Models: The Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change

Model for managing Complex Change

The Model for Managing Complex Change is widely used in Change Management presentations and articles around the web, as it outlines required elements fo change, and possible negative outcomes. What’s interesting is that it is often referenced by a second-hand source: Timothy Knoster used the model in the TASH conference in 1991, and since many sources refer to this model as the “Knoster Model“.

However digging a bit deeper, I found out that the model is referenced in a book about education “Restructuring for Caring and Effective Education: Piecing the Puzzle Together” published in 2000, which references as original source a model copyrighted in 1987 by Mary Lippitt, “The Managing Complex Change Model”. Another Author is sometimes referenced, D. Ambrose, also from 1987, and in any case part of the Enterprise group.

In any case, I decided to refer here to this as the “Lippitt-Knoster” Model, as these are the two more broadly used names.

The Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change

The Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change
Fig.1: Model for Managing Complex Change

According to the model, there are five or six elements required for effective change: vision, consensus, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. If anyone of these elements is missing, the change effort will fail, with varying Negative Change outcome. Let’s see both in detail.

The Key Components of the Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change


Initially, there must be a vision. Why is change needed? We have already seen how much the Why is important. Is the vision shared and are people buying in? Are there measurable, achievable goals? A lack of vision leads 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.

An additional element: Consensus

Apparently, in the presentation done by Knoster, this element was added: Consensus. The idea is that a leader cannot assume they have the power to push through change without gaining a consensus. The fact that this element is not present always, is probably linked to the fact that Knoster applied the model to an educational context. I do think however that in a world marked by much flatter and self-directed organisational models, the underlying concept of “buy-in” is critical, which is why I present the model complete with this element.


The next necessary element is skills. What skills are needed? Do staff members have expertise or training in what they are being asked to do? If not, will it be provided from someone they trust? Feeling as if skill or training is lacking may lead to anxiety.


Employees typically also need incentives to make a change. How will it benefit them? There is nothing worse than feeling as if time is being wasted. Everyone must see the value in the change before it can happen. Incentives is the piece that can either build consensus or build resistance among staff. Incentives can be tangible such as monetary, or intangible such as personal achievement or prestige. And it’s important to create them with consistency and direct linkage to the vision.


Resources are also important to change efforts and can be physical or emotional. We often hear comments such as “They want us to do more with less” or “They don’t support me.” A lack of resources leaves people frustrated. 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?

Action Plan

The final element required for change is an action plan. The action plan for change should be clear and developed by a representation of all stakeholders. Without it, staff may feel as if they are running in place and not moving forward. They feel like they are going round and round without any clear direction even though they are working diligently. Without a plan, gaining traction and moving forward is impossible.

The possible negative change outcomes


Negative Change Outcome: Confusion

If you have consensus, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan but you don’t have a vision — that guiding force behind what you’re trying to do — you will not end up with change. You will end up with confusion because there won’t be a guiding star during the Change process.


Negative Change Outcome: Sabotage

If you have the vision, skills, incentives, resources and action plan, but you don’t have Consensus — the buy-in into change by the key stakeholders of the organisation—you might end up in a situation where open sabotage of change can happen.


Negative Change Outcome: Anxiety

f you have a vision, consensus, incentives, resources and an action plan, but leave out the skills necessary (i.e.communication, public speaking, political or advocacy) to effect the change you seek, you will be left with anxiety among your team members. If you have people who are unprepared to do the work, it doesn’t matter if they have a great vision and buy-in, they will feel anxious to fail.


Negative Change Outcome: Resistance

If you have the vision, consensus, skills, resources and action plan, but leave out the incentives — the types of things (rewards, recognition, celebrations) that keep key community stakeholders engaged — you might have changed, but it will be slow and generally marked by a high degree of resistance. People will simply try to stick to the old ways of doing.


Negative Change Outcome: Frustration

If you have the vision, consensus, skills, incentives and action plan, but leave out the resources (money, people, time, equipment), you will end up with frustration because you’ve got a plan, and you know how to accomplish it, but you don’t have the resources to get the job done.

Treadmill or False Starts

Negative Change Outcome: Treadmill

If you have the vision, consensus, skills, incentive and resources, but no action plan — a plan broken down into steps that people can take and accomplish in small bits — you will end up with a situation that resembles a “treadmill”: you are running, but you’re not moving ahead. Other definitions of this Negative Change Outcome use the concept of false starts, as sometimes people will start the change process, but will have to go back due to a step being missed for example. Both definitions show that results will be of slowness.

What’s Good About the Model

The Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change is an excellent tool both to plan Change, as well as to diagnose issues when a project is already happening. It provides a consolidated map of all the elements needed, and I particularly like the focus on Incentives, as these are way too often missed in many alternative models.

What’s Bad About the Model

There’s nothing inherently bad about the Model for Managing Complex Change, except that it does not provide a sequence of the elements that are needed. Compared to Kotter’s model, for example, it lacks the direction or phasing of the various elements.


Knowing the Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change gives a clear advantage as it allows to truly understand the importance of every element that is needed for Change to be successful. It also gives a clear understanding of the Negative Change outcomes in case any element is missing. Using it as a “map” that ensure consistency and coherence is a must in any change process, as it creates the right mindset for success.

This post belongs to a series of articles related to Change Management. An introductory article: Change Management: The 10 Best Approaches & Models is available, containing links also to all other posts of the series.
I’d like to thank Dr Anke Dählmann from TU Delft for pointing out misspelling and corrections to this article.

Sergio Caredda - Blog Signature

Cover Photo by John Barkiple on Unsplash

  1. […] Based on “The Managing Complex Change model” by Lippitt, M. (1987). […]

  2. […] We need an effective way to show how much gain they will get while we minimize their pain. The Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change helps UX designers do just […]

Why not leaving a comment?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: