CACAO Change Model

See more Change Theories »Summary written by Karen Viskupic, Boise State University,; Brittnee Earl, Boise State University,; and Susan Shadle, Boise State University,

The CACAO model focuses on four elements that are important to any change process: the Change, the Adopters, the Change Agents, and the Organization. Individuals working to enact change follow a process to identify the change, meet the needs of individual adopters in different stages of adoption, and enact changes within an organization.


The CACAO model is based on a number of underlying change theories designed to help organizational change practitioners "understand and plan for the key dimensions of a change process" (Dormant, 2011, p. 10). It was originally developed and applied in business contexts. The model identifies four interconnected elements important to any change process: the Change, the Adopters, the Change Agents, and the Organization (CACAO). The model also identifies a series of steps that can be taken both linearly and iteratively to support a change process.

The Change

A key component of the CACAO model calls for change leaders to be clear about the change they seek and be able to clearly communicate the change to stakeholders. To "specify the change," change leaders must consider the strengths and challenges of the change from the future adopters' perspective. In the case of STEM education reform, this means considering the perspectives of faculty adopters, academic leaders, and other stakeholders. The CACAO model describes a set of change characteristics that should be considered, such as adaptability and simplicity. By understanding potential sources of resistance to change, or uncertainty about change, change agents can intentionally plan to address or mitigate these points, thereby increasing the chances of adoption.

The Adopters

Based on the research of Lewin (1951), Rogers (2003), and the Concerns-Based Adoption Model (Hall & Hord, 2010), the CACAO model invites change agents to support adopters to move toward the desired change through five stages of adoption: awareness, curiosity, mental try-out, hands-on try-out, and adoption. For example, faculty moving through these stages could start from a simple awareness that evidence-based teaching practices exist to adopting a set of teaching practices that are built on scholarly findings and informed by assessment of their own teaching practice. The CACAO model calls on change leaders to attend carefully to the different needs of adopters relative to where they might be in the adoption stages. For example, a faculty member who is just learning about evidence based teaching practices likely has different needs than a faculty member who is trying a new teaching method for the first time.

The Change Agents

The CACAO model calls for the formation of a change agent team with a broad range of knowledge, skills, and expertise to successfully carry out a change. The change team is responsible for leading, managing, and implementing change strategies, which requires individuals with knowledge of, and agency within, the institution. The full description of the model (Dormant, 2011) provides a change agent team with a variety of tools and activities to frame each stage of the work.

The Organization

The CACAO model guides change leaders to consider the structure of the organization in choosing strategies and in planning for sustainability, especially because some policies, practices and other structures might need modification to support and sustain the change over time. In higher education, change leaders must attend to the needs of individual faculty, the context of academic departments, and the overall institutional organization. The change climate (how open or closed to change an organization is) and the change load (how many changes are being implemented or have been recently implemented) of an organization are also important factors that need to be considered.

Example of Use

The PERSIST project (Promoting Educational Reform through Strategic Investments in STEM Transformation) at Boise State University (NSF DUE-1347830) used the CACAO model to promote changes to STEM teaching practice, with emphasis on the exploration and adoption of evidence-based instructional practices (EBIPs) among STEM faculty. PERSIST employed a variety of strategies to meet the needs of faculty at different stages of adoption with respect to their use of EBIPs, and targeted different levels of the organization (individuals, departments, colleges/whole institution) with different strategies. Viskupic et al. (2022) described these strategies and developed a matrix for applying the CACAO model to change in higher education settings. The matrix serves as an extension of the CACAO model to help change leaders understand at which organizational level(s) and stage(s) of adoption a particular action is targeted, thereby allowing change leaders to survey the landscape of institutional change and target activities to span the conceptual space of the project.

Assumptions & Limitations

Assumptions (adapted from Dormant, 2011)

  • Change is a process. 
  • Individuals move through stages of adoption and change agents must attend to the varying needs of individuals in each stage in order to help them progress to the next stage. 
  • Change is easier to achieve when change agents work with adopters rather than try to make change happen to them. 
  • Individual adopters exist within an organizational context and structure; the context and structure must also be attended to during the change process. 
  • Communication is critical during each stage of the process; when adopters lack information they "horribalize" and resist change. 


  • The model was originally developed for the corporate environment and requires adaptations for application in academia. It assumes a level of authority and power to enact change (hierarchical) that is not as pronounced in higher education.
  • The model tends to view change as a somewhat linear process with a prescribed outcome. 
  • The model does not incorporate specific framing to support the sustainability of a change.

Application in STEM Higher Education

Earl, B., Viskupic, K., Marker, A., Moll, A., Roark, T., Landrum, R. E., & Shadle, S. (2020). Driving change: Using the CACAO framework in an institutional change project. In D. Henderson & M. Stains (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education. Pressbooks.

Viskupic, K., Earl, B., Shadle, S.E., (2022). Adapting the CACAO model to support higher education STEM teaching reform.International Journal of STEM Education , vol. 9, p. 1-20. 

Original Publication of Theory

Dormant, D. (2011). The chocolate model of change. San Bernardino, CA: Author.

Other References

Hall, G. E. and Hord, S. M. (2010). Implementing change: patterns, principles, and potholes (3rd ed.). Paper Saddle River, N. J.; Prentice Hall.

Kotter, J. P. and Posner, B. Z. (1990). The Leadership Challenge. Jossey Bass.

Landrum, R. E., Viskupic, K., Shadle, S. E., & Bullock, D. (2017). Assessing the STEM landscape: the current instructional climate survey and the evidence-based instructional practices adoption scale. International Journal of STEM Education, 4(1), 25.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social sciences; selected theoretical papers. (D. Cartwright, Ed.). Harper & Row.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5ed). Free Press.

Schein. E. H. (1999). The corporate culture survival guide. Jossey Bass.

Shadle, S. E., Marker, A., & Earl, B. (2017). Faculty drivers and barriers: laying the groundwork for undergraduate STEM education reform in academic departments. International Journal of STEM Education, 4(1), 1–13.

Note: This summary is written as a secondary resource to help researchers and practitioners learn about potentially relevant change theory. We encourage authors to read the original references rather than citing this summary in published work or grant proposals.