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Change is a process

Change occurs as a process, not as an event. Organizational change does not happen instantaneously because there was an announcement, a kick-off meeting or even a go-live date. Individuals do not change simply because they received an email or attended a training program. When we experience change, we move from what we had known and done, through a period of transition to arrive at a desired new way of behaving and doing our job.

Although it is the last of the seven principles of change management presented, treating change as a process is a central component of successful change and successful change management. By breaking change down into distinct phases, you can better customize and tailor your approach to ensure individuals successfully adopt the change to how they work.


Understanding change as a process

It is easy to see changes in nature occurring as a process. Whether it is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, or winter shifting into spring, we can easily appreciate the process of change. But when we begin changing our organization with projects and initiatives, we often forget the fact that change does not happen instantaneously.

The easiest, most basic approach to understanding change as a process is to break change down into distinct, understandable elements. The three states of change provide a powerful framework: the Current State, the Transition State and the Future State.


  • The Current State - The Current State is how things are done today. It is the collection of processes, behaviors, tools, technologies, organizational structures and job roles that constitute how work is done. The Current State defines who we are. It may not be working great, but it is familiar and comfortable because we know what to expect. The Current State is where we have been successful and where we know how we will be measured and evaluated. Above all else, the Current State is known.

  • The Transition State - The Transition State is messy and disorganized. It is unpredictable and constantly in flux. The Transition State is often emotionally charged - with emotions ranging from despair to anxiety to anger to fear to relief. During the Transition State, productivity predictably declines. The Transition State requires us to accept new perspectives and learn new ways of behaving, while still keeping up our day-to-day efforts. The Transition State is challenging.

  • The Future State - The Future State is where we are trying to get to. It is often not fully defined, and can actually shift while we are trudging through the Transition State. The Future State is supposed to be better than the Current State in terms of performance. The Future State can often be worrisome. The Future State may not match our personal and professional goals, and there is a chance that we may not be successful in the Future State. Above all else, the Future State is unknown.

The three states of change provide a way to articulate how change actually occurs. Whether the change is an Enterprise Resource Planning application, a new performance review process, a new piece of machinery on the production line, an optimized and managed set of business processes or a new reporting structure - there is always a Current State (how things are done today), a Future State (how things will be done) and a Transition State (how we will move from point A to point B).


Think about a project you are working on or a project that is impacting you. Using the following table, try to define each of the three states of change and come up with three adjectives that describe that state.

  Description: Adjectives describing that state:








To take the understanding of change as a process one step further, think about who in the organization spends their time focused on the Current State, the Transition State and the Future State. The table below looks at three audiences and how they view the states of change.


Executives and
senior leaders
What I need to change
and why I am trying to implement the change
A necessary evil to get me where I want to be The goal that I have
decided to move my
organization toward
Project teams What I'm starting with
and must improve
The focus of my daily
work and what I'm
charged with solving
Where we ultimately want
to end up
Front line employees, managers, supervisors The day-to-day work that
I do to deliver value to
the organization
A disorganized inconvenience
to me doing my job
An unknown that may or
may not be good for me


Executives and senior leaders live in the Future State. That is what they are responsible for and compensated for - deciding how the organization should function in 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, etc. Project teams live in the Transition State. They investigate alternatives, decide on a path and develop a solution to change the organization. Employees, managers and supervisors live in the Current State. They cannot simply stop their work to implement a change. They are responsible for keeping the organization functioning while a change is being implemented.

The disconnect here can have significant ramifications when it comes to communicating about change. Senior leaders tend to focus on and speak about vision, almost detrimentally in some instances. Project teams tend to focus their communications on the details of their solution and the milestones and timeframes when change will happen. Employees want to know why what they are doing now (the Current State) needs to be changed in the first place. Change management practitioners play a key role in bridging the gap between the three states of change.


