Virtually every organization will, at some point, undergo a transition or change in order to remain viable and scale. Whether onboarding new employees, growing a department, or merging with another company, these changes can have a significant impact on the trajectory of your business.

Unfortunately, organizational change isn’t always easy to adapt to and can be intimidating for all team members who find themselves impacted by it. 

As a manager tasked with overseeing organizational change or guiding your employees through it, it’s important to know what the process looks like and what to expect. Change, although challenging, can be a major opportunity for growth and career advancement, so long as you know how to approach it.

Here’s a look at what organizational change management is and some tips for navigating it.

What is Organizational Change Management?

Organizational change refers to the actions in which a company or business alters a major component of its organization, such as its culture, the underlying technologies or infrastructure it uses to operate, or its internal processes. Organizational change management is the method of leveraging change to bring about a successful resolution, and it typically includes three major phases: Preparation, implementation, and follow-through.

What Causes Organizational Change?

Many factors make organizational change necessary. Some of the most common faced by managers include: 

  • New leadership at the helm of the company or within its departments
  • Shifts in the organizational team structure
  • The implementation of new technology
  • The adoption of new business models

Types of Organizational Change

Organizational change is a broad term. Some change is sweeping: A substantial evolution in the direction of a company. Other shifts are less dramatic, focusing instead on a small aspect of a firm.

It can be helpful to think of change as a spectrum. On one end, you’ll find adaptive change, which speaks to those modest iterations. On the other, there’s transformational change, in which vast change is pursued.

Adaptive changes are small, incremental changes organizations adopt to address needs that evolve over time. Typically, these changes are minor modifications and adjustments that managers fine-tune and implement to execute upon business strategies. Throughout the process, leadership may add, subtract, or refine processes.

One example of an adaptive change is an organization that upgrades their computer operating systems from Windows 8 to Windows 10.

Transformational changes have a larger scale and scope than adaptive changes. They can often involve a simultaneous shift in mission and strategy, company or team structure, people and organizational performance, or business processes. Because of their scale, these changes often take a substantial amount of time and energy to enact. Though it's not always the case, transformational changes are often pursued in response to external forces, such as the emergence of a disruptive new competitor or issues impacting a company’s supply chain.

An example of a transformational change is the adoption of a customer relationship management software (CRM), which all departments are expected to learn and employ.

Many changes will fall somewhere between adaptive and transformational on the spectrum. For this reason, managers need to understand that the change process must be tailored to the unique challenges and demands of each situation.

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Why Is Organizational Change Management Important?

Organizational change is necessary for companies to succeed and grow. Change management drives the successful adoption and usage of change within the business. It allows employees to understand and commit to the shift and work effectively during it.

Without effective organizational change management, company transitions can be rocky and expensive in terms of both time and resources. They can also result in lower employee morale and competent skill development. Ultimately, a lack of effective change management can lead the organization to fail.

A Manager’s Role in Organizational Change

Within an organization, every employee has a different role in assisting with change. While many staff members may complete heavily detailed work, senior-level executives with longer tenure might have different goals. Even within management, leaders and managers perform different tasks.

Leaders, for example, have to be courageous by taking on risks. They need to look at the big picture and articulate high-level change to the company, explain why it’s occurring, and motivate people to support the transition. To be successful as a leader, you must be insightful and know who to put in charge of carrying out change processes.

Managers are more concentrated on making business transitions successful. They focus on implementing change by determining the discrete steps that need to happen and their sequence. Managers are also typically responsible for allocating resources, such as personnel, and determining how success is measured. Ideally, leaders will also be managers, but it’s the primary responsibility of a manager to know how to design, direct, and shape change processes.

To achieve this, managers must have a wide array of skills, such as:

Preparing for Organizational Change

To prepare for organizational change, it’s essential to first define the organizational change, understand why it’s critical, and garner support from your colleagues.

Then, create a roadmap that clearly articulates and measures success, and explains how the business—and its employees, customers, and constituencies—will be affected.

Ensure the process plan aligns with business goals and outlines the implementation and sustainability of the organizational change. Note what challenges may arise and be flexible enough to adjust accordingly. Be sure to celebrate small victories along the way.

Change management doesn’t stop once you’ve successfully executed the transition. Both throughout and following the process, you need to continuously assess outcomes, measure data, train employees on new methodologies and business practices, and readjust goals as necessary.

Learn More about Management Essentials

Developing the Skills You Need to Manage Organizational Change

Many managers experience organizational change throughout their careers. By learning how to preempt and address the challenges associated with change, you can ensure you’re equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to manage it.

If you’re looking for opportunities to improve your organizational change management abilities, enrolling in an online management course, like Management Essentials, is one option that can provide you with real-world skills, teach you common business strategies, and prepare you to handle any transitional challenge that comes your way.

Do you want to become a more effective leader and manager? Download our free leadership and management e-book to find out how. Also, explore our online courses Leadership Principles and Management Essentials to learn how you can take charge of your professional development and accelerate your career.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.