The Definition of Change Management

How do you define change management? Change management is a set of strategies and procedures used to manage an organizational change and guide people through the necessary transition to achieve the desired result.

What is Organizational Change?

The world “change” is somewhat nebulous. It can mean different things to different people. But when it comes to understanding the concept of change management, it all begins with something changing in the way an organization operates.

This can mean a change in:

  • Personnel
  • Leadership
  • Processes
  • Tools
  • Procedures
  • Culture
  • Location
  • Resources

change management definition

Define Change Management

Organizational change can be a small change, such as replacing a manual workflow in software with an automated one. It can also mean a large change, which could be a merger of two companies.

The people being impacted by the change, which will typically be the employees working for the organization, are the key focus of the organizational change management definition.

It’s All About the People

When asked to define organizational change management, the first place to start is the people being impacted by the change.

Change management is about ensuring those people are successfully guided through the steps to move from the old process or procedures to the new ones needed for the change to be successful.

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Why Do Things Change? | Organizational Change Definition

Why do organizations change? Changes can come from the desire to grow and innovate. They can also come from the need to adjust and adapt.

Want to Change

One of the biggest reasons that organizations change is because they are looking to improve the way things are done.

In this case, an organizational change definition could include innovating to stay a “step ahead of the competition” or wanting to create a better customer experience to positively impact sales.

When asked to define organizational change when it comes to improvements, some of the activities may be:

  • Adding new products or services
  • Increasing the size of the staff
  • Adopting new technology
  • Moving to a larger location
  • Optimizing workflows through automation

Have to Change

Another reason that organizations change is because they have to. They may be forced to change to adapt to new market conditions or due to the need to reduce costs.

In this case, the organizational change definition is going to look slightly different. It may mean a faster change that doesn’t afford the same time for planning. It may also mean a less welcome change, but one that is necessary to survive.

Some examples of ways to define the organizational change that is due to outside circumstances include:

  • Downsizing office to lower overhead
  • Adjusting to a remote work situation due to stay-at-home government orders
  • Revamping sales and operations to adapt to changed customer behaviors
  • Transitioning to a new software due to a vendor going out of business

Define Organizational Change

When asked for the short definition of change, we define the organizational change in the following way.

Organizational Change Definition: An event whereby an organization transitions from one state of operations, tools, or processes to another. It involves a change from a “current state” to a “future state” for the organization and its employees.


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The Concept of Change Management

Before people even knew there was a way to define organization change and well before the concept of change management entered into the business lexicon, organizations have undergone a change.

For example, businesses in the early 1900s adapted to the automobile and telephone as they became available, both new technologies of the time that allowed innovation. Those adoptions required a change in the way companies did things.

While it may not have been specifically defined as “organizational change,” it was a change all the same.

The Concept of Change Management is Born: The Key to Change is People

One of the first organizational change management definitions from a well-known change methodology can be traced back to 1947. That’s when psychologist Kurt Lewin published his change theory, which was one of the first focused on defining the concept of change management and the transition people have to make to change successfully.

The importance of the Lewin change model was that it highlighted people and the transition they have to make during an organizational change, and helped define change management in the process.

The Process - Change Management

Now, there was a process that needed to be adopted to ensure an organizational change could happen. A process that included guiding people from the old way of doing things to the new way, while taking their behaviors, habits, and feelings into consideration.

That process = The change management definition.

Change Models & Methodologies

Besides the organizational change management definition by Lewin, there are other leading change management models that also give a little different spin on how to define change management.

Each includes the main concept of change management, which is that if an organization wants to get through a change successfully, the people have to change successfully first.

This means a change in their habits, behaviors, processes, and general way of doing things, which is not always easy and often meets with resistance.

That’s why multiple change management models and methodologies have been developed over the years, each with their own way of defining change management.

We’ll go through a brief overview of four of the most popular models to help further define organizational change management. We’ll cover the change management definition Kotter, Prosci, Lewin, and Bridges each describe in a change model.

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How Change Models Define Change Management?

You can’t fully define change management without discussing some of the popular change models that are used for change management.

A change model provides a framework to help organizations understand the change management definition as well as create a strategy for change management. Most change management professionals will follow the concept of change management given in one or more change models when guiding an organizational change project.

