Real change is (not) always phased


Organizational developers and consultants repeatedly use change management models to create orientation in the transformation project and bring clarity and order to the course of the human emotional and organizational aspects of change within a transformation. But do these approaches and phase models have an evidence-based right to be used in management practices?

By Maria Frick

Whether 3-phase model by K. Lewin, 5-phase model by W. Krüger, 8-step model by J. Kotter or classic top-down/bottom-up model – there are many practice-proven phase models. The methods, instruments and time required for the individual models all differ widely. But what unites them is the attempt to show a framework for action, to illustrate possible cause-effect relationships and to prepare for typically occurring situations in a change process. Only a structured change management, which follows a systematic process sequence based on each other, can be successful and is the assumption of the authors of the phase models mentioned above (Gairing / Weckmüller, 2019). At first glance, phases manage to model these particularly complex realities of a change project. However, we also know that about 65% of all change projects are aborted or fail (Ashkenas, 2013).

With this background, J. Stouten and colleagues (2018) made the attempt to find empirical evidence for the relevance of the phases. In doing so, they drew on the results of Barends and colleagues, who had already looked at over 550 individual studies and analysed cross-sectional surveys in 2014, compared them with the literature explicitly focused on organizational change and drew analogies from comparable academic disciplines, such as strategic management.
The main results of the analyses show that the diagnosis and rational description of the specific need for change is critical to success (see Gairing / Weckmüller, 2019). The researchers say that employees who consider a change process to be well planned and data-driven are more likely to accept and support the change (Stouten et al, 2018) than if they are only supposed to feel the “sense of urgency”, as it is called in the Kotter model as the first phase. The positive influence of Kotter’s first phase to create a sense of urgency on an individual level cannot be empirically validated. Furthermore, the researchers show that there is empirical evidence for phase-type process steps, which particularly emphasizes the communication of a vision, the empowerment and participation of employees, and the development of change-related competencies. No sufficient evidence could be found for so-called “quick wins” or the rapid creation of new realities. The scientists focus on the three criteria vision, participation and communication of supposedly successful change. Since 1982 (Katz et al.), the evidence of social dynamics of implemented participation possibilities in change has been proven over and over again. Further empirical studies show that participation also significantly reduces the tendency to resist change and strengthens employees’ attachment to transformation goals (cf. Wagner, 2014). In addition, R. Boyatzis and colleagues spent years researching the phenomenon of a company-wide shared vision and managed to prove that a shared vision has a clearly positive influence on the commitment and energies of those involved (ibid. 2015). In addition to these two factors, there is recent empirical evidence that strengthens the importance and specific mechanisms of change communication. Evidence-based communication enables an increase in motivation and productivity during change (Helpap/Schinnenberg, 2018).

In summary, it can be said that change management is not a basic scientific discipline, but a combination of “application-oriented social science findings, whose essential importance only comes to bear in the area of tension between theoretical background and practical application” (Gairing / Weckmüller, 2019). It is important to find a common framework, a common language and the right tools to successfully manage change in practice. The choice is wide and many models consist of the same phases and building blocks, so the challenge is to make change management an integral part of the business model (Ashkenas, 2013) and to make it tangible through a shared vision, participation of all employees and strong change communication.