ADKAR: A Method to Support Organizational Change Management

Kevin Jones
Written by Kevin Jones

Organizational Change Management (OCM) and IT

Although OCM is often referenced, it is seldom practiced in any disciplined way in the mainstream.

From the earliest days of IT, (the lack of) OCM has marked the death of many an otherwise successful project. In the traditional IT triad of People, Process, and Technology, oddly enough, technology turns out to be the easy bit. It is the People part of the equation that has always been the hardest for organizations to figure out, let alone master. I cannot tell you the number of could-have-been successful projects I have seen that have had to settle with mediocre success at best. Some were even “crash-and-burn” failures simply because somebody forgot to bring the stakeholders along for the ride.

As an industry, IT has been in the process of realizing the importance of OCM for over a decade, but resistance to and fear of unfamiliar methodologies still runs deep. Although OCM is often referenced, it is seldom practiced in any disciplined way in the mainstream. In an effort to help raise awareness about OCM, Axelos, the governing body of the ITIL framework, added Organizational Change Management to the line-up of General Management Practices when ITIL 4 was released in February 2019. And not an ITIL version too soon, if you ask me.

Organizational Change Management – The practice of ensuring that changes in an organization are smoothly and successfully implemented and that lasting benefits are achieved by managing the human aspects of the changes.

ITIL 4

There is no lack of robust OCM frameworks and methodologies from which to choose. Other common OCM frameworks include Kotter’s 8 Step Process, McKinsey and Company’s 7-S Framework, Kurt Lewin’s Change Model, the Kubler-Ross Model, Satir Change Management Model, and William Bridges’ Transition Model. But for many of us, the thought of selecting another high-level, strategic OCM approach seems like such an obstacle that we give up before we begin. How do we keep our concentration on the actual people without getting lost in yet another framework? Let’s take a moment to discuss one framework that makes for an excellent entry point in OCM.

What is ADKAR?

Jeff Hiatt, founder of Prosci, developed ADKAR in 2003 and folded it into Prosci’s larger OCM methodologies. ADKAR stands for Prosci’s approach to readying individuals and stakeholder groups for their OCM approach: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. As an added benefit, Prosci has refreshed and updated their materials just a few months ago in the third quarter of 2021.

 

Figure 1: The Prosci ADKAR Model

Figure 1: The Prosci ADKAR Model

 

Prosci intends the ADKAR Model as the way we bring all our stakeholders into the change process, garner their interest, cultivate their enthusiasm, and gain their commitment. Unlike more theoretical frameworks, ADKAR is operational in nature, working one-on-one with our stakeholder community to get and keep them informed and involved as the Change is rolled out into our organization.

Any given Change impacts different stakeholders in your organization differently. While we may need to address specific people individually, it is far more efficient to focus on groups of people with similar interests and communicate with them collectively. For this reason, it is very important to identify and carve out your stakeholders according to affinity groups. Depending on the size of your organization and the scope and extent of the Change, affinity groups of stakeholders could number in the dozens. While you should not be afraid to create enough of these groups to properly cover the people in your organization, we do recommend that you keep these denominations as simple as possible.

Note: I will use change in the lower case when speaking generically or discussing the change process. But when I speak about the Change we are preparing to implement, I will capitalize the word.

Before we go any further, I want to emphasize how tightly integrated OCM needs to be with the Change’s Project Management team. We want to coordinate each of the steps of the ADKAR Model with our overall project plan and specifically with the communications and stakeholder engagement plans.

That said, now let’s talk about each letter in the ADKAR Model.

A for Awareness

In this first step of the ADKAR Model, the goal is simple: make the stakeholder aware not only that the Change is coming but the need for the Change as well. For many of our stakeholders this will be the first they hear of the Change, so we need to frame this information in the proper light. This step is all about posing questions like “Why?”, “Why Now?”, and “What happens if we don’t do this?”

ADKAR is never a one-size-fits-all solution.

