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Change Management & ADKAR: the things you don't know that ruin the recipe

Updated: May 29, 2021

This blog is about Change Management and the missing ingredients and methods in recipe based approaches like ADKAR.

The problem with Change Management AND ADKAR

Change is unsettling. Change creates uncertainty and, uncertainty can stimulate a freeze-flight-fight response in your teams. Ultimately, change, or transformation initiatives will stress and fail if leaders don't engage and involve people in the change process. And herein lies the opportunity to transform change, by starting with the individual.

Many Change Management frameworks acknowledge the need for individual engagement and involvement. However, they more often than not fail to recognise critical aspects of behavioural psychology. Not a big deal? Think again.

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Imagine wanting to impress a loved one by cooking them a special meal. You buy a cookbook authored by your loved one's favourite chef. You select a recipe, buy all the ingredients, and you diligently follow the method. However, the final product doesn't look like the picture in the recipe book, and it tastes bland.

This unsatisfactory outcome isn't your fault; the chef missed a vital ingredient, as well as an additional step in the method. As a cook, lacking the experience of the chef, you have no idea where it went wrong because you have no awareness of what was missing. You followed the recipe and blame yourself for not following the recipe correctly, never knowing that the undesired outcome was nothing to do with you. It was the fault of the chef.


Take the popular ADKAR change framework (Awareness-Desire-Knowledge-Ability-Reinforcement). ADKAR is your recipe book, and if any ingredients or steps in the method are missing, then, just like the meal for your loved one, the outcome might not be what you expect or want.

According to Prosci Inc, Step 1 of the Change Management process, Awareness, is about the need to change, where:

"a lack of awareness of the reason for change was cited as the primary source of employee resistance." (ADKAR Awareness e-book, p.4).

ADKAR is setting out to address the need for change, the 'why', which is underpinned by adult learning theory (see Knowles et al.'s brilliant book - a 'must read' for anyone interested in accelerating learning in organisations).

However, the ADKAR method is already undermining the change cook because the method begins with the transmission of a 'fait accompli', and not engagement (listening, leading to empathy - more on this later).

According to ADKAR, change is about effective communication that answers the 'why' question, thereby giving change leaders the permissions to proceed.

"Building awareness with the ADKAR Model means sharing both the nature of the change and communicating why the change is necessary. It means clearly explaining the business drivers or opportunities that led to the need for change. It also means addressing why a change is needed now and explaining the risk of not changing" (ibid, p. 5)

ADKAR's guidance then jumps to defining effective communication:

"Awareness-building is most effective when you set the message in the proper context for each audience and design it with them in mind...In any awareness-building plan, allow ample opportunity for two-way communications. Check for understanding and buy-in. Provide opportunity for impacted groups to raise concerns and engage them in the broader change initiative." (ibid, p.5-6)

At this point, if you are following the ADKAR change recipe, you are on a course determined more by luck than design. Why? Read on and we'll explain.

Before we show you the missing ingredients in the ADKAR method, take a look at the next step in the ADKAR change process, Desire.

According to ADKAR, Desire is a milestone related to the individual's choice, their motivation, to be engaged and involved in the change initiative. To accelerate change, ADKAR identifies 'Factors That Influence a Person's Desire to Change' (ADKAR Desire e-Book, p.4):

  • The nature for change and WIIFM (what's in it for me)

  • The organisational context for change

  • The employee's personal situation

  • Personal values and motivators.

There is much to be celebrated in ADKAR's acknowledgement for the need to influence an individual's motivation to engage and become actively involved in change initiatives. But, here again, the recipe is missing critical ingredients. The outcome is becoming increasingly reliant on luck and the goodwill of the people impacted by the change process.


ADKAR: Missing ingredients and changes to the method.

Change Management is about influencing and impacting behaviour at an individual and team level. Change recipes, therefore, need to embrace behavioural psychology in their approaches. ADKAR does this to a certain extent, but it is what is missing from the method that sends up red flags.

There are two methods and ingredients we want you to know about: self-determination theory (read more here) and the FBI's Behavioural Change Stairway (read more here).

Change is about behaviours related to self-determination and motivation, which means change leaders need to build a Change ARC - Autonomy, Relatedness, Competence. ADKAR seems to make change difficult and messier because it starts with a pre-determined decision; an entity has decided that change is right for you, the individual, and now this entity is going to get you to see that they are right and are to be trusted.

They want you to fall in love with them and their solution when you want them to fall in love with you, and your opportunities and challenges.


AUTONOMY is about choice. Consider autonomy from this perspective, is change being imposed upon you or do you choose to change? A better way to address to change is to actively listen to people and their opportunities and challenges. For example, when a Senior Leadership team first sense the need for change, they should move to engagement, where they listen to their community to make sense of their signal for change alongside employee and customer experiences. When this engagement happens, the need for change comes from the people and is of the people. The need for, and nature of, change is self-determined and immensely more powerful.


If people have been engaged and listened to, then change leaders will be in a position to demonstrate applied empathy (read more here). You know you have developed empathy when you have actively listened and can describe the world according to X (insert individual or team here) and they tell you, "that's right". When you have demonstrated empathy, you build rapport, which strengthens the RELATEDNESS, the connection, between the individual or team and the need, the context, for change.


From a position of rapport, you gain insights into the feelings of vulnerability or displacement created by a person feeling that they lack the COMPETENCE to either become involved in or thrive in the changing environment. Having rapport, a person or team grants you the permissions, the trust, to influence their behaviours and, therefore, bring about behavioural change.

What we are describing is a fundamental shift in approach to change management, from cook to chef, from Change Manager to Change Leader, from engaging to involving.


A final thought, as a Change Manager, how can you deliver value if you don't know what people consider to be valuable?


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