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Leading and managing organisational change

Supporting an organisation or business through change is a critical part of any leader’s job. Change is constant, and work environments continually evolve as new technologies are adopted, and old ways of working are replaced with the development of new knowledge and skills. Despite the constant presence of change, it remains a significant challenge for organisations. According to a study conducted by McKinsey, just 26% of change projects are considered to be successful within their organisations.

This is why successful change management is such a priority for businesses – and why all managers should aim to be change leaders.

What is organisational change?

Organisational change occurs whenever an organisation or business makes a significant alteration to its identity, purpose, or procedures. This can include changes to an organisation’s:

  • brand
  • culture
  • operational systems
  • internal infrastructure
  • hierarchy or structure
  • policies or processes
  • equipment or technologies
  • values
  • stakeholders
  • leadership team
  • products
  • business models.

Drivers of organisational change

There are a number of reasons why a business or organisation will choose to undergo a period of transformation. Common aims include the following.

Cost savings

Organisations often adopt new technological devices or systems to automate processes, reduce workloads, and streamline workflows in order to save money.

Business growth

Whether introducing new products or services, or emerging into new markets, businesses will embrace change to create new opportunities for growth.

Overcoming obstacles and other challenges

In periods of economic downturn or difficult market conditions, or when facing heightened pressure from competitors, suppliers, or customers, organisations will often implement a change management strategy to help steer the organisation forward – and correct course where needed. This may also occur when an organisation is required to implement new government legislation or directives.  

Adopting high-level or large-scale change

When an organisation decides to make changes to its strategic objectives, its core purpose or values, or even its fundamental structure – such as through mergers, a culture change, or new leadership and senior managers – a dedicated change management process can be instrumental in helping ensure success. 

Types of organisational change 

Organisational change comes in many forms, such as:

  • adaptive change, which is made up of small, incremental adjustments within an organisation
  • transformational change, which includes the kind of sweeping, strategic change projects that can alter the fabric of an organisation
  • remedial change, which includes reactionary change efforts that are typically implemented in response to a problem or issue.

What are the phases of organisational change?

Organisational change management usually consists of three major phases.


The preparation phase is vital for successful change programmes. It requires change agents to define criteria for success and desired outcomes, as well as any and all potential impacts, and the planned approach for the project. This plan should outline activities, establish roles, and address any risks.


The implementation phase is when all of the work outlined in the preparation phase actually happens. During this phase, leaders should be tracking and monitoring the change programme, and adapting it where necessary.


The final phase of organisational change is about sustaining the outcomes of the change programme. This means reviewing the results of the project, and ensuring that the change outcomes are embedded as part of business-as-usual within the organisation.

What is the role of a leader in managing organisational change?

Leaders play a pivotal role in managing any organisational change process.

They’re responsible for:

  • communicating with the people they lead, answering questions, providing clarity, and taking on feedback
  • motivating people, addressing resistance where it occurs, and easing the transition from the old way of working to the new approach
  • providing accountability, making assessments and decisions, and delegating where appropriate.

What is the difference between leading and managing change?

People are what determine whether a change project is successful or not. And that’s why change leaders are so important.

While managers are needed to oversee the logistical aspects of implementing change, leaders who have competency in getting buy-in from people, engaging them in the process of change, and motivating them to see change through. This is particularly important in large-scale change projects where tensions may be high and instability is inevitable. In these scenarios, leaders help people understand the vision behind the project. 

Change leaders won’t necessarily fit into any one role. While some may sit within senior leadership teams, others might work in human resources or project management. Their defining feature will be their passion and dedication for implementing a successful change programme – and getting other people on board along the way.

What are the main approaches to leading organisational change?

Organisational change has generated a number of different models, methodologies, and approaches for helping leaders to plan and implement effective change management projects.

One is the three-stage model of change developed by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist. Lewin’s model suggests that change has three stages.

  1. Unfreeze, where people prepare for the coming change.
  2. Change, the transitional time where change occurs.
  3. Refreeze, when the change because the norm and stability is restored.

Another methodology is the eight-step process for leading change developed by Dr John Kotter, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. Kotter’s eight steps are:

  1. creating a sense of urgency
  2. building a guiding coalition
  3. forming a strategic vision
  4. enlisting a volunteer army
  5. enabling action by removing barriers
  6. generating short-term wins
  7. sustaining acceleration
  8. instituting change.

Lead transformational change within your organisation

Help ensure the success of change initiatives within your current or future organisations with the flexible online Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme from the University of York. Leading and Managing Organisational Change is one of the key modules on this programme, so you will have the opportunity to examine change practices within organisations, theories of change, and how change can shape effective practice.

This postgraduate degree is taught 100% online, so you can study around your current professional and personal commitments as you develop knowledge and skills in topics such as management strategy, operations management, contemporary issues in leadership, marketing in a global society, and contemporary topics in global business.