Do not use the first step to explain the upcoming change in great detail. This is the teaser — that tantalizing first sip. Use broad strokes to give your stakeholders this preview of coming attractions.

Our Change may be motivated by many things: a change in the market, technology, or regulatory requirements. Maybe our organization is embarking on a digital transformation or is feeling the shock from a disrupting competitor. Whatever the origin, we need to let them know that something upstream is heading their way. While ADKAR is never a one-size-fits-all solution, if any of the phases even merits that sort of consideration, it is Awareness. Still, you are more likely to tailor your Awareness messaging to the specific stakeholder group with a broad overlap in messaging across all.

D for Desire

D is where we begin the persuasion. In Awareness, you gave your stakeholders the barest outline of what is still on the other side of the horizon. Now it is time to get personal. In the Desire phase, we want to point out WIIFM – What’s In It In For Me? – and how this will affect them personally.

In the Desire Phase, we point out the WIIFM – What’s in it for me?

At this point, it is important to discuss the topic of stakeholder groups. While Awareness may have a great deal of shared content across all the stakeholder groups, Desire will need to target them individually with highly specific messaging. Each stakeholder group (and a stakeholder group may even contain a single person, if we need to divide things up that granularly) will have its own motivations. What could be a selling point or a benefit for one group may be an obstacle to another. This is where we need to think about the framing devices for our argument. Hollywood can be an excellent guide to framing. Take up the Desire messaging from the perspective of each individual stakeholder group. Do not be surprised if your messages are not only widely varied but may even seem somewhat contradictory. What motivates one stakeholder group may have the opposite effect on others.

One group that is essential for your success is the line managers.

Again, the goal is to persuade each stakeholder individually, to convince them that they will be better off embracing this Change. And if they themselves will not be better off, then we must show why it is important for the organization to go ahead with the change. Do not be afraid of using subtle and not-so subtle techniques to get your message across to them. One group that is essential for your success is the line managers. If we do not have their buy in, their attitudes will be transmitted, either implicitly or explicitly, to their direct reports and we could lose the support of the whole organization. How many times have you seen an initiative die “the death of a thousand papercuts” because entire teams decided to passively resist and slow-walk it until management just gives up? By grabbing the attention of line managers from the beginning, we can short circuit a great deal of this resistance.

K for Knowledge

This is the first stage in which your stakeholders take an active role; it is now that they begin the learning process. Here we move from persuading to knowing. Again, the messaging must be tailored to each stakeholder group. This could be a series of familiarization exercises or even introductory or foundation-level training. The point is to get them actively involved in how they must change their routines to accommodate the coming Change. This will not be the final training needed for go-live – that comes later in Ability. Rather, Knowledge refers to all of the preparation our stakeholders will need to get themselves ready to make that final push. As with all of the ADKAR Model, we must tailor these activities to each stakeholder group individually. Knowledge which is critical for one group may be peripheral to another. Just as with Desire, there is no one-size-fits-all solution with Knowledge.

  • If the Change comes from the Market, we will need to explain what those market forces are and why they are impacting us. For example, this will certainly impact teams in Marketing and Sales very differently from what might happen to Manufacturing and Accounting in your organization.
  • If the Change is regulatory in nature, we may need to help our stakeholders to review specific statutes and understand the process and motivations behind the Changes that are coming. Again, some stakeholder groups may face profound changes while other may notice little or no alteration in their routines.
  • If the Change comes from Technology, this could impact the way nearly everyone in the organization works today.

The goal of Knowledge is to get your stakeholders ready for the coming Changes both during and after the Change efforts.

A for Ability

Ability is the rubber-meets-the-road phase of the ADKAR model. This is where we implement the skills, techniques and behaviors needed to be successful in the New, post-Change normal. It will be critically important to coordinate the detailed training, coaching, acceptance and any other requirements with the roll-out and go-live of the actual Change itself. Again, how many times have you seen team members go through training three months before a new application or service is rolled out? By the time we actually need to employ these new Abilities, they have been all but forgotten.

