (New International Version, 1978/2011). Josiah was a young king who began his reign at eight years old after his father was assassinated. Josiah’s change leadership efforts in Judah were highly effective. To understand his impact on the nation, we considered his actions against the backdrop of Kotter’s eight-stage leading change method.
Josiah was 26 when a book was found in the temple that was likely Deuteronomy. The book had likely been hidden since the reign of Manasseh (Merida et al., 2015). When Josiah heard the words read from this book, he knew Judah had been disobedient. Josiah reacted immediately and he “tore his robes” (New International Version, 1978/2011, 2 Kings 22:11). Josiah also discovered God’s plan to destroy Judah because of the sins of Manasseh and all the kings who had come before him. Josiah then established a sense of urgency in an effort to delay God’s wrath. He began to lead a significant reformation movement in Judah (Merida et al., 2015).
Josiah created a guiding coalition by calling together “all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem” (New International Version, 1978/2011, 2 Kings 23:1). He then formed a new vision for Judah “to follow the Lord and keep his commands” (New International Version, 1978/2011, 2 Kings 23:3). He then communicated the new vision to all of Judah. 2 Kings 23:2 says “he went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord” (New International Version, 1978/2011).
Josiah continued his change leadership efforts by empowering broad-based action throughout Judah. 2 Kings 23:4-20 provides a complete list of actions Josiah took to remove all priests, temples, symbols, and altars to all the foreign gods being worshipped in the country. Merida et al. (2015) call these actions “comprehensive and thorough” (p. 304). Josiah also generated a significant short-term win by fulfilling a prophecy that came from “a man of God” to Jeroboam I. Merida et al. (2015) tell us that Josiah “beats the altar at Bethel to dust and defiles it by burning bones on it” to ensure the word of the Lord in 1 Kings 13:2 comes to pass 300 years later (p. 304).
Josiah continued to consolidate his gains and produce more change by taking even more “anti-paganism” action in Judah (Merida et al., 2015, p. 305). 2 Kings 23:24 says that “Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem” (New International Version, 1978/2011). Josiah maintained his sense of urgency by cleaning up the past mistakes of his father, grandfather, and the kings who had come before them.
The most impressive action Josiah took, however, was anchoring the new approach into the culture. He did this when he announced the celebration of Passover in 2 Kings 23:21. He directed and supported his people in reinstating this sacred practice that had been abandoned for nearly 700 years. Merida et al. (2015) tell us, “in celebrating the festival, he outdoes Hezekiah and even David” (p. 304). Through Josiah’s faith, love of God, direct actions, and change leadership efforts, God delayed His wrath on Judah for the 31 years that Josiah remained king. With Josiah, we see a successful change leadership effort that includes all the elements of Kotter’s eight-stage leading change method.
The growth of organizational change theories in the 1990s was due to the decade’s rapid environmental, technological, and organizational changes. The pace of these changes has only increased since that time. Kotter (2012) tells us that “these trends demand more agility and change-friendly organizations; more leadership from more people” (p. ix). He says that leading change competently is the only answer for companies to keep up with the pace of change in today’s business environment.
We observed in this paper a wide variety of change management theories and methodologies, and there is not one universal change management approach that works in all companies and settings (Phillips & Klein, 2022). Instead, we find our best practices when we integrate the ideas from existing models (Errida and Lotfi, 2021). For example, we saw the successful implementation of a project management methodology using concepts from both Kotter and Bridges. Change leaders in that case study addressed both the procedural and emotional side of the change effort.
Today’s leaders need to be exposed to various tools and techniques in change management to increase the odds of successful change initiatives. We will see improved results and performance only by employing the best methods for the specific situation.
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Note: This paper was written as part of my requirements for a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Liberty University. I’m sharing this here for those who may be interested in some of the theories of leadership. Let me know if you have any questions.
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