What is the most effective organizational model

The best change management models in comparison

Which change management models are there and which ones prove themselves in practical application? We have researched the most common change management models for you in the scientific literature and can tell you which models have proven themselves best in our change management practice.

Table of Contents

Change Management Models - Overview

Models and theories aim to depict a simplified picture of a complex reality as well as interdependencies. On the one hand, they serve to reduce complexity and thus ideally generate a gain in information.

This article describes change management models, i.e. different models of change processes in companies and organizations.

Phase models of change try to provide a framework for action and at the same time show what can be observed as typical in the individual phases. These models differ considerably from one another in terms of methods, instruments, time intensity, background, etc., but they have in common that they formulate intermediate goals in processes, reflect what has been achieved and plan the next steps. In short, they help with order, orientation and communication in the change management process and function largely as decision support.

The problem of the (new) order has been the subject of a centuries-old debate. Important philosophers such as Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes and Machiavelli have dealt with it. Forming a new order is always a difficult and challenging task. Up to two thirds of the planned change processes in organizations are aborted, fail or do not achieve the desired result. The models presented all give, in their own way, proposals for solutions for shaping change in companies.

Emotional reactions in change management processes

Before we introduce the various change management models in the following, let's take a brief look at the emotional side of change processes. You guessed it, there are models for this too. These models assume that the behavior that can be observed in individuals can be transferred to organizations. These change models show how those affected experience and react to abrupt and strong changes.

According to Richard K. Streich, the emotional reactions to abrupt changes take place in 7 phases:

Phase 1 shock, surprise

The employees are confronted with the necessary change. The typical reaction in this phase is shock and surprise, fear of the new situation and lack of understanding. This is often reflected in falling productivity, because the employees get the message that previous behaviors are not suitable for the new situation.

Phase 2 negation, rejection

After the first state of shock, those affected unite against the change in order to make it clear that the announced measures are superfluous from their point of view. Typical statements in this phase are: “It can't be, we've always got it right up to now.” Such reactions manifest the fear of losing familiar structures and parts of the familiar corporate culture.

Phase 3 Rational Insight

The employees recognize that their negative attitude towards change does not bring the desired success and realize that change is inevitable, maybe even necessary. However, there is still no more in-depth willingness to fundamentally rethink one's own behavior. For the time being, only the first, superficial changes are perceived and more short-term solutions are sought.

Phase 4 emotional acceptance

At the lowest point, in the course shown above, there is a decisive turn. Employees begin to accept the change, not just understand it. Familiar behavior is abandoned and a fundamental reorientation can now begin.

Phase 5 Trying out, learning

The employees begin to deal with the situation, curiosity about the new and the associated actions develop. Successes and failures are used to learn which behaviors are appropriate.

Phase 6 realization

The realization occurs that there is also something good about change. The first successes lead to an expansion of one's own abilities and the integration of actions into everyday life begins.

Phase 7 integration

The new ways of acting and behaving are ultimately fully integrated into everyday life by the employees and taken for granted.


This model of emotional reactions in change management processes gives change managers, executives and employees an orientation as to which behaviors are to be expected. This model is especially true for handling “bad news” when there are major, abrupt changes.

Such reactions are typically more likely to occur Not on when

  • These are minor changes that employees experience as less fundamental and “shocking”
  • major changes have been announced “quietly” and come as no surprise
  • Employees were involved in working out the changes.

The 3-phase model by Kurt Lewin

A still fundamental and previously decisive change management model is the phase model by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). It is based on the so-called "field theory": According to this, two basic force fields act in organizations:

On the one hand there are the forces

  • that promote the maintenance of the status quo (e.g. striving for security, habit, fear but also a lack of resources)
  • and on the other hand the force fields that provoke changes (e.g. new technologies, new competitors, changed economic environment ...)

According to the model, if change is to take place, the equilibrium must be temporarily shifted in favor of the pressing forces. In order to induce a dissolution of the equilibrium and thereby keep the resistance of those affected low, it makes more sense, according to Lewin, to reduce the forces of persistence than to increase the forces of change.