Ability is about making sure that staff and management can function in the “New Normal.”

While training is a key component to Ability, there is so much more. We need to see to all the preparatory actions that go into making sure staff and management can function post-Change. A handful of the items we need to manage and questions we need to ask during Ability include:

  • Will stakeholders need new processes and procedures to execute in the new environment?
  • How about new equipment, software, or other devices? Have these been introduced and are our stakeholders comfortable with using them?
  • Have we planned out new or different chains of command, governance, accountability, or escalation?
  • Will we need layers or phases of training?
  • Is coaching an appropriate way to bring our stakeholder groups up to the required levels of competency?

Again, this phase of the Change is rarely satisfied with rolling out a new application and calling it a day. We must be sure that our stakeholders can function efficiently and effectively in the New Normal.

R for Reinforcement

Reinforcement is all about sustaining the Change as the New Normal and preventing stakeholders from returning to the older, sometimes more comfortable (though less effective and less efficient) ways of doing things. In many cases, the Change is so profound and the technology change so dramatic that there is no way to revert back to the previous ways of doing business. In other cases, preventing backsliding and establishing the New Normal may be considerably more difficult. Very often the Reinforcement phase is enabled by metrics tracking compliance, activity, changes in efficiency and effectiveness, et cetera. While it is part of all ADKAR Model phases, Reinforcement most often gets associated with managing resistance to change.

The Reinforcement phase is here to make sure that we do not lose the gains we worked so hard to achieve.

Resistance to Change

Resistance to Change (R2C), across the board, is concerned with identifying real and potential sources of resistance and non-compliance amongst stakeholders and finding solutions. More often than you would believe, the solution is to simply listen to what the stakeholders have to say. So often, when they feel they have been heard – really listened to – these stakeholders can feel better about collaborating and participating in the Change. Other times, R2C may require more profound solutions, even re-engineering part of, if not all of, the solution. For this reason, we want to begin our R2C efforts early and keep on top of them throughout the program. Please remember the importance of enlisting the line managers as a key constituency early-on in the process. The is a powerful R2C method.

Begin Resistance to Change (R2C) efforts early on and continue them throughout the project.

Please have a look at the table below from Prosci. This serves as a useful digest of what we have discussed here so far.

ADKAR Model

 

Not all stakeholders change at the same rate

One of the many things we need to concentrate on is minding the gaps between phases in the ADKAR Model. Some stakeholders proceed faster and more completely than others. We need to keep an eye on those (potential) and close them as we find them.

Some stakeholders proceed faster and more completely than others.

One of the most eye-opening things I came away with when I earned my Prosci Change Practitioner certification in 2017 was that while all stakeholders are bound to the same project plan for the Change, not all groups follow the same ADKAR path. Some start earlier (or later) in the project than others. Also, due to their job roles, some stakeholders just require a shorter (or longer) time or less (or more) emphasis in one or more on the ADKAR phases. This is where properly defining and deeply understanding your stakeholder groups becomes very important. Based on your research, you may split up existing stakeholder groups and/or combine others into a larger group.

As an example of tailoring the ADKAR Model to specific stakeholder groups, let’s suppose our Change is rolling out a new customer-facing app and we have defined a team of developers as a stakeholder group. This table explains how we can frame their ADKAR journey.

ADKAR Phase


Customization for the Stakeholder Group


Awareness

 

Depending on the reason for the Change, we may need to give them added information as to the needs for the Change


Desire

 

This could be a rather short block, based on their job roles


Knowledge

 

This phase could be quite involved as they learn the drivers for this change


Ability

 

This phase could be quite short if they use technology they are already familiar with or more involved if it means mastering new tools and techniques


Reinforcement

 

Again, depending on their levels of familiarity with the technology, this might be a longer or a short step of the process


Prosci has a similar table from a different perspective. In this example, Prosci shows five individual stakeholders and where their ADKAR journey begins and ends according to the project timeline. Rather than individual people, each of these could have represented a group of stakeholders as well.

