Change Management Tools: Kotter, ADKAR, or Something Else?

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I originally wrote today’s post for CMSWire. It appeared on their site on September 26, 2022.

In my last article, I wrote about the need for customer experience professionals to not only build the business case for improvements but to also help executives prioritize those improvement opportunities. I shared five tools to use to help make decisions and to establish priorities. Now what?

Once priorities have been set and decisions have been made about which changes to make, the next question I am often asked is, “What change management approach or model shall we use? Kotter or ADKAR?” Or, what about the customer experience change management approach I propose? Learn about all three approaches in this article – and then you decide.

What is change management?

Prosci, the company behind ADKAR, defines it as: “the application of a structured process and set of tools for leading the people side of change to achieve a desired outcome. We apply change management by helping individuals impacted by a change make the successful personal transitions that enable them to engage, adopt and use a change.”

Kotter defines change management as the “set of basic tools or structures intended to keep any change effort under control. The goal is often to minimize the distractions and impacts of the change.”

What is customer experience management?

I’ve often considered customer experience management to be a change management process, in and of itself. What is customer experience management? Gartner defines it as “the discipline of understanding customers and deploying strategic plans that enable cross-functional efforts and customer-centric culture to improve satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy.”

Guess what? You can’t deploy those strategic plans without some sort of framework or process to ensure that you’ll bring the entire organization along to achieve the desired outcomes. Might as well just call it customer experience change management.

More on that in a bit. Back to Kotter and ADKAR.

Kotter has started to evolve their language from change management to change leadership, which focuses on “the driving forces, vision, and processes that fuel large-scale transformation.” Their 8-Step Process for Leading Change includes the following steps (including some modified descriptions of what each entails):

  1. Create a Sense of Urgency: Help others see the need for change, convince them of the importance of acting immediately, and inspire them to act.
  2. Build a Guiding Coalition: Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort, and encourage the group to work as a team to guide, coordinate, and communicate actions.
  3. Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives: Create a vision to help direct the change effort, clarify how the future will be different from the current state, and develop strategies for achieving that vision. 
  4. Enlist a Volunteer Army: Make sure as many as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy and are united in the pursuit of achieving the goal.
  5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers: Remove obstacles that undermine the vision, and encourage risk-taking, innovation, and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions.
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins: Plan for achievements that can easily be made visible, follow-through with those achievements, and energize those who are involved to keep going.
  7. Sustain Acceleration: Use increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision, also hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision, and finally reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents. 
  8. Institute Change: Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success and continue reinforcing them until they replace old habits and behaviors. Make sure systems and processes continue to reinforce the new.

Prosci’s ADKAR, on the other hand, addresses the individual employee response or reaction to the change. The acronym stands for the five outcomes each employee must achieve for a change to be successful. We need to ensure that they understand it and are ultimately resilient to change when it becomes necessary or occurs.

  • Awareness of the need for change: communicate the problem and why there’s a need for change.
  • Desire to participate and support in the change: discuss the benefits of the change, the risks, and employees’ fears or concerns.
  • Knowledge of how to change: provide tools and training, develop new skills, and set targets.
  • Ability to implement desired skills and behaviors: provide training and update processes and practices.
  • Reinforcement to sustain the change: messaging, coaching, training, addressing resistance.

Comparing the two, they have different targets. ADKAR focuses on helping the individual deal with change, while Kotter’s approach guides and drives organizational or enterprise-wide change.

For customer experience change management, my preference is Kotter’s eight-step approach. As a matter of fact, over the years, I’ve adapted it to include additional steps.

  1. Understand the current state. You can’t transform something you don’t understand.
  2. Create a vision for change. Once you know what needs to be changed, you need to define what the future state will look like.
  3. Build your business case. Why is this change necessary? And what impact will it have on the business if we make this change? Establish the burning platform.
  4. Get executive commitment. If company leadership isn’t on board with the change, then forget it; it won’t happen.
  5. Establish your success metrics. How will you know when you’ve achieved your desired outcomes? How will you measure success?
  6. Develop a governance structure. This is a cross-functional, organization-wide effort. Without an executive sponsor, an executive committee, the core program team, and cross-functional champions and culture ambassadors, your transformation won’t get very far.
  7. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Communicating your vision is an important piece of change management. If no one knows what it is or why it’s taking place, then people start to ignore it; they certainly don’t want to be a part of it.
  8. Involve and empower employees. Don’t just force change on your employees; give them some ownership in the change. They’ll be more accepting of it, without a doubt.
  9. Model the behavior. It’s important that executives lead by example, to model the change that they wish to see from their employees; if they don’t live the change, why should employees?!
  10. Build on initial successes. Reinforce and keep going. Keep people informed of the progress being made. Celebrate each milestone. Recognize, reward, and reinforce the right behaviors, the progress, and the commitment of your employees.
  11. Monitor and adjust. Once you’ve implemented the change, your job is not done. The business evolves. New products are launched. Customers’ needs change.  New competitors enter the marketplace. Continuous improvement is the name of the game.

Ultimately, I think that the answer to “ADKAR or Kotter?” lies in what you’re trying to change. If you want to start by focusing on getting individuals motivated and engaged, start with ADKAR. Or, better yet, incorporate that into the Kotter model, when or as needed. The steps that I laid out for my customer experience change management approach focus not only on the language that we as customer experience professionals use but also the requirements we see as we start to build out our change strategy. And it encompasses both the individual and the organization. Bottom line: pick an approach and stick with it. You need a plan. Don’t think you can transform without one.

Change before you have to. ~ Jack Welch

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).

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