Managing change as a process

Once you have started thinking about change not as a singular event but as a process, the question remains: how do you manage the process of change? Managing change as a process takes place on two levels:

  • Individual level
  • Organizational level


Individual level

Each individual employee or manager who is impacted by a change must go through their own, personal process of change. If the change impacts five people, then each of those five must move from their Current State through their Transition State to their own Future State. If the project impacts 500 people then there are 500 Current-Transition-Future processes that must occur. If the initiative impacts 5,000 people, then there are 5,000 individuals moving from a Current State to a Future State. This is the essence of change management, supporting individuals through the required personal transitions necessary in order for a project or initiative to improve the performance of the organization.

Prosci's ADKAR® Model provides a more detailed description of how an individual successfully moves from their Current State to their Future State. ADKAR describes the five building blocks of successful change:

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to participate and support the change
  • Knowledge on how to change
  • Ability to implement the required skills and behaviors
  • Reinforcement to sustain the change

Whether it is a change at home, in the community or at work - individuals are successful at change when they have Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement™. This results-oriented description of the individual change process gives change management practitioners a new focus. For example, instead of seeing their job as "creating a communications plan," an effective practitioner with a focus on the individual change process sees his or her job as "creating Awareness" and so forth.

Two final observations about change as a process at the individual level. First, people will start the change process at different points in time. A team that is part of a pilot program may learn about a change and start the change process months before other larger groups of employees. Second, individuals take different amounts of time to move through the process themselves. For one, Awareness of the need for change may only take a few hours where for another it may take days or weeks to arrive at the point of saying "I understand why the change is needed".

Once we begin viewing and managing the individual change processes associated with a project or initiative, we will be more successful at enabling those individual transitions that together will result in successful organizational change.


Organizational level

When it comes to managing change at the organizational level, viewing change as a process helps determine the sequencing and content of the change management effort.

First, organizational change management itself should follow a process that parallels the process of change associated with a project or initiative. Prosci's 3-Phase Process for organizational change management lays out specific activities for Phase 1 - Preparing for change (occurring during the Current State), Phase 2 - Managing change (occurring during the Transition State) and Phase 3 - Reinforcing change (occurring during the Future State).

Second, research shows that change management practitioners have five tools or levers they can use to help move individuals forward through the change process - communications plan, sponsor roadmap, coaching plan, training plan and resistance management plan. Depending on if we are in the Current State, the Transition State or the Future State, different tools will be more effective and the content will change. Two examples:

  • The training plan - a training plan is a key component of a change management effort. Employees typically need new skills and competencies when adopting a change to their day-to-day work. But the training plan must be effectively sequenced based on where employees are in the change process. A training program that occurs right when employees learn about a change - when they are standing firmly in the Current State - will not be effective (this is an unfortunate reality in many cases, however, where the first response to a change is "send them to training"). Training should be delivered after employees have already started to move out of the Current State and into the Transition State.
  • The communications plan - the content of an effective communications plan parallels or matches where employees are in the process of change. Early communication efforts should focus on explaining why the Current State is not working and must be changed. Communications later on in the change process can begin to focus on details and the eventual results the project or initiative is aiming to deliver. If the first communications to employees focus on the details, milestones and vision of the change, employees are left with unanswered questions that cloud their ability to process the details - namely "why?".

Managing change as a process from an organizational viewpoint helps to ensure that the right activities are occurring at the right time, and that employees are receiving the right information they need to move through their own personal process of change.


Key lessons for change managers:

  1. Treat the changes you manage as a process, and not as a single event or series of events.

  2. Individuals experience change as a process. Evaluate and focus your change management activities based on where individuals are in the change process.

  3. No one experiences the process the same.

  4. Your organizational change management efforts need to be tied to where you are in the change process.


In this tutorial series:

  • Module 1: The psychology of change - understanding the guiding principles of effective change management
  • Module 2: Senders and Receivers - understanding why some communications work and others don't
  • Module 3: Resistance - understanding a phenomena that is natural to all of us
  • Module 4: Authority for change - the role of leadership during change
  • Module 5: How do the values of an organization impact the approach to managing change?
  • Module 6: Incremental vs radical change
  • Module 7: The right answer is not enough
  • Module 8: Change is a process




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