Understanding the ADKAR Model for change management

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
Updated July 2, 2024

Successful change starts with understanding the reason behind it. Humans naturally seek reasons behind actions or necessary changes. Often challenging and intricate, change demands innovative approaches and tools for guiding others and entire organizations through transitions.

The ADKAR Model is a strategic method for businesses navigating organizational changes like new software implementation or restructuring.

This model provides a thorough framework that enables every employee to handle change from start to finish while offering a dependable way to track progress.

Businesses can significantly ease organizational development using the ADKAR model, leading to a smoother and more effective outcome.

By the end of this article, you will understand:

  • What the ADKAR Model is and its core elements 
  • The benefits of the ADKAR Change Model
  • How the ADKAR model works in practice
  • The Challenges of the ADKAR Model

What is the ADKAR Model?

The ADKAR change model, crafted by Prosci’s founder, Jeff Hiatt, is a change management model that acts as a framework for change at an individual level, enabling companies to innovate and enhance efficiency. 

The essence of the ADKAR model is to guide organizational changes in the workplace by offering tailored support to each employee during their transition. This approach allows management to pinpoint and tackle potential hurdles while equipping employees with the necessary information, guidance, and vision for the future.

The ADKAR methodology acknowledges that change happens personally, requiring a step-by-step process to convince individuals of the need for change, cultivate acceptance, and implement ongoing support mechanisms.

The ADKAR model is structured around five key elements

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to support the change
  • Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability to show new skills and behaviors
  • Reinforcement to make the change stick

We will discuss these elements in more depth in the following section.

What are the core elements of the ADKAR Model, and how can they be applied?

What are the core elements of the ADKAR Model_ (1)

Exploring the ADKAR change management model in a practical context involves examining each element individually to understand how change agents can effectively apply the model.

Let’s break down the process step by step to see how the ADKAR model functions in practice:

Awareness: Recognizing the need for change.

The first and foremost element of the ADKAR model is the awareness of the need for change. This crucial step involves understanding why change is essential and conveying the rationale and logic behind the impending change. 

Effective and strategic change management communication plays a pivotal role here. When this stage is effectively executed, each individual (employee) will clearly comprehend why the change is imperative.

Tips for implementation

To facilitate employees’ understanding of the necessity of change and highlight its significance, you could illustrate the potential repercussions for the organization if it does not embrace it. 

Additionally, conducting feedback sessions where employees can see how the change will impact the future of the workplace can be highly beneficial.

Desire: Support and participate in the change.

Understanding the need for change is one thing, but cultivating employees’ desire to participate actively is another critical aspect of the ADKAR model.

When your employees understand and fully believe in the benefits of a change, they are likely to respond with enthusiasm and dedication, actively working towards implementing the change and achieving goals.

However, if employees are not fully onboard, their lack of desire can manifest as passive or active resistance. In such cases, guiding them through the change process and helping them adjust can be essential. It’s important to monitor their reactions to assess their level of desire.

Passive resistance to change might occur when employees acknowledge the change but only comply when it suits them, often reverting to old methods without supervision.

Active resistance, while challenging, is not inherently harmful. It may indicate a need for improved communication with employees regarding the reasons and rationale for the change.

Tips for implementation

To create a desire for a needed change, you should showcase how you aim to support employees through every step of a transformation, which could be with digital adoption software. Alternatively, if you focus on rolling out the change to change champions first, you could work with them to influence a broader set of employees.

Managers could also hold one-to-one meetings with employees to discover what would motivate them to support a change. For instance, an employee would be more likely to support change if they knew that a manager would be supportive of giving them time to learn any new processes during their working day. 

Knowledge: Understanding how to change.

For a change to take effect properly in your organization, employees and managers may need to gain new knowledge or undergo specific training.

Learning, however, is not an isolated activity. A crucial aspect of a learning culture is the exchange of reflections and experiences with others. This interaction is vital to understanding and applying new knowledge.

