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Managing Complex Change

November 7, 2022

The "Managing Complex Change model" is an effective framework that can be used in any organization to initiate change. The model was created by Dr. Mary Lippitt, a leadership and management consultant who specializes in helping organizations navigate through change. In this blog post, we briefly examine each step of the model and how it may apply to your organization's unique situation. Here's the model:

managing complex change

You may also come across another variation of this model - the "Lippitt-Knoster" model, which some would argue includes an important refinement. Knoster added the element of "Consensus". The thinking here is that there are many cases where leaders can't assume that complex changes can be successful without gaining consensus and "buy-in":

lippitt-knoster model

Key takeaways

What type of organizational change is considered "complex"?

"Complex" change takes many forms, but is often a situation where the magnitude of change is high (e.g. large shift in the vision, strategy or org structure), there may be high levels of uncertainty about the future or there are many stakeholders with different interests. So, what are elements that help us navigate such complex changes?

Managing Complex Change encourages us to ask:

  • What is your vision? Why is a change needed?
  • What skills are needed? Does the team have expertise or training in what they are being asked to do? If not, will it be provided from someone they trust?
  • What incentives are needed? How will it benefit the team? There is nothing worse than feeling as if time is being wasted on something that does not benefit them directly. Your team need to understand how their work contributes directly to the success of an organization and its mission statement.
  • What resources are needed? A lack of resources leaves people frustrated. What resources are readily available? Are they appropriate? Are there in-house people who are resources that can assist with implementation
  • What's the action plan? What is the timeline? Who is responsible for what? How will progress be measured? What are the follow-up steps if there are problems?

Step 1: What is your vision?.

What is your vision?. Why is change needed?.

You first need to establish your vision and commitment. Determine your clear goals for successful change and communicate them clearly across your organization. A lack of vision can lead to confusion.

When the team asks questions such as "Why should I do this?" or "What are they thinking?" they may not realize the overall vision for change. If this isn't something you can clearly communicate, it's going to be hard to expect the team to get behind it.

As a reminder, your vision lays out a destination, your destination guides your strategy; and strategy chooses action. It’s action that leads to success and which we'll talk about in this framework later.

Step 2: What skills are needed?

What skills are needed to execute on the vision? Does your team have the expertise (or training available) in what they are being asked to do as part of the change? If not, will it be provided? Feeling as if skill or training is lacking may lead to anxiety.

How much time will be required for skill acquisition? Time can be a significant factor in many people's ability to remain calm during change.

Can you provide the resources needed for self-learning and on-the-job training? Many organizations offer opportunities for employees to improve their knowledge through self-study (e.g., books), reading groups, online courses and more formalized training programs offered by outside sources (e.g., colleges).

Step 3: What incentives are needed?

This step is about incentives. The word "incentive" means an action or event that encourages or motivates a person to act in a certain way. Incentives are used by managers when they want employees to change their behaviour, for example, when they set up a rewards system at work.

Managers need to think about what reward will be most motivating for employees. It might be something like a step towards career progression or a bonus. Or it could be non-monetary, such as praise from the organization's leadership. What's important is understanding the motivation driving each person as this can differ.

Step 4: What resources are required?

What staffing and resources are needed? A lack of resources leaves people frustrated and anxious about their ability to execute on org changes. What resources are readily available? Are they appropriate? Are there in-house people who are resources? Is the distribution of resources fair? What resources are needed and how will you get them?

This step helps you determine what skills, staff, equipment and funding you need to address your situation. It helps identify any gaps that may exist between what has been promised and what is actually available. You can also use this step to help assess whether internal or external support is required from a specific individual or group within the organization.

Step 5: What is your action plan?

The final element required for change is an action plan. Once you've acquired the necessary resources, you can begin implementing changes that get you closer to achieving your vision successfully and effectively. During this step it’s important to share progress with all stakeholders so that they all stay aligned throughout the process.

"What does success look like?" "How will we know when we have reached our goal?" These are questions older than time itself; yet, if not answered correctly, they can lead to years of wasted effort—or worse yet—an entire project being abandoned altogether because it wasn't clear from the beginning what was being attempted or why!


The "Managing Complex Change" model is a powerful tool for managing and understanding the changes that are happening in your business or organization. It can help you better understand how to manage change as well as prepare yourself for it.

Hopefully this post has given you some useful tips on how to successfully manage change in your organization.