The Change Curve

Dec 08, 2010 10 Comments by

One of the more useful concepts that has come out of the formal study of Organizational Change Management is the simple idea that people go through a predictable cycle as they adopt or reject a change. By anticipating how people will go through this transition, a Change Agent can help stakeholders by giving them what they need to continue along their path.

The Change Adoption Curve: The concept is usually illustrated by a left-to-right curve that starts in the middle of an up-down scale – then dips before climbing to a point higher than where it started.  As I’ve said many times in this blog, there are a thousand books on change and hundreds of good ones. And of course, most of those books have some form of this “change adoption curve”.  Since I’m an Org Change Guy too, here’s one of my simpler versions:

Assume Dips, Failures and Questions: Today I will offer a few caveats and assumptions about the curve. Tomorrow I will get into why the curve is useful and how to apply it.

The future state is typically painted something like this beautiful sunrise… but usually ends up somewhere just South of here.

Assumption #1: An Improved Future State: Most authors and consultants draw this curve with the right-hand side representing the result of the change – and you’ll notice that it is almost always shown as being higher than the starting point on the left.  Anyone who’s lived through a failed change knows that this is NOT always the case. Sometimes changes are for the worse.  Sometimes “improvements” result in permanently lower levels of productivity. The changes that have the best chance of achieving a result resembling the high-curve outcome in the picture are those that set realistic expectations for end results and actively guide the change.

Assumption #2: The Dip: There will almost always be a dip in the middle of the curve.  Those who fail to plan for a mid-course dip (in productivity for example) will get an early false read that the change is failing. Not all changes experience this dip – but most do – and it’s better to predict a dip and plan for it than to deny the likelihood or jump overboard like a group of panicked rats leaving a sinking ship when it starts to reveal itself.

One of my favorite stories about this dip involves a key stakeholder coming into my office the night before we were bringing a huge business system online and telling me, the Project Manager and the Executive Sponsor: “I just want to go on record as saying that this change is going to fail“.

Needless to say, she wasn’t what we call a “Champion”! The team rode out a minimal dip, the concerned stakeholder was noticeably quiet thereafter and the change ended up being quite successful.

It’s not that I don’t LIKE it, it’s more that I have no clue what you expect me to do…

Assumption #3: Fill in the Blanks: It has been my experience that unanswered questions are a primary catalyst that keeps stakeholders mired in the negative dip of the curve.  On the other hand, solid answers to realistic concerns are the primary fuel to help them back out of the dip and up the other side.

The reason: legitimate stakeholder questions that linger without being answered fuel doubt, which in turn fuels distrust of the change which drives lower acceptance. Honest answers to people’s questions can help them settle into their new reality more smoothly and become more productive as they adapt.

Assumption #4: Stakeholders Will Adopt the Change: I’ve had clients literally scream at me when I’ve suggested this final assumption early in a change project.  They’ll say something like: “Seriously? You’re telling me that even with all of the effort and investment we’re planning for, some of my people still will not accept the change?”

That’s right.  For some people, big changes signal a time to retire.  For others, a move to another job or even another company can be driven by a lack of desire to adapt to a change.  In still other cases, people believe that they can simply ignore your change and still be successful. In many cases they are right!

In a future post, I’ll get into how the role of a Change Agent is neither to mimic Pollyanna by promising only positive outcomes nor to hammer all stakeholders until they “get it” and adopt the change… I say:

“A Change Agent’s role is to help each stakeholder obtain the information they need to make a personal decision to accept or reject the change, and then take whatever action fits their choice.” – Steve Chihos

Summary: The Adoption Curve is a classic of Org Change and you’ll be hard pressed to find a consultant that hasn’t drawn it on a sales call. It does have a ton of psychological research behind it and thousands of business success stories to back it up, so it is valid.

It generally predicts people’s reaction to change – but it’s not fool-proof.  The best change management approaches still involve individual change agents working with individual stakeholders to guide their adoption of a clear, positive future state by using enough dialogue to help them feel comfortable.

Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to use the curve to help stakeholders at each step as they make their decisions about acceptance or rejection of your change.

-Steve

Question for Chatter:

  • How can we handle people who “stay in the dip” and refuse to seek or accept the answers to their questions or concerns?

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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness

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10 Responses to “The Change Curve”

  1. Help Yourself | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] 2. Not So Fast: Here I list several assumptions to watch out for when guiding people through the change adoption curve: http://thebigrocks.com/change-curve/ […]

  2. Vincent Surics says:

    I have used the Change Adoption Curve with numerous clients. It’s easy to understand and certainly provides a good foundation for getting people on board.

  3. Richard Thayer says:

    Thanks for the articles, Steve.
    Very nicely articulated. I have used the curve for years as a conversation starter with individual clients and their change teams, and in training change agents and practitioners. As you indicate, it’s not about whether it’s “right” but whether it helps people feel heard and gain understanding about what’s going on with themselves and around them.

  4. Steve says:

    Jim,
    Great point re: ownership of change.
    I wonder how many changes would be easier if we did what you suggest instead of allowing leaders to ram them through without dialogue. I like to build a network of Champions to keep this conversation going with people at the “business end” of the stakeholder map.
    -Steve

    • Nan Palermo says:

      How does one balance the need for engagement in the understanding of the challenge versus the acceptance of a resolution through the dip of “realistic concern”? I find myself in a position where I understand that a technical resolution may not produce the exact outcome desired and we have tweak the process. However, when there is a need to introduce new business requirements before the old resolutions are even stabilized the process gets wavy. Imagine this change curve with another one on top before the first realistic concern dip is even addressed.

  5. Steve says:

    Ross,
    Thanks for the feedback!
    I have seen the Ross “Death and Dying” curve applied to change by a friend of mine who used to say: “all change is first viewed as loss”.
    -Steve

  6. Ross says:

    Hi Steve,
    A similar adaptation to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ model of the five stages of grief is the Job Search Curve which, used successfully on our outplacement programmes, helps individuals understand their emotions whilst going through the career transition process. http://dmapeople.blogspot.com/2010/12/job-search-curve.html

  7. Ross says:

    Hi Steve,
    A similar adaptation to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ model of the five stages of grief is the Job Search Curve which, used successfully on our outplacement programmes, helps individuals understand their emotions whilst going through the career transition process. http://dmapeople.blogspot.com/2010/12/job-search-curve.html

  8. Jim says:

    I think it is possible to introduce change without it being resisted or being stressful but you have got to start with engagement of the staff with the issue rather than your proposed solution.

    If they are involved, appreciate the problem / challenge and allowed to generate their solution / way forward they will be turned on and enthused. No involvement = no committment.

    I’ve driven change in this way and the hardest part is keeping your mouth shut! The instant you say what you think is required, it becomes your change not theirs. A dose of humility and the willingness to accept that your preferred approach is not the best [or indeed only] way can be very helpful.

    Where I have encountered problems with this type of approach has been with senior management who [I believe] felt threatened by handing over power.
    Hope that helps,
    Jim

  9. Jim says:

    I think it is possible to introduce change without it being resisted or being stressful but you have got to start with engagement of the staff with the issue rather than your proposed solution.

    If they are involved, appreciate the problem / challenge and allowed to generate their solution / way forward they will be turned on and enthused. No involvement = no committment.

    I’ve driven change in this way and the hardest part is keeping your mouth shut! The instant you say what you think is required, it becomes your change not theirs. A dose of humility and the willingness to accept that your preferred approach is not the best [or indeed only] way can be very helpful.

    Where I have encountered problems with this type of approach has been with senior management who [I believe] felt threatened by handing over power.
    Hope that helps,
    Jim

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