What Is a Change Management Process? What Are the Main Steps?

Change is rarely easy, and the more people involved, the more difficult it gets. But growing your business is always going to require change. The better you get at managing it, the more successful your business will be.

A good change management process can help you make things easier for your team, and connect the past to the present in a way that allows everyone to feel supported.

What is a change management process?

Change management is an organized series of steps and activities that take place at the individual, team, and organizational levels. A change management process is a people-first framework to help organizations adapt to evolving goals, processes, and technologies.  

This structured approach is fundamental to minimizing disruption and maximizing benefits about managing a process

Why change management is important

Change management is important because it supports the ability to grow and evolve a business successfully. With a structured change management strategy and framework, employees are supported and can work toward achieving a common goal.  

Additional benefits of a formal change management process include: 

  • Reducing stress in adopting new technologies, processes, roles, or procedures. 
  • Setting and tracking the impact of changes.  
  • Less time spent figuring out changes and how their impact, and more time completing value-adding tasks.
  • Addressing and resolve resistance to change. 
  • Minimizing or avoiding disruptions to the business
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Change management process examples

Small or incremental changes to strategies, workflows, and processes, like a new performance management system or request management process. 

Large or transformational changes that are a departure from the “norm,” like a change in company culture or adoption of a new work model. 

Developmental or optimizations to existing strategies, processes, or procedures. 

3 levels of change management

Depending on the type of changes being made, it’s common for change management to span across various levels. For example, a large organizational change may also impact employees at an individual level. 

Project-level change management: Focused on strategies or changes in plans to achieve a project’s goals. 

Individual-level change management: Appropriate for managing change that will impact an individual’s growth, either in a role or toward a specific goal. 

Organization-level change management. This form of change management deals with altering hierarchies, reorganizing resources, changing company culture, or integrating new technologies. 

Key steps of the change management process

Organizational expert Sheila Cox offers a simple and comprehensive change management definition: change management is a system that “ensures that the new processes resulting from a project are actually adopted by the people who are affected.”

It’s about making people feel like they’re in good hands, and that the change is good for the company as a whole. When strategizing a major change in systems or procedures at your company, follow these six steps to ensure smooth sailing for all involved and process standardization.

Step 1: Identify the need for change and the scale of the issue

Every change starts with a need. Sometimes it’s a positive need, such as the need to expand the company’s infrastructure to accommodate major growth. At other times, it’s the need to fix a problem. That could be anything from competitors getting ahead to an unacceptable drop in performance.

Before implementing a change, look at your needs and the scale of those needs. Some issues will require major shifts in operations that affect nearly everyone in the company. Others will require a comparatively small change, perhaps only affecting a few departments.

Then, you’ll want to determine what sort of change you’re looking at. Most types of organizational change can be sorted into one or more of the following four categories:

  1. Transformational change: A major shift that alters the way the company functions. For example, you might be changing your IT infrastructure significantly or updating the company mission statement.
  2. People-centric change: Changing the way people interact or function within the company. Examples include changing job descriptions, adapting policy, and adding team members.
  3. Structural change: Altering the way the company is organized. Examples include mergers, new departments, and changes in leadership responsibilities.
  4. Remedial change: Fixing something wrong before it becomes disastrous. Turnarounds are high-level examples of remedial change.

Once you know what type of change you need to implement, you can start looking at your target result.

Step 2: Set a goal

The only way to get everyone on board with organizational change is to be clear about the process from the beginning. Clarity begins with goal setting, so make sure your goal is SMART:

  • Specific: Include details about what will happen in which department.
  • Measurable: Attach numbers to your goal. What is the benchmark for success?
  • Attainable: Make sure the goal is one your team can reach.
  • Relevant: Relate your goal to the problem. When you achieve it, how will you have solved the problem?
  • Time-Bound: What’s the deadline for the change?

Step 3: Create a change management map

By this point, you’ve specified the need for change and communicated exactly what you want the change to look like. The next step answers the question: “How do we make this happen?”

You need to answer this question clearly and with authority if you want to get buy-in from your stakeholders. People have a lot of questions when it’s time to make a change, and you need to be able to provide them with answers.

