What’s the ADKAR Model and How to Use It

In today’s business world, change is a given. Agile businesses that can adapt to changing circumstances and continuously improve their processes gain an edge over their competition. But deciding what needs to change and how it should change is just the beginning. One of the hardest parts of change management is the people element. The ADKAR Model offers a way to guide your team through a change process.

What’s the ADKAR Model

As any manager knows, leading people through change can be frustrating. You know you’ve found a better way to do things, but people often push back against the change, or quietly slip back into their old way of working as soon as you relax your vigilance.

The ADKAR model is a 5-step framework that helps deal with the people-aspect of change management. The methodology was developed by Jeffery Hiatt, a best-selling author and the founder of Prosci.

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The acronym ADKAR stands for the five goals that people must reach to achieve successful change. In brief, they are:

  1. Awareness: Leading people to see the need for change.
  2. Desire: Instilling the desire for change.
  3. Knowledge: Providing employees with the information or skills they need to achieve change.
  4. Ability: Applying knowledge and skills to bring about change.
  5. Reinforcement: Making sure that people continue to use the new methods.

The Five Phases of Change in Practice

While a very quick summary of the phases through which we need to lead people in a change process may look easy, they’re certainly more easily said than done. Next, we’ll take a closer look at each of the five ADKAR model goals and help you with some tips that will help you to reach them.

1. Awareness

It’s important to realize that by implementing change, you require employees to step outside of their comfort zone. They aren’t going to do so willingly unless you can bring them to an understanding of why change is needed.

How can you know if you’ve got the message across? Look out for the symptoms of failure to create awareness of the need for change:

  • A passive reaction: They don’t confront you or argue with you, but they also don’t support you. Secretly, they wish that you won’t change a thing. It’s not that they’re disloyal, they just don’t see why they should change the way they work. This might not sound like a biggie, especially if they’re compliant, but people who are profoundly aware that change is essential will be highly motivated to help you. Your passive employees won’t be.
  • They keep on slipping back into the old way of doing things: This is probably the most frustrating reaction to change that any manager can face – and it can cause chaos in your business. You’ve designed a business process that can work, but for it to do so, everybody needs to apply the new methods.
  • They actively resist change: While some managers may feel that active resistance is the worst possible reaction to change, it’s way less insidious than the first two reactions we looked at. When your people are openly against change, you can be very sure that they don’t see the need for it.

To create awareness of the need for change, you need everybody who is affected by it to be aware of the issues that triggered the initiative. That might mean sharing some uncomfortable truths, but if people don’t understand the problem with the old way of working, they aren’t going to see the need for the new one.

Good, two-way communication is a must. Encourage your people to ask questions and make suggestions. Keep an open mind and be patient.

2. Desire

Understanding that there’s a need for change and wanting change to happen are two different things.

When people honestly want to see positive change, they’ll go all-out to support you. When they don’t, you will have to drag them forcibly through the change process from start to finish. It’s a toxic situation: they’re not happy, you’re not happy, and the change initiative drags its feet instead of skipping along towards the finish line.

To instill a desire for change, people need to know why it’s good for them. For example, they might not care that the business’s profits are low. But they will care if they know that low profitability may lead to the business freezing wage increases, having to implement layoffs, or even closing down.

It’s also important to remember that people have feelings that might not be altogether rational. There’s no point in telling them they’re irrational – it’s not going to change the way they feel. If they’re afraid of change, you need to calm those fears. If they’re angry about the change, they need you to talk things through with them.

3. Knowledge

There’s no point in trying to implement change unless the people whose jobs are changing know how to get things done. Getting through this step could be as simple as showing them how you want them to work from now on and where they fit into the process flow. However, people might also need training.

For example, if you’re introducing a new machine into a production process, people need to know how to operate it correctly and safely. If you’re using new software, employees who will be using it will need to know how to proceed.

Unless people know what they must do and how to get it done, they can’t help you to proceed with the change, even if they honestly want to. Try to identify any knowledge gaps in advance as you prepare for change and monitor the situation for any knowledge-based issues you may have overlooked once you implement change.

4. Ability

Knowing how to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do it in practice. Here’s a simple example. When you were a kid, you knew that to ride a bicycle, you would need to balance on the seat and pedal it along.

So, what happened the first time you tried to do that? Did you just hop onto the bike and ride it like a Tour de France pro from the start? It probably took you a while to develop your skill and confidence. Along the way, you probably had a few spills too!

