Leading Through the Curve

Dec 12, 2010 3 Comments by

In my last post I introduced a concept called the Change Adoption Curve that many Organizational Change Management experts use to illustrate the cycle people tend to go through as they adapt to change. I listed several assumptions about the curve that you should watch for when using it. Today I’ll address how you can apply your knowledge of that curve to help guide your change.

The stages of adoption are somewhat predictable – as are the things you can do as a Change Agent to help stakeholders move through them – and that’s what makes the curve useful. Let’s look at what you may see as a Change Agent and what you might do in response at each stage:

1. The Unwarranted Optimism Stage:

What Change Agents May See: There is usually plenty of optimism early in most change initiatives. People tend to focus on the expected benefits of the change and most of the potential reasons for resistance remain undefined or unspoken. The biggest red flag: It could be a sign of trouble if you hear only upbeat, “rah-rah” platitudes about the change and no realistic expectations.

What Change Agents Can Do to Help: Ask the hard questions early.  Be up-front about how much work this change might be and ask those impacted by the change to explain their concerns and raise unanswered questions as early as possible. Be sure to capture and share this stuff in your meetings, FAQ’s and other communications activities.

2. The Realistic Concern Stage:

What Change Agents May See: People may start to flee in panic once they realize the depth of the change or they may take their resistance underground during this stage of the project.  They will probably be quite vocal in expressing their rationale for blocking your change too. Be on the lookout for resistance that is expressed freely in shop-level circles but not shared at all with the change team. The biggest red flag is hearing nothing.

What Change Agents Can Do to Help: As a Change Agent, this is the moment of truth.  One of the most effective techniques I have used to avoid surprise resistance is to assemble a network of on-site Champions well in advance of this stage. Ask them fairly blunt questions at regular intervals to root out any potential resistance.  Use this insider knowledge to adapt your messaging, your training and especially your communication. Go get more feedback by asking the Champions and other samples of stakeholders what other  questions they still have. (Note: this is a big investment, but probably worth it when you consider the cost of change failure.)

3. The Fragile Confidence Stage:

What Change Agents May See: You may still witness considerable fear in the stakeholder community during this stage.  You should also see a growing confidence, but it is still not permanent. Some concerns may probably surface within the stakeholder community for whether the change should have ever been undertaken. Be sure to communicate the initial rationale for the change and the positive results as they start to come in.

What Change Agents Can Do to Help: Be especially diligent in digging for false interpretations of your key messages during this fragile stage.  For example: if the change involves a shift in roles and responsibilities but no loss of positions, you can anticipate that the word “layoffs” being falsely associated with your change.  Be ready for challenges such as these with honest, factual answers.  Also, if your change involves a new technology system – engage the system’s users directly. If it’s a communication concern, try sending your messages down multiple channels and following up with calls, surveys and site visits to verify that the messages are getting through. Ask people what makes them nervous. Verify that they know where to go for answers.

4. The Demonstrated Capability Stage:

What Change Agents May See: By this point in the change curve, the average stakeholder has come to grips with the personal impact of your change and found a way to either adapt to it or reject it.  If they chose to flee, the change team doesn’t have a lot of options (or obligations) to help them, but if the stakeholders chose to adapt, the regular organization now takes over. Change Agents can expect ongoing questions about where to go for help, follow-up training and support. They may also anticipate that the newly-completed change may be part of a string of related initiatives and ask questions about what else they should look forward to.

Be sure to build in a permanent support of your change or stakeholders could struggle.

What Change Agents Can Do to Help: The most obvious thing Change Agents can do to help after the initiative is complete is to refer stakeholders to the long-term support function of the organization.  For example; in the case of a technology-based change, there should be a permanent help desk team that can help with functional questions, security/login access issues, etc.. Of course, the time to plan for a long-term help function is during the project. Make sure the resources for support are kept on-hand after the project team disbands.

Know It & Use It: Each stage of the Change Adoption Curve has it’s challenges. Change Agents can help those most impacted by the change deal with each of the challenges if they anticipate them, take some appropriate, proactive measures.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. How much does it help to know in advance what reaction people may have to your change?
  2. Have you seen cases where an individual feels so impacted by your change that they would rather leave than adapt? What did you do?

Incoming search terms:

  • change adoption curve
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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

3 Responses to “Leading Through the Curve”

  1. Change Agents should Never Trust Polls - How to Avoid Eating Your Hat says:

    […] Nearly every group of humans going through transformation experiences one or two “pits of despair” along the way (See my earlier posts on “the Change Curve” here and here). […]

  2. Help Yourself | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] 3. Leading Through the Curve: In this article, I give practical steps that leaders can take to leverage their unique role to help their people adapt to change: http://thebigrocks.com/change-adoption/  […]

  3. Christopher Vallee says:

    Similar but different, this is the curve that we were introduced to when being trained in Six Sigma and Change Management years ago. Point is that all change (good or bad) is stress and resisted at first.


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