Tips for implementation

Conducting a skills gap assessment is advisable to ensure the effectiveness of a training initiative. This assessment can help determine the specific needs of the change—whether it requires employees to complete a virtual course or if they would be better served through peer-to-peer coaching.

Ability: Implement the change on a day-to-day basis.

Before rolling out the new system in the operational environment, it’s crucial to give employees ample opportunity for thorough testing. Change leaders are instrumental in this process, organizing employees into teams.

Employees can actively engage with the new system by participating in practice sessions, sharpening their skills, and enhancing their ability to apply the changes effectively. 

Such hands-on experience is invaluable for a comprehensive understanding of the system’s features and functions, and it significantly builds their confidence in adapting to change.

Tips for implementation

At this juncture, your organization could conduct multiple trial runs of the implementation, ensuring any potential issues are identified and addressed. Additionally, your business could build a knowledge or FAQ bank for employees to ensure that the change processes are transparent and there are no repeated mistakes.

Reinforcement: Ensuring change sticks and is sustained over time.

It’s important to maintain momentum after successfully integrating the change into your regular business operations and achieving a phase of stability. Sustaining the change requires ongoing engagement and reinforcement. Regularly discuss progress, celebrate significant achievements, and share stories of success.

Keep the conversation about the change alive, whether through customer testimonials, employee quotes, or other forms of positive feedback, to help everyone understand the impact of the change and any further actions needed.

Tips for implementation

Encouraging managers to organize focus groups with employees is a good strategy for facilitating the long-term implementation of changes. These groups offer a platform for discussing any challenges encountered, ensuring they can be promptly addressed.

Furthermore, recognizing and rewarding employees who actively embrace and support the change can motivate and set a positive example for others.

The benefits of the ADKAR Change Management Model

The benefits of the ADKAR Change Management Model (1)

As a multifaceted diagnostic tool, the ADKAR model offers several advantages:

Focuses on individual change

ADKAR deeply analyzes each individual’s response to change, offering insights into personal barriers. This level of detail helps managers and change leaders understand each team member’s needs and concerns, allowing for more effective and personalized support strategies.

By focusing on individual experiences, the model encourages personal engagement in the change process. This approach ensures that employees don’t just go through the motions but actively understand, embrace, and implement the changes.

Clarifies actions to be taken at each stage

The ADKAR model’s strength lies in its clear roadmap for each change stage. Instead of just saying “create awareness,” it guides managers in crafting compelling communication that explains the “why” behind the change. 

This could involve data presentations or employee forums. Similarly, “foster desire” goes beyond simply telling employees what’s good for them. The model helps managers address anxieties and showcase the change’s benefits, like improved processes or career opportunities.

Possesses an outcome-focused approach

Unlike traditional models that might just say “create awareness,” ADKAR provides managers with a roadmap for achieving specific outcomes at each stage. This translates to crafting clear communication that explains the “why” behind the change, equipping employees with the knowledge they need through targeted training, and finally, solidifying the change through ongoing reinforcement and recognition programs. 

This focus on outcomes rather than just tasks keeps the change process aligned with its ultimate goals and allows for easier tracking and measuring of success.

Highlights the importance of sequential steps when implementing change

ADKAR emphasizes following its steps in order – awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. This sequential approach ensures that each foundational aspect of change is established before moving to the next, preventing common pitfalls like jumping straight to training without establishing awareness and desire.

Allows effective resistance management

Traditional change models might not directly address resistance. ADKAR’s strength lies in its ability to pinpoint where resistance arises. This empowers managers to tackle specific concerns. For instance, the model can help identify an employee who understands the change but is hesitant due to potential workload increases. 

With this knowledge, managers can implement targeted solutions, such as delegating tasks or providing additional resources, to smooth the transition. This focus on proactively addressing resistance prevents roadblocks and increases the likelihood of successful implementation of change.

Enhances empathy and communication

Unlike some change models with a one-size-fits-all approach, ADKAR prioritizes understanding individual needs. Managers gain valuable insight into their team members’ emotions and perspectives by focusing on the Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement (ADKAR) aspects of change. 