When you implement a new process, you don’t want to risk any “oops” moments. Hands-on training is the best training, and once people have demonstrated their ability, you can be reasonably confident that there won’t be any costly errors later on.

5. Reinforcement

Doing something once or twice doesn’t mean that you have formed a new habit. Let’s suppose that you reached D-day for implementing change. Everything went smoothly. That’s great, but you still haven’t completed the change process. Will everybody still use your new method tomorrow? What about next week?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule on how long it takes people to form new habits. You’ll come across the “21 days to entrench a new habit” fallacy a lot, but researchers say that it’s hard to form anything but a very basic habit in such a short time. Even relatively simple changes take an average of 66 days to become habits – and even then, it’s easier to lose a good habit than it is to sustain it.

That means that reinforcement is really an ongoing process, but it will need some extra focus, to begin with. During this phase, your managers and supervisors will exercise vigilance and give people lots of feedback. Providing recognition and praise is just as important as spotting areas where people need a little help to get their part of a new business process running smoothly.

People like to know whether they’re achieving the results your change process targeted. Talk to them about their role in the process and how it’s going as well as the end result of the business process and progress towards the goals to which they are contributing.

During this stage, you should also be on the lookout for areas where the new process isn’t serving you or is demotivating your staff. For instance, if you’ve overestimated a person or department’s capacity and there’s a bottleneck in the process, people will feel overworked and stressed out. They might even start resisting change they previously supported.

Luckily, you don’t have to wait until someone cracks under pressure or you fail to meet your targets. Monitor the way in which processes flow from one person or department to another using workflow software like Tallyfy. Track down the reasons for bottlenecks. Do people need more training? Do you need to provide more resources?

How the ADKAR Model Fits into a Change Process

According to Hyatt, the ADKAR model can’t replace the nuts and bolts, practical side of change. Instead, it contributes to each of the phases of action that make up change. Let’s see how that works.

You identify a business need. Don’t keep it to yourself. Now’s the time to start building awareness.

You start working on and designing concepts to meet the need. At this point, you move on to encouraging a desire for change. Everybody wants to find a solution.

Implementation of change begins when you equip your team with knowledge, and you ensure that they have the ability they need to work within the changed process.

Post-Implementation, you don’t allow things to slip. This is when your people need reinforcement to continue using the new methods.

Look for the reasons why projects and change initiatives fail, and you’ll find an array of reasons cited. Some authors emphasize failure to handle the people side of change. Others say that getting the “hard” factors wrong is the fatal error.

The truth lies somewhere between the two. A good change strategy won’t work if the people aren’t on board, and even the most dedicated team won’t be able to meet the business’s needs if the practical strategy for change is off base. Get both right and your efforts will be rewarded with success.

Hyatt emphasizes that you can’t move on with the process of change until you’ve reached the appropriate step in the ADKAR model. For example, you can’t enter implementation and expect it to succeed if you haven’t achieved awareness and desire.

Try moving on to the knowledge step without these prerequisites and the staff you’re trying to equip with knowledge and ability won’t get the best out of their learning curve. If they’re unaware of the need for a change, you might get a rather resentful “Why should I do this training anyway?” response. And if there’s no desire, the reaction is likely to be “I don’t want to learn this.”

Struggling with Change? Go Back to ADKAR

Hyatt recommends using the ADKAR model to make change work. But he also recommends it for troubleshooting change processes that are dysfunctional. Which element is missing? Once you find the missing link, you can address it.

The issue may not be an organization-wide problem. One key individual who doesn’t see the need for change, doesn’t want it, doesn’t know how to implement it, or is trying but doesn’t have the skill, can throw the whole change process off kilter.

By the way, Hyatt recommends using ADKAR for more than just business change. You can use it for your personal growth or to help friends or family members to achieve personal change. You can even use it to help you with parenting!

Change is seldom easy, but with the ADKAR model to help you in understanding the human element, you can avoid many of the pitfalls that could spell failure. And if you hit a snag, ADKAR is there to help you figure out what you need to do next.

There’s a lot more to change management than getting employee buy-in. For more technical aspects, you can read up on Kotter’s 8-Step Model or Lewin’s Change Management Model. Or, if you’re looking for something more comprehensive, check out our guide to change management models.

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About the author - Amit Kothari

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