Fact sheet: Methodically mastering change – 5 change management models compared

There is no blueprint for change management, but there are a range of different models for it. Here, we provide a comparison of five change management models.

Change management models map how change processes could take place within a company.
Image: © Kzenon / Adobe Stock

Change management model #1: Kurt Lewin’s 3-stage model of change

The 3-stage model of change developed by German social psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1947 is a simple model for social changes in communities that can be easily adapted for change processes in business organizations. It is based on what is referred to as field theory, in which two antagonistic force fields are at play in an organization:

  • Forces that promote the status quo (a longing for security, habit, lack of resources, anxiety, skepticism and resistance within the management team or among employees)
  • Forces that push for change (technological progress, competitors, a changing economic environment)

The change process in the 3-stage model

According to this model, the pushing force field must temporarily be stronger for a change process to be initiated. However, Kurt Lewin argued that the equilibrium between both force fields cannot be broken by simply increasing the driving forces. In line with his premise, this would be practically impossible anyway because companies themselves cannot influence factors like technological progress and the performance of their competitors.

Instead, the restraining forces need to be weakened in a controlled manner to give the force field of change the upper hand. This happens in the first stage of Lewin’s 3-stage model, known as “unfreezing”. The actual change process takes place in stage 2, called “changing”, while the third stage – “refreezing” – describes a consolidation and stabilization of the new status quo at a higher level. The force fields return to a state of equilibrium during a period of rest.

The three stages of Kurt Lewin’s 3-stage model are presented in detail in our free fact sheet “Methodically mastering the change process – change management models”.

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Meaning of the 3-stage model

Nowadays, Lewin’s 3-stage model is deemed outdated for the most part because:

  • It does not take into account external influences during and after the change process.
  • The change is modelled as a separate distinct episode, while static stages depict the normal scenario. This has no longer reflected reality for some time now. The highly important “refreezing” stage of the model leaves no room for the pressure placed on companies today with regard to optimization.
  • The concepts of continuous change and agility were completely unknown at the time and are therefore not incorporated in the model.
  • The business environment has fundamentally changed as a result of globalization, networking, work intensification, and an externally exerted pressure to optimize.

Nonetheless, the 3-stage model was groundbreaking because it introduced the concept of overcoming resistance and offered a simple, clearly defined structure in response to the complexity of change processes. All subsequent change management models are based on Kurt Lewin’s pioneering theory.

Change management model #2: John Kotter’s 8-step model

John Paul Kotter’s 8-step or 8-stage model comprises eight sections that essentially break Lewin’s three steps down into more detail. In our fact sheet “Methodically mastering the change process – change management models”, we take a closer look at these eight stages and their link with Lewin’s three stages.

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The main difference in Kotter’s model, however, is that it incorporates the macro level, i.e. the interrelations between companies and the respective setting. According to his model, restructuring and frequent change processes are signs of an unstable economic world and the associated pressure to adapt, which requires excellent leadership and efficient implementation.

Although Kotter’s 8-step model is still a key approach that is frequently adopted and advanced, it too has been criticized for good reason:

  • Not all eight steps are necessarily present in real-life processes.
  • The model does not allow for steps backward.
  • The model only depicts the top-down perspective under the management of a strong leader. The creative power and innovative initiative of employees are negated.

Change management model #3: Wilfried Krüger’s 5-stage model

German economist Wilfried Krüger took the critique points of Kotter’s model and incorporated a suitable degree of transparency and flexibility in terms of process design as part of his 5-stage model. Each of his five stages or steps allows for appropriate adjustments and even taking steps backwards if needed for the specific situation.

Although Krüger’s 5-step model also ends in a stabilization stage, it provides scope for the preparation of a potentially new transformation process to already be initiated alongside the consolidation of changed processes. While the change results of the recently completed change process are still being solidified, the readiness and ability to change are already being ensured for the future.

Change management model #4: the learning organization

The “learning organization” change management model mainly differs from the aforementioned models in that it is not a step or stage model. The “learning organization” attempts to satisfy the need for continuity in the change process and therefore focuses on learning and knowledge acquisition. Five pillars make up this model, which you can learn more about in our fact sheet “Methodically mastering the change process – change management models”.

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If a company establishes a continuous learning process, it will naturally become more adaptable, agile and responsive in the face of changing environmental conditions. However, this concept requires every individual employee to be willing to constantly educate themselves further and demands a great deal of effort from the company in terms of providing relevant training opportunities on a large scale and an ongoing basis. Ultimately, transitioning into a learning organization goes hand in hand with a radical cultural transformation within a company.

Change management model #5: top-down & bottom-up model

Generally, change processes can either be initiated by management (top-down) or by employees (bottom-up).

The top-down model

Management analyzes the situation, identifies the necessity of the change process, sets goals, develops the vision, and promotes an understanding of the change among employees, who have to accept and carry the burden of the change.

The disadvantages:

  • Employees often misunderstand or resist the change.
  • Management frequently develops unrealistic goals or impracticable processes without communicating with employees.

The bottom-up model

Employees, teams, and team leaders recognize undesirable developments, potential for improvement, and the need for process optimization, thus initiating a change process.

The disadvantages:

  • The potential of a change process often remains untapped.
  • Goals are usually not formulated in detail or are set too low.
  • There is a lack of knowledge and experience when it comes to complex change processes.

Combining the two to form a solution

To eliminate the disadvantages of both extreme variants to a maximum extent, incorporating as much top-down as necessary and as much bottom-up as possible has proven effective in practice. Methods such as total quality management and quality circles can be used to make the goals set by management realistic and solution-driven, since they provide practical perspectives. However, to ingrain complex, far-reaching change processes in the corporate culture, as is the case with digital transformation, a high level of digital leadership and specialist expertise is called for.

Ongoing dialogue and joint reflection among all those involved before, during and after successful completion of a change process are crucial to ensure that the transformation is extensive enough, that all necessary restructuring measures are addressed, and that the motivation to achieve a clear objective and vision does not get lost.

The bottom line: moving from stages to a permanent state

From Kurt Lewin’s first model for designing a change process right through to modern models, one aspect stands out above everything else: change is increasingly being viewed as a constant, continuous process and less as a single, temporary event.

These days, change is an integral, omnipresent part of corporate culture. Consequently, change management is a never-ending task with a lot of responsibility. How a company deals with change, what change management models it utilizes, and how it chooses and implements its change management methods are highly individual, though, and therefore define a company’s character.

Our compact fact sheet “Methodically mastering the change process – change management models”, which you can download for free, clearly presents and illustrates all the step and stage models described here, including the learning organization approach.


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