Change Management

Organizations regularly contend with straightforward changes such as regulatory issues, policy adjustments, implementing best practices, and productivity improvements. These rarely require more than a communication strategy for those affected, an implementation plan, and sufficient financial and human resources to accomplish the task. In more complex cases, project-management skills may be required.

In contrast, efforts involving transformational change—for instance, the overhaul of an organization’s vision or mission (such as IBM’s transformation from a hardware company to a provider of software and consulting services), the merger of two companies, the reevaluation of an organization’s business practices in order to remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace (such as 3M’s transition from a manufacturer of sandpaper to a producer of scotch tape, duct tape, Post-It notes, and other products)—require a robust leadership of change management. These efforts typically must involve a thoughtful, purposeful, and targeted implementation plan, together with significant consideration of the impact of such change on the employees within an organization. In addition, transformational change takes longer, and significant organizational agility is necessary to continuously course correct as circumstances dictate.

Unfortunately, nearly 70% of large-scale efforts for transformational change are failures. This is problematic because, given our rapidly changing marketplace, organizations that are slow to adapt find themselves uncompetitive, nonviable, or irrelevant.

Led by Rick Anicetti, Overfield Leadership Group (OLG) can help executives successfully guide their organizations through transformational change. Our model of the change-management process integrates a variety of theories and tools into a practical framework that enables leaders to create, communicate, and execute change that equips their organizations to thrive and differentiate themselves from the competition.

Considerable up-front planning is required for the leadership team (and frequently other stakeholders) to bring the change, or changes, to fruition. Other key activities include defining the current and desired future states, establishing a vision and rationale for the change, determining the audience for the change, developing recurring communications (both internal and external) that utilize all media available to the organization, assessing the skills and capabilities of people to make the changes, and determining what interventions (in small- and large-group settings) will be made to engage people in the organization who will simultaneously be affected by, as well as implementing, the change effort. Implementing change is best maximized by identifying quick wins in order to gain acceptance and momentum.

Although the model of the change-management process appears to be a linear, nothing could be further from the truth. Significant change efforts are seldom straightforward. Typically, they are messy, emotional, frustrating, and stressful. For this reason, our consulting on the leadership of change management includes not only a process for planning and implementing transformational change but also a consideration of how people psychologically and emotionally deal with situations involving change. For example, one framework that OLG utilizes is the change-process model developed by Chris Musselwhite and his colleagues at Discovery Learning Inc.

This research-based framework offers information about the predictable reactions that people in organizations have as they undertake a change event, and it provides practical suggestions for how executives charged with leading change can help people successfully navigate it.

In addition to the stages indicated above, during a change, people tend to transition from a past orientation (“what was”) to a future orientation (“what can be”). Also, at certain stages, they tend to be in a cognitive domain, requiring information, whereas at other stages they are in an emotional domain, needing support for what they are feeling.

Although there are predictable stages in moving through organizational change, what is not predictable are the rate and way people move through them. Some people move faster than others, some get stuck in spots, and others go forward only to revert to a previous stage before moving ahead again.

Below is a summary of the four stages that people typically go through when responding to change. And for each stage there is a suggestion about what leaders can do to help people move through it successfully.

Stage 1: Acknowledging

Employees/Associates: In this stage, people are shocked and may feel threatened. Often this is when people need to overcome denial. They may even deny that a change has happened. Additionally, they may appear slower in their thinking and can be distracted and forgetful.

Leadership: Provide information and repeat it because people do not always absorb it the first time. Give visible support and assist with support networks. What you should avoid in this first stage is hitting people over the head with the truth and pushing for acknowledgement; this might intensify denial.

Stage 2: Reacting

Employees/Associates: This is the stage when people start to feel the change and begin to react and respond. Some of the reactions during this stage can be anger, depression, and withdrawal. This can be the case even when people are excited about a new opportunity that a change represents. For many, however, change results in some period of experienced loss. Additionally, some people are excited, but others can be anxious about facing uncertainty. The biggest risk with people in the second stage is that they get stuck in the belief that they can wait it out and everything will return to normal. This is often when resistance is the greatest for leaders.

Leadership: In the second stage it is best to lead by listening, acknowledging the feelings of those in resistance, giving people time to adjust (if possible), providing facts, being empathetic, and identifying areas of “sameness”: what is not changing that helps to create a sense of stability. Some things you should avoid are arguing, providing reasons they should not feel the way they do, attempting to convince them that change is good for them, and pushing them towards the next stage, which can cause them to revert to the first stage.

Stage 3: Investigating

Employees/Associates: This is the stage of exploring and creating. People show interest in new options and possibilities. They begin to explore the benefits of moving on.

Leadership: The leadership imperative in the third stage is encouragement: Create opportunities to explore new possibilities and then reward exploration. Often, participative problem-solving and decision-making are effective. Help people outline the pros and cons of the new possibilities under investigation. Things to avoid are pushing choices, rushing people, punishing mistakes that will shut down creativity, and penalizing risk-taking. Also, try to avoid overestimating or misrepresenting future options.

Stage 4: Implementing

Employees/Associates: This is the stage when people are implementing new ideas that support the change. You will see them establish new routines for getting things done. Additionally, their comfort with change engenders more flexibility, creativity, and risk-taking. People start to view the change as “the way we do things around here.”

Leadership: The leadership imperative in the fourth stage is reinforcement: One of the best things you can do is to clarify desired outcomes so people know what success looks like. Reward effective performance, support risk-taking and innovation, encourage communication, and get out of the way. Some things to avoid are micromanaging, controlling choices, punishing mistakes that are a part of the learning process, changing the ground rules in the middle of execution, and limiting participation.


The fast-paced, hyper-competitive marketplace of the twenty-first century, with its increasingly disruptive innovation, is challenging many organizations well beyond what incremental change can deliver. In some cases, organizations must rethink their entire business models. This uncertainty can be daunting. As author and philosopher Marilyn Ferguson noted, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear . . . . it’s like being caught between trapezes.” At OLG, we have developed a dual approach, addressing the process of change and integrating this with an understanding of the impact of change on people. Additionally, this approach helps build the knowledge, expertise, experience, and muscle necessary to address ongoing change, if organizations are to thrive and excel in the marketplace.