3 phases of change

According to Lewin's 3-phase model, changes in social groups always occur in the following phases:

  1. thawing(Unfreezing): In the phase of thawing, in which the pressing forces gain the upper hand, the preparation for the changes, such as analysis, information, discussion and motivation, takes place first. An awareness of change is initiated.
  2. Move(Changing): In the moving phase, changes are made, solutions are generated, new things are tried out, ways of reacting are developed and the status quo is abandoned. This is done by assuming responsibility, training and monitoring the processes.
  3. Freeze(Refreezing): Lewin understands the third phase, freezing, to mean getting used to the new situation. By stabilizing and implementing the new structures, a relapse should be avoided and a new equilibrium should be established.

After a change, it is necessary that there is a rest period first in order to be able to fully develop the performance potential of the changes.

The forces opposing change can be equated with resistance from the workforce. Employees are initially very skeptical about innovations and often resist. The company must therefore succeed in relieving its employees of these fears and uncertainties as part of “change management”.

Application of the 3-phase model

  1. “Thawing” can be seen as the “starting point” of a company, in which there is a certain inertia in the organization and among the employees. Reasons are, for example, that people are naturally “creatures of habit”, that changes are often associated with costs or when there is a strong corporate culture. These and other causes inhibit change and usually lead to organizations and their decision-makers dealing too late with the necessary change.
  2. “Moving” is the process of change itself. If this has now been initiated, there is often disorientation and resistance to change. Overcoming them is important for a successful change management process.
  3. The "freezing" corresponds to the defined goal. If the resistance has been successfully overcome, the problem often arises that the employees lack orientation with regard to the goal pursued.


The merit of this theory is, among other things, that the "principle of minimizing resistance" was discovered and brought into the scientific discourse. With its structured approach, the simple model offers an initial orientation in change management processes and supports the reduction of complexity [1].

Uses and Limits of Lewin's Model

At inito, however, we consider Lewin's model to be outdated in the corporate context for two reasons: [2]

  1. In his model, Lewin models reality one-dimensional and “introverted”. External factors from the corporate environment are largely ignored.
  2. Second, the change itself is not viewed as a steady and dynamic process, but rather as a static episode that can be viewed as an “intermediate phase” within two “equilibrium phases”.

From our point of view, there is hardly any “refreezing” phase in dynamic companies and markets. Companies and a number of non-profit organizations are now exposed to constant pressure to change and optimize, so that phases of stability and regeneration are only brief, and often even completely eliminated. In many industries, "CIP" (Koncontinuous (sic!) V.remedialP.process), "Kai-Zen", "Six Sigma", agile production and project management and similar constant optimization processes have become an integral part of corporate cultures. The reasons for this have now been adequately named: increasing networking, work intensification, shareholder value, globalization, neoliberalism, etc.

Newer change management model approaches

Not only we are now assuming that "change management is not to be understood as a selective result of a project, but as an ongoing process, as a" characteristic "of a company that makes flexibility the main content of corporate culture." [3]

One consequence of this development are organizational consulting approaches such as “Design Thinking” or the discourse around suitable “organizational designs”, which appear to be suitable for ensuring the necessary flexibility of organizations already in the design of their organizational and process structure.

Further development

The 3 phase model has since been adopted, refined and further developed by other authors. We will, therefore, in the following

  1. the 8-phase model after Kotter,
  2. the 5-step model according to Krüger,
  3. the Learning organization concept
  4. as well as that Model of the complexity of dynamic systems

further deepen.

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The 8 – step model by John P. Kotter

Kotter's 8-step model is a further development of Lewin's 3-phase model.

This change management model is also very present in research and is an established term in corporate practice. Based on Lewin's phase model, according to Kotter, in order to initiate a successful change, an organization must go through all the steps of its 8-step model.

John P. Kotter showed in a study that more than half of the corporate restructuring he examined fail in the early stages. In order to prevent the failure of change and common mistakes, according to his thesis, the following stages must be passed:

  1. Create a sense of urgency:
    Raising awareness of the urgency of change among managers and employees.
  2. Build a management team: Unite the trend-setting people in a coalition and ensure mutual trust.
  3. Development of a vision of change and strategies and their implementation: An overarching vision for the company serves as a positive pulling force.
  4. Communicate the vision of the desired changes on a broad basis: To convince the employees.
  5. Create authorization on the broadest possible basis: To motivate employees to act according to the vision.
  6. Ensure short-term goals and successes: They have to be visible and clear.
  7. Securing achieved goals and successes as well as ensuring further changes: Far-reaching changes take up a lot of time.
  1. Anchoring the changes achieved in the corporate culture: only when this has been achieved can one speak of a successful change management process. [4]

similarities and differences

The relationship between Kotter and Lewins change management models is illustrated by this overview:

An essential difference to Lewin's theory is that the 3-phase model is based on the micro level, in which the individual “organization” is the focus of consideration, whereas the Kotter model relates to the macro level, i.e. it concerns the Relationships between organizations and their environment.