Before you go to the table with your change proposal, figure out the following in detailed terms:

  • What needs to happen every day to make the change happen
  • Who is responsible for each action step
  • How operations will change during the transition
  • Strategies for helping team members adapt
  • How operations will be monitored for success after the change is in place
  • A complete budget, including the total cost of the change and each step toward it

Have a timeline ready so that if someone asks how long the process will take, you can give them not only a specified end date but also midpoints for assessing progress. For example, setting mini-deadlines for backing up customer data and taking the current system offline.

The same goes for budget and task delegation. The more specific you can be about how much each step will cost and who will be in charge of it, the easier it will be for you to get executive buy-in, which you’ll need before you move forward.

Step 4: Secure a sponsor and get executive support

Next, take the change management map you’ve just created and use it to find a sponsor for the project. Your sponsor will serve as the project’s go-between, earning support from the C-suite to every team member that the change will affect.

You may sponsor the project yourself or choose someone else to do it. It all depends on the scale of the change, your company size, and plenty of other factors that no one outside of your company can predict. Talk to a few people and decide who the best person might be to represent this project.

Your sponsor’s first task is to ensure support from everyone at the top. If the CEO isn’t already involved, make sure they’re on board and willing to give the project the resources it needs. Once company leadership is ready to go, you can start communicating the change to teams.

Step 5: Distribute resources and get buy-in from teams

Getting teams on board can be one of the hardest parts of change management. Old habits die hard, and some teams might need extra support and resources before they feel confident about the switch.

Many organizational change professionals find that habit-bound teams do well when leaders connect the change to established company culture. For example, if a company with a service-first culture is adopting new customer success software, resources can be framed as “To invest in our customers, we’re going to take some time and learn these new tools.”

Every team will need resources to help them adjust to change, even if your teams are fairly adaptable and easygoing. Be actively in touch with affected personnel, providing them with resources that guide them through the steps they need to take.

  • Schedule automated emails to go out to affected teams and team members, reminding them of scheduled changes and updates.
  • Schedule regular in-person meetings to communicate status and field questions
  • Distribute contact info for the project sponsor and/or support personnel to help if team members have questions.
  • Keep team members informed about required training programs, objectives of that training and deadlines for completion. Make sure you can track who has completed the training.
  • Keep records of success metrics for the project. Set it up so that stakeholders can see progress toward success and regularly thank those involved for their cooperation.

Remember that everyone deals better with change when it’s incremental, especially if there’s an element of tech involved. Offer as much support as teams need to get used to new programs.

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Step 6: Collect feedback and make changes where necessary

Employees need to have their voices heard if they’re going to feel like valued members of a team. You also need to know how the change management process is going before you can evaluate its success. Both problems can be solved by checking in with employees as the change is implemented.

Every company has a hierarchy and pathways for communication. Relying on the familiar will make a time of change feel less disruptive, so send feedback requests through the typical channels whenever you can.

Remember that people will be responding emotionally to the change at first, especially when the change itself has a broad impact on the company’s day-to-day. Knowing how people are relating to the shift—depending on how much progress has been made toward the new normal—will help you to ask for feedback productively.

Avoid directly asking for opinions when the “old way” is still being disassembled. People tend to be more reactive and resistant during this phase. At that point, stick to asking people how they’re struggling and how you can help. This way, you can minimize the negative consequences of the change and move to a positive shift faster.

As the change is being applied and the “new way” is being established, you can start to ask more directly about people’s experiences — but don’t rush into things. Talk to managers and see what people’s attitudes are. If they’re still nervous, address that first.

Once employees have integrated the changes into their daily working lives, you can start to ask if anything isn’t working as it should. Be sure to take any concerns seriously, especially if they’re widespread within an affected department. And if things are going well, don’t forget to celebrate it!

Challenges affecting change management

Challenges that can impede change management are: 

  • Misalignment of goals or purpose between those owning the change management process and those impacted by the changes. 
  • Reliance on unstructured processes. 
  • Poorly communicated new strategies, changes, and next steps.
  • Delays in rollout or urgency. 
  • Not focused or considerate of the people affected by changes. 

As these challenges compound, employees may grow to resist changes being made and ultimately affect the success of the changes being made.

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Change management is a delicate process, but it’s an important part of moving an organization forward. Any time something needs to shift within your company, take some time to plan for that shift and decide how you’re going to help everyone succeed. There’s a lot to think about, but the more specific your plans are, the better it all will go.

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