To define change management from several perspectives, we’ll go through the change management definition Kotter, Prosci, Lewin, and Bridges all provided.

Change Management Definition Kotter

To better define change management, John Kotter identified eight factors that caused change projects to fail. He then created the Kotter 8-Step change model to address those failure factors and keep organizational change projects on track.

The organizational change management definition Kotter put forth is different than many others in that it takes a more top-down approach, focusing on the change project momentum. Others take a bottom-up approach, focusing on the people going through the transition the most.

Kotter’s change management definition included these eight steps:

  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Build a guiding coalition
  • Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  • Enlist a volunteer army
  • Enable action by removing barriers
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Sustain acceleration
  • Institute change

Change Management Definition Prosci

The ADKAR change model developed by Prosci, uses the acronym ADKAR as a change management definition for the stages that employees need to go through for an organizational change to be effective.

These are:

  • A: Awareness of the need to change
  • D: Desire to support the change
  • K: Knowledge of how to successfully change
  • A: Ability to adopt the new skills/behaviors for the change
  • R: Reinforcement of the change, so it sticks

The other part of the Prosci organizational change definition includes three phases that a change project goes through.

  • Preparing for change
  • Managing change
  • Reinforcing change

Change Management Defintion Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin Change Management Definition

Change Management Definition Lewin

Kurt Lewin was one of the first to define change management, and he did so in a way that describes the changes in behavior that need to take place for change to happen.

The Kurt Lewin change model illustrates the need to unfreeze the current state behaviors and habits, teach the new behaviors, and then freeze the new behaviors so they’ll become the new “way we do things.”

These three stages of the change management definition are described as:

  • Unfreeze
  • Change
  • Freeze

Change Management Definition Bridges

The organizational change definition put forth by the William Bridges change model discusses the emotions that people go through as they transition through the phases of change.

Just like Prosci and Lewin, the Bridges model has three stages that define the change management process.

Bridge's Transition Model - why people resist change

The phases in the Bridges model are defined as:

  • Endings
  • Neutral Zone
  • New Beginnings

How does Bridges’ change management definition differ from the others? It’s much more focused on the emotions people feel when in each stage of change.

Related: John Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model


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Define Change Management & Project Management

When people are defining change management, they often wonder, “What is the difference between project management and change management?”

The two are interconnected in that a change project needs to also have a project management component to it—to manage the processes, strategies, and planning of a change project.

While change management is defined as managing the “people” part of the change, people can’t change without change project planning.

Project Management Definition

The Project Management Institute defines project management as “The application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”

Project management is an important part of change management.

The key difference is that project management may or may not involve a project that impacts people and the way they do things. Where change management always includes a project that impacts people and the way they do things.

When looking at change management vs project management, it helps to look at the various “buckets” of activities in the following way.

Change Management Definition: People Focused Part of Change

Project Management Definition: Process Focused Part of Change


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Project Management & Organizational Change Management Definition | How They Work Together

When looking at how project management and change management work together, let’s look again at the change management definition, which is: A set of strategies and procedures used to manage an organizational change and guide people through the necessary transition to achieve the desired result.

Project management would be the procedures needed to manage the organizational change when it comes to allocating resources, planning the steps of the project, and basically proving the framework for the project to happen successfully.

You can consider project management as one of the key pieces of change management.

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Conclusion: Defining the Concept of Change Management

While you can define organizational change in a variety of ways that are specific to a particular organization (merger, technology innovation, cost-cutting measures), change management has the same objective.

The change management definition revolves around ensuring the people going through the change do so successfully, which includes mitigation resistance, and implementing communications, training, and other support resources.

There are several variations on how exactly to define change management when you look at the different change models; however, all have the same end goal.

That goal is to enable an organization to make a change by guiding the people being impacted through the steps needed to adopt the new behaviors necessary for a positive outcome.


Authors: Ogbe Airiodion (Senior Change Management Lead) and Francesca Crolley (AGS Cloud Content Producer)
Content on Airiodion Global Services (AGS)'s Airiodion.com website is copyrighted. Questions? Contact Airiodion Global Services (AGS) .

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Free Change Management Templates (Excel, PDF, PPT)

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