Kotter includes the pressure to adapt in the unstable economic world in his considerations. Serious errors in the implementation of change processes are uncovered by him. In Kotter's opinion, restructuring problems were rather secondary in earlier times, as competition was less global and the economic environment was more static, but these factors are of central importance today. As a result of this development, senior executives lacked intimate experience with change processes.

The merit of the model is, among other things, the disclosure that

  1. a meaningful change takes place in a multi-stage process
  2. the control must be implemented efficiently by first-class managers [5]

Critical consideration

Kotter's model proves to be a suitable model in consulting practice. Critics, on the other hand, lack empirical validation. Alas and Sharifi [6] identified six of the eight stages in an empirical study, but they did not find any indications of the fifth or seventh stage.

Further criticisms in the current literature:

  • missing identification criteria for the individual levels
  • Steps backwards cannot be explained with the help of the model
  • the immanent emphasis on the "top-down" perspective, which means that the direction in which the processes work is initiated and controlled from above from the top management level. This perspective neglects, for example, employee initiatives, the so-called “bottom-up” perspective (see below).

Despite these points of criticism, Kotter's 8-step model represents a central, further developed approach that is also widely used in research.

The five phase model according to Krüger

In a critical examination of the problem points of Kotter's model and based on his own surveys, Krüger identified five phases of change in his change management model. It also explicitly allows flexibility with regard to the design of the change management processes.

Fig. 2: Five phases of change management. Source: Krüger, W. (2006): Excellence in Change. Paths to Strategic Renewal. 3rd edition, Gabler Verlag, Wiesbaden, p. 67

Stage 1: initialization

The need for change is identified; Internal and external system and situation analyzes are carried out in order to make the situation assessable and plannable. At the same time, those responsible for the change process, e.g. managers and consultants, are activated.

Stage 2: conception

When designing the change process, goals are defined and the associated measures are determined and determined.

Stage 3: mobilization

The imminent change is communicated to those affected. Krüger emphasizes the special importance of change management communication in order to gain the acceptance of all those involved and to prepare them for the changed conditions with suitable measures. This stage prepares the implementation.

Stage 4: implementation

The planned changes are carried out and any follow-up projects are initiated. Each project is then checked for success, assessed and, if necessary, corrected.

Level 5: Stabilization

In the last stage, the results of the change process are anchored and consolidated in order to ensure that the organization does not fall back into old patterns. In the course of consolidation, readiness for future changes should also be ensured.


The 5-step model from Krüger allows the possibility of redesigning measures and flexible adjustments to the respective situation within the various phases, so that steps backwards can also be explained. In addition to the success factors for the change, specific recommendations for the design and direct application of the change processes can be given here.

The learning organization

Change management can start at different points:

  • On the one hand, radical changes can be made in a short time, for example in business process reengineering.
  • On the other hand, an evolutionary change can take place, which is carried out in "gentle" small but permanent steps.

The change management model of the “learning organization” relies on a continuous development process of companies and organizations.

Characteristics of a learning organization

The change management model of the “learning organization” focuses on learning and knowledge [7].

In order to guarantee the maintenance of competitiveness, the goal of a learning organization is to establish a permanent, evolutionary learning process and thus to always be able to react optimally to the changing environmental conditions. Learning organizations become more agile and adaptable over time.

The changes take place through learning processes in which all employees in the company participate. The adaptability of an organization is based on the learning and knowledge of individuals. For success it is crucial that “the concept of learning” is implemented holistically, that is, the organization as a whole is able to “anticipate” the environmental conditions and adapt in good time.

The following aspects characterize learning organizations:

  • Employees are encouraged to learn and to develop their performance potential and to be proactive
  • The development of skills that go beyond the formal areas of responsibility is encouraged
  • This type of learning culture is extended to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.
  • Processes of individual and organizational learning become one
    essential business activity and strategy.
  • Learning organizations are subject to continuous transformation that comes from within
    Development and not resulting from external pressure.

You can read some management tips for establishing an appropriate learning culture among individuals and in learning organizations in this article.

