The history of change theories

Change has seen some big changes over the last 60 years. From Lewin’s 3 step change theory of ‘unfreeze, make changes, refreeze’ to a current expectation that organisations should never “refreeze”, but be ready for a constant state of change. It has moved from an authoritarian, outcome driven approach (Theory E- based on Economic value) to a more empowered, people-driven approach (Theory O- based on Organisational capability) [1].

By looking at the 14 change theories and models outlined (bearing in mind there are many more in and outside of the literature), we can somewhat categorise them into the following 3 areas;

1. Change evolution– these describe the stages of change people go through for example; Kubler-Ross change curve and the Satir change management model (Late status quo, Resistance, Chaos, Integration, New status quo). These help us identify where we and others sit along the journey of change as well as give insightful predictions as to how people would respond to change over time. This helps organisations and change teams understand, appreciate and know how to accommodate for the emotional aspects that are so inherently linked to change.

2. Change diagnostics- These are diagnostic areas where organisations can look to make change happen. These include; structures, systems, processes, people, culture etc. Theories that fall into this category include, The Mckinsey 7S change model, Leavitt’s diamond, the six-box organisational model. These theories help us know where to look to target change initiatives and where change can have significant impact. For example, If an organisation is bringing in a new software, who will be impacted? It will be systems, people, processes etc.

3. Change implementation process- These are steps that organisations can take to make change happen. These include the famous Kotter’s 8 step model, Kanter’s 10 commandments of change, appreciative inquiry and Prosci’s ADKAR model. Whilst these are big picture steps, they provide a rough road map for change agents within organisations to follow.

Organisations often adopt a combination of these, rather than one stand-alone model. The question however remains, with all of these valuable, informative, evidence-based insights, why is it that we are still seeing the alarming figures that 70% of change initiatives fail [1]? What is missing from the change equation and can we find it? The next few blogs will explore different aspects of change management and perhaps, we can get even an incremental step closer to seeing if change needs to be changed.


  1. Beer, M., & Nohria, N. (2000). Cracking the code of change. HBR’s 10 must reads on change78(3), 133-141.

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