Change Management models are a useful tool for companies that want to shift direction. No matter which change management model is right for your organization, find out how OKRs can help executives, leaders and employees adapt and grow.

No matter what phase your organization is in — startup, high-growth, or established — change is constant. To manage change, there’s both a tactical part (managing the project) as well as an emotional part. Change is difficult for most people. Changing all together is even harder.

In this article we’re going to talk about how to use change management models to organize a shift in direction and how to pair those models with OKR goal setting. Pairing effectively harnesses the creativity of employees while creating buy-in and motivating teams to achieve shared goals.

What is change management?

Change management is a framework for managing the people side of change. Many organizations know it’s one thing to request change — and another to get people to implement it. Stanford Business School Professors, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao, tell a story in their book Scaling Up Excellence, about Xerox’s attempt to create a new sales playbook. This playbook was a compilation of best practices from other organizations. But teams hesitated to implement them. Why? Because they needed a real-world example that the processes had worked elsewhere. By implementing a change management system, they were able to demonstrate to their employees a tangible and tactical use case that resulted in acceptance and adoption of the necessary changes.

What are the three most common change management models?

Three-phase model from Kurt Lewin: This is the OG of change management models. Developed in the 1940s, Lewin, a German physicist and social scientist, used a block of ice to describe his three-phase model, which allows companies to adapt quickly to changing environments. The three stages include:

  • Unfreeze (melt the ice): Create a perception that a change is needed and get employees ready to change.
  • Change (mold it into the shape you want): Move towards the new desired behavior.
  • Refreeze (solidify the new shape): Freeze that new behavior as the norm, ensuring change is performing and stabilized.

Five-phase model from Wilfried Krüger: Another German, this time an economist, breaks down Lewin’s three steps into five more detailed steps. Krüger felt a need for more transparency and flexibility in process design, and built in adjustments and the ability to step backwards as needed. Krüger’s stages resemble Lewin’s model, with more agility in the middle:

  • Initialization
  • Conception
  • Mobilization
  • Implementation
  • Stabilization

Eight-step model from John P. Kotter: Dr. Kotter went even further in his book Leading Change, creating an eight-step model that adds even more flexibility to Krüger’s. Kotter’s approach allows for adjustments at each stage, with the opportunity to revisit goals if not achieved at 100%. While this model is frequently used today, it doesn’t allow for steps backward (like Krüger) and only depicts a top-down perspective under the management of a strong leader. In other words, this model doesn’t allow for employee contribution — a feedback loop that we consider vital to any successful change management model.

What to look for when implementing a change management model

So with all of these varying types of models, which one will be best for your organization and your priorities? We recommend evaluating the most important aspects of any approach:

  • Structure: Can everyone in your organization follow and adhere to it?
  • Flexibility: Is it easy to adapt or scale the framework up and down to accomplish goals?
  • Repeatability: Can people replicate the process? Does it allow them to use good judgment for what steps can be skipped?
  • Adaptability: Is this model able to apply across all functions of the organization or does it only work at a certain level or for a certain skill?

Benefits of a change management system

The benefits of implementing a change management system can be exponential, when done right. This includes having clearly defined goals and measures of success, accountability, and regular tracking.

Having a system to balance short-term accountability with longer-term goals allows for ongoing feedback, surfacing opportunities to pivot, to push harder or pull back, and get real-time pulse checks on how employees are feeling. This helps managers focus on what’s needed from (and for) employees in the moment.

Common reasons change management systems fail

There are several reasons change management systems might fail:

  • Not agile enough: Today’s environment is anything but linear, most challenges are complex, yet most change management methods presume an A to B to C model. Without the ability to shift, pivot, or backtrack, success can be limited, and people can get frustrated.
  • Fixed end point: Like Lewin’s ice cube, most models determine an end point at the beginning. But what if things change while you’re, um, changing? Meaningful, significant goals are usually hypothetical. If you don’t acknowledge that your future state might not be what you outlined originally, you risk disrupting your model entirely.
  • Top down: As we mentioned earlier, employee buy-in is vital. If the only people on board are management, change will be a losing battle.
    Whatever change management model you adopt, it may be helpful to complement it with an effective goal-setting process called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

How OKRs make change management models more effective

Google, Netflix, Airbnb, Duolingo, 23andMe, and MURAL have all successfully used OKRs to navigate through big changes. OKRs tie strategy and execution together and are also simple, easy to use, and comparatively quick to implement (unlike training required for agile/scrum, LEAN, etc.).

OKRs provide the best blueprint to articulate goals and outline a roadmap to achieving them. OKRs shift company organizational culture from an activities-based mindset to aligning around shared outcomes, an especially handy complement to change management processes.

Let’s consider New Zealand-American footwear brand, Allbirds, who set an ambitious top-level Objective of creating the lowest carbon footprint in the industry. Their corresponding top-level outcomes, or Key Results (KRs), supporting the Objective are:

  • KR1: Supply Chain and shipping infrastructure 100% zero waste
  • KR2: Pay 100% carbon offset for calculated carbon dioxide emissions
  • KR3: 25% of material is compostable
  • KR4: 75% of material is biodegradable

Based on these OKRs, teams implement the changes needed to make as much progress as is outlined in the Key Results.

Using OKRs does more than just goal tracking, it aligns organizations from the company-wide level all the way down to individual-level Objectives. Alignment and focus reduce wasted effort caused by different teams pulling in too many different directions:

  • Alignment: Cascading and Laddering OKRs maximize performance by making it possible to adapt to changes much quicker than top-down only models. John Doerr, author of Measure What Matters, introduced Google’s founders to OKRs and cites that to this day 100K employees at Google align their goals from executive to individual level within three weeks every quarter.
  • Tracking: Measurable, verifiable success metrics are embedded in an OKR, and check-ins are scheduled, balancing focus between long-term direction to short-term progress and allowing for adjustments when needed.

Organizations facing quick or complex changes who want to minimize inefficiencies need a system that addresses both structure and motivation. A change management team and model can cover some of it — OKRs can help those benefits reach further and more effectively.

If you want to learn more about using OKRs to align your organization’s change management processes, take our introductory OKRs 101 course or sign up for our Audacious newsletter.