This allows for tailored communication that resonates with each employee. For example, employees lacking confidence in adapting might require more hands-on training. Someone hesitant about the change might benefit from open discussions addressing their concerns. This focus on empathy fosters a more supportive environment and increases the likelihood of successful change adoption.

Reinforces change in the long-term

Moving beyond traditional, task-oriented approaches, ADKAR equips managers to understand employee concerns and tailor communication for optimal buy-in. This emotional intelligence fosters trust and proactively addresses resistance.  However, ADKAR doesn’t stop there.  It provides a roadmap for long-term success by emphasizing positive reinforcement through milestone recognition and ongoing support.  

This ensures changes become ingrained within the organization, not fleeting trends.  This human-centric approach empowers managers to lead change empathetically, fostering a more successful and sustainable transformation.

Builds a culture of continuous improvement

Integrating ADKAR principles into everyday practices fosters a culture of continuous improvement. Employees become more comfortable with change, and the organization becomes more agile and adaptable. This goes beyond mere announcements. It involves clear communication about the “why” behind changes, ensuring everyone grasps the purpose. 

Highlighting employee benefits positions the change as a growth opportunity. Training and resources equip employees for effective implementation. Finally, recognizing and celebrating successes keeps employees motivated and reinforces the positive cycle of continuous improvement. This ongoing focus on ADKAR principles fosters a culture where change is embraced, not resisted, making the organization more adaptable and successful in the long run.

Can be customized to different scenarios

ADKAR’s adaptability is a game-changer. Unlike rigid change management models, ADKAR can be tailored to fit any scenario. Whether it’s a minor tweak to a daily workflow or a complete overhaul of the company’s strategic direction, ADKAR’s core principles remain relevant. 

This flexibility makes it a powerful tool for organizations of all sizes and industries. No matter the size or focus of your company, ADKAR can help navigate change effectively, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and ensuring long-term success.

What are the challenges of the ADKAR Change Model?

Like any model or methodology, the ADKAR model for change management is not without its criticisms and limitations, which should be carefully considered when applying it in practice.

These are:

Lack of a focus on organizational change

The ADKAR model’s primary focus on individual change can be a double-edged sword. While it provides detailed insights into each person’s journey through change, it may not sufficiently address an organization’s larger, systemic issues. 

These broader issues, such as organizational culture, structural inadequacies, or lack of support from senior management, are crucial for a holistic and successful change process. Integrating ADKAR with models emphasizing organizational change could provide a more balanced approach.

No detailed strategic solutions to overcome resistance to change or other emotional responses

One notable limitation of the ADKAR model is its lack of detailed strategies for managing resistance, a common and challenging aspect of change management. While the model acknowledges resistance, it falls short in offering practical, actionable methods for dealing with it, especially in larger or more complex organizational settings.

Additionally, the transition from awareness to desire involves significant emotional adjustments. However, the model does not adequately address the emotional dimension of change.  

Other models might be more effective, like the Bridges Transition Model, which differentiates between change (external events) and transition (internal psychological reorientation).

Ignores broader influences

The ADKAR framework overlooks the impact of cultural, social, and environmental factors on people’s perception and response to change. These factors can significantly influence how change is received and implemented, and their omission can lead to a lack of understanding of the broader context in which change occurs. 

For instance, a strong company culture that is resistant to new ideas might hinder the effectiveness of the change initiative. Similarly, social norms within a team might discourage individuals from speaking up against a perceived negative change, even if they have concerns. To be successful, change initiatives need to consider these external influences. By understanding an organization’s cultural landscape and social dynamics, change leaders can develop more targeted strategies for communication, engagement, and overcoming resistance.

Lack of specific solutions for achieving change

While ADKAR outlines the stages of change, it does not provide specific solutions or actions for overcoming obstacles that arise during these stages. This gap can leave change leaders without concrete steps to address challenges, making the model more of a roadmap than a detailed guide.  For example, the model might identify a lack of knowledge as a barrier but wouldn’t offer specific solutions for developing the necessary skills or knowledge.  