Complexity of dynamic systems

The model of the complexity of dynamic systems [8] is based on a systemic understanding of organization. Companies are seen as social systems in which the members are understood as a central component of the internal structure. According to Niklas Luhmann's system theory, the structural elements of a social system consist of communication processes.

Applied to change management, this means that diagnoses and interventions are not to be applied to people, but to their actions, in particular the communication processes and their prerequisites and consequences.

The dynamic systems complexity model assumes that an unpredictable but imminent future creates an imbalance within the organization. Different power relationships as well as different views and the associated tensions ensure that changes occur spontaneously and unplanned. This means that companies are in a dynamic system that is characterized by feedback processes and instability.

According to Stacey, Griffin and Shaw, the task of executives in the change process is to question everything that happens and to develop new perspectives from it. At the same time, favorable conditions should also be created in this model so that changes can continue in the long term.

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  • Make your employees "drivers" of your change
  • Secret success factors of our experts
  • Extra: work materials for change

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  • Finding hidden resistance
  • Make your employees "drivers" of your change
  • Secret success factors of our experts
  • Extra: work materials for change

The top-down and bottom-up model

This model focuses on different directions of movement in the dimensions “information and knowledge exchange” and “decision-making”. In principle, change processes can be initiated “top-down” through clear management guidelines or “bottom-up” initiated by the lowest hierarchical level. 

We explain both directions of movement below:

Top-down model

The management floor plans the change process, sets the goals, develops the vision and then lives this as a role model for all subordinate levels. The employees should "only" implement the plans and tasks on the basis of instructions. The problem with changes from "above" is that resistance often arises from those affected and excessive expectations at management level.

Bottom-up model

Here employees, groups or teams identify undesirable developments or potential opportunities for improvement in their work environment. The change management process is developed "below" and passed on "above". The advantage is that those affected can see directly which restructuring is necessary in their own work environment. However, the potential is often not fully exploited, goals are set too low and there is often a lack of the necessary specialist knowledge to initiate and control a complex change.


In practice, change processes often either work with "top-down models" or companies follow both models at the same time by introducing additional methods and instruments that work from "bottom" to "top", such as quality circles or total -Quality management. Pure “bottom-up processes”, on the other hand, are rare.

Accordingly, true to the motto "as much" top-down "as necessary and as much" bottom-up "as possible," particular care should be taken to ensure that the relationship between "top-down leadership" and "bottom-up" Leadership ”is continuously reflected on. It would be desirable for suggestions to come from both management and grassroots levels and then integrated into an interactive discourse. 

We convey the transfer of this model into leadership and change practice (along with many other immediately applicable approaches) in our change management training.


Despite the different approaches that are reflected in the change management models, the tasks facing managers in change processes are similar in all models.

There is a general consensus in the specialist literature that certain factors are fundamental to all successful changes. The following factors are particularly emphasized:

  • Communication with those affected
  • Goal and vision development
  • Involvement of all affected employees, as early as possible and holistically
  • Motivation, will, ability and qualification for change in the management floor as well as among the employees

→ Our offer in change management consulting


Reading tips on change management

1 Müller, B. (2012): Changes made easy ?! For critical reflection on change processes and measures. In: Rosenstiel, L. v .; Hornstein, E .; Ausgustin, S. (Ed.): Change Management Practical Cases. Change focus organization, team, individual. P. 132, Springer-Verlag Berlin / Heidelberg

2 Cacaci, A. (2005): Change Management - Resistance to Change. A plea for a system of prevention. German Univ-Verlag, Munich

3 Titze, W. (1992): Change Management: How to Cope with Dramatic Change. Gabler's Magazin, 5/1992, pp. 12-15.

4 Müller, B. (2012), p. 128

5 Kotter, J. P. (2011): Leading Change. How to successfully change your company in 8 steps. Vahlen Verlag, Munich

6 Alas, R .; Sharifi, S. (2002) Organizational Learning and Resistance to Change in Estonian Companies. In: Human Resource Development International, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp. 313-33

7 Güldenberg, S. (1997): Knowledge management and knowledge controlling in learning organizations - a system-theoretical approach. German Univ.-Verlag, Wiesbaden

8 Stacey, R. D .; Griffin, D .; Shaw, P. (2000): Complexity and Management: Far or radical challenge to systems thinking? Complexity and Emergence in Organizations. Routledge, London


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