 

ADKAR People Change Prosci

 

Please note how different the journeys are for Grace and Alana. Grace starts early in the process and her knowledge phase is quite extensive. It seems that Grace, along with Kavita and Eric, is a key contributor to the Change and her expertise is needed all along the project except for the very first phase.

Alana, on the other hand is needed later in the project; so we can conjecture that either she already has key skills and understanding or her contributions will be lighter. For any of those reasons (or more), her participation starts much later and ends earlier than Grace.

Waterfall vs Agile

Some of you may be thinking that while all the ADKAR stuff looks nice, it sounds pretty “waterfall-like” – in other words, full of a lot of up-front planning, sequential steps, and gates. If that is the case, how will this fit into the way we run Agile projects? If you feel this way, you are at least half right. ADKAR was developed in the Waterfall universe and there it has succeeded splendidly. But it also supports non-sequential processes as well.

ADKAR was developed in the Waterfall universe . . . but it also supports non-sequential processes as well.

In this case, I refer you to Prosci’s final diagram in this discussion. The top lane shows how well ADKAR maps to a standard waterfall methodology. No surprises here.

It is the non-sequential Agile diagram that I find most interesting. Notice how the project begins with Ability and Desire. Again, no surprises here. But then each sprint is chiefly comprised of Knowledge and Ability. This K A gets repeated through each sprint, adding to the ultimate deliverable until we arrive at Sustain, where ADKAR concentrates on Reinforcement.

Aligning ADKAR Model

 

While probably of less interest to most readers, the ADKAR model also does a superb job supporting the Plan-Do-Check-Act Model (otherwise known as the Shewart Cycle or Deming Cycle) as well.

ADKAR as part of Continual Improvement

OCM can almost be seen as an extension of Continual Improvement. At the very least it is critical tool in the Continual Improvement toolbox. ADKAR remains key approach for addressing ITIL 4’s Continual Improvement Model.

 

 

While mapping ADKAR to the Continual Improvement Model will never be a 1:1 relationship, we can certainly see areas where they correspond. Not every phase in the Continual Improvement will have its own ADKAR phase and some may have multiple. The table below plots out how the Continual Improvement Model and ADKAR could work as mutually supporting methodologies.

Continual Improvement Model


ADKAR

Phase


Mapping the two models

together


 

What is the Vision? Where are we now?

Where do we want to be?
Awareness
 

Gaining Awareness that a change is coming will be the first step in sketching out this Future State. This is where the stakeholders will get their first glimpse of tomorrow.

Where do we want to be?
Desire
 

Generating Desire will build the enthusiasm needed to persevere to the end of the project.

How do we get there?
Knowledge
 

The Knowledge phase works nicely with the planning that goes into “How do we get there?” aspect. This is where the planners will give stakeholders the understanding of what it will take to complete the process.

Take Action
Ability
 

With Ability, the stakeholders move from training into capability. This is where they will jump in and pull their weight with the project and make their contributions.

Did we get there?
Reinforcement
 

Reinforcement can be seen as straddling these two steps in the Continual Improvement Model. In “Did we get there?” Reinforcement will demonstrate that the New Normal is in place and that the stakeholders are participating in the change.

How do we keep the momentum going?
Reinforcement
 

In “How do we keep the momentum going?” Reinforcement can assist as a mechanism to observe and detect opportunities for future enhancement and improvement.

Conclusion

ADKAR is not a “silver-bullet” solution or some kind of OCM In A Box. Prosci, as well as the other major OCM frameworks, have plenty more to say on how to execute OCM against the larger project plan. Instead, ADKAR is a very sharp tool that will compel you to:

  • Properly analyze and identify your stakeholder groups
  • Bring them up to speed and along for the ride for the Change campaign
  • Make sure that your stakeholders are positive contributors to the sustainment and reinforcement of the Change we are undertaking

Additional Reading

If you enjoyed this article, please read our article on how OCM and ITIL 4 can support your digital transformation.

Originally published October 10 2021, updated December 12 2022
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]