Change leaders might wonder how to bridge this gap and ensure individuals can implement the change.  To be more effective, the model could be supplemented with additional resources and tools that provide practical guidance for addressing these implementation challenges.

Only offers a basic structure

As a foundational model, ADKAR is excellent for those new to change management, offering a basic structure to think about change. It provides a clear framework for understanding the different psychological states individuals go through during change. However, its simplicity may not capture the complexities of change in larger or more dynamic organizations.  The model assumes a relatively linear progression through the five stages, which might not reflect the messy realities of change initiatives. 

Complex change efforts often involve unforeseen obstacles, setbacks, and the need for adjustments along the way. ADKAR’s rigidity might not be suitable for these situations.  A more flexible model that allows for iteration and adaptation might be more appropriate for leading change in complex environments.

Provides a rigid sequential approach

The sequential nature of ADKAR aligns with more traditional, linear thinking about change processes. Modern change management often requires a more fluid approach, where adjustments and pivots are not only allowed but encouraged. This rigidity can limit the model’s effectiveness in complex environments.

Change is often a messy, iterative process that doesn’t follow a linear path. Strict adherence to the sequential steps of the ADKAR model may not align with the realities of most change projects, which often encounter unforeseen obstacles or shifts in dynamics. Flexibility and the ability to adapt the approach as needed are crucial.

No guidance on quantifying behavioral changes

The ADKAR model struggles to quantify the success of change initiatives. It focuses on achieving the five states (Awareness, Desire, etc.) but lacks clear metrics to measure them.  Change leaders need a way to assess progress and identify areas for improvement. It’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of the change effort without measuring psychological states and behavioral changes.  

For instance, it might be difficult to gauge how much more motivated employees are after a communication campaign or measure a concrete increase in desired skills or behaviors following training programs.  This lack of quantifiable data makes it challenging to justify the investment in change initiatives and secure ongoing stakeholder support.

A practical example of change using the ADKAR Model

Visualizing a change management model like ADKAR in practice can be difficult. So, here is an example of how the ADKAR model was used in real-life settings to effect change:

During the COVID-19 outbreak, nurse executives at Texan Health implemented the ADKAR model to devise a plan that prioritized patient safety and nurse satisfaction while being agile enough to respond quickly to various scenarios. The first step involved leadership communicating openly and transparently about the impending change to foster employee awareness. Next, they focused on cultivating a desire among staff to support the change.

Initially, the operating staff was hesitant, but leadership helped them recognize the model’s task-driven nature, which subsequently won their support. The knowledge phase involved sharing preliminary information about the planned approach, supplemented by leader rounding and town hall meetings to reinforce understanding.

Additionally, a skills refresher course was offered to nurses lacking specific skills required for the change, enhancing their ability to adapt and perform effectively.

Finally, the sustainability of the new changes was ensured through daily shift safety huddles. These meetings not only reinforced the changes but also provided a platform for feedback, allowing for ongoing evaluation and adaptation of the changes for long-term success.

The future of the ADKAR Model

The ADKAR model, a popular choice in change management, is popular for its efficacy in navigating organizational transitions. This model offers a systematic approach to managing change, focusing on the individual’s experience.

By centering on the personal aspect of change, the ADKAR model enables organizations to cultivate an engaged and motivated workforce, leading to improved productivity and, ultimately, better business outcomes.

While the ADKAR model provides a clear framework for successful change management, it’s also essential to understand how to communicate and execute the required work effectively.

It is crucial to engage and inspire people throughout the process. To achieve this, you might integrate the ADKAR model with other change management methodologies or leverage technology to assist employees in adopting new practices.

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
WalkMe pioneered the Digital Adoption Platform (DAP) for organizations to utilize the full potential of their digital assets. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning and contextual guidance, WalkMe adds a dynamic user interface layer to raise the digital literacy of all users.