The Change Curve

Feb 13, 2013 3 Comments by

One of the more useful concepts that has arisen from the formal study of Organizational Change Management is the “Change Adoption Curve“. But before you toss it out as more consultant blather, I’d encourage you to consider its merits and limitations.

The curve presents the simple idea that people tend to go through a predictable cycle as they adopt change.  By knowing in advance that people will have these reactions, Change Agents can plan ahead to help folks get through these challenges and move toward embracing a pending change.

A quick Google search shows that there are as many change curves as there are change experts and that the concept looks destined to be expressed as a powerpoint slide:


You’ll notice that some curves have 3 stages. Some have 10. I wonder if people get lost after 4 or 5?

Most show a dip in performance somewhere in the middle while a few have change adoption represented as a no-dip rocket-ride to happiness!

Ach, du Schreck!

Lots of them look to be based on the famous “death and dying” curve. Doesn’t that make change sound fun?Still others  have what looks to be a never-ending roller coaster of up and down cycles. That sounds exhausting.

All kidding aside, most of them follow a pattern that goes something like this:

1. Introduction: Stakeholders are introduced to a change with fanfare and unrealistic positive expectations.

2. Fear: Reality hits when people consider what the change actually means to them.

3. The Dip: Everyone goes through a panic-filled “valley of despair” as they consider worst case scenarios.

4. Acceptance: Change Agents help those who are impacted “get it“, “get over it” and “get on with it” as eventually people adopt the change.

5. Benefit: Once they’ve accepted the inevitable change, stakeholders are more productive, the organization reaps the benefits and everyone is better off for the experience.


Not so fast.  

Most of these curves seem to assume that things will work out in the end.

What if the change is actually a bad idea for me as an individual stakeholder?  

What if some of my peers have offered realistic resistance based on valid data?  

Should I raise a white flag and get on board with a change – even if it’s clearly not in my interest?

Of course not.

And don’t think for a minute that the stakeholders of your big change don’t realize they have a choice to accept or reject your proposal. They also have a choice as to whether that rejection will manifest itself in active or passive ways.

A Little Bit of Freedom Can Be a Dangerous Thing: Here’s a stakeholder-focused version of the change curve that I’ve created based on having observed and helped thousands of people go thru hundreds of big and small changes:


I stress to Change Sponsors and Change Agents that change adoption is the preferred outcome, but it’s not the only option your people have. Instead of assuming that everyone will eventually get on board if we pound them hard enough and long enough, I argue that Change Agents should be guiding stakeholders toward making good decisions about the change.

texas…Because in fact, for some people, adopting a given change could be a terrible idea. Here’s an easy example: Just because the company will save a billion dollars by consolidating all operations in a single Dallas-based headquarters doesn’t mean that my family and I will want to leave Florida to join the party

…Even if that means I might be looking for a new job.florida map

Helping stakeholders make their own decisions about the change is a more realistic target and ultimately it’s a more helpful goal from all perspectives.

Here’s why:

Wait!  Don’t Jump! (…at least not yet..)

Consider some benefits of taking an approach that focuses on stakeholder decisions rather than assuming that everyone wants to buy into what your selling: 

– Knee-jerk negative reactions to change are often based on misinformation or misinterpretation of accurate information.  I call these poor choices “active-negative rejection“. By forcing a fact-based discussion in terms of stakeholder decisions, Change Agents can draw out these mistaken assumptions and address them squarely with accurate data and honest interpretations.


– If in fact the situation warrants rejection of the change, at least it will be a valid rejection. That’s what I call “active-positive rejection”.

– When you focus on stakeholder decisions, you acknowledge that the stakeholder has control of the change process. I’ve found that most people prefer to have choices over being told what to do.


– If the change itself needs to be modified, at least those driving the change will know. Such adjustments might also be of help to other stakeholders who haven’t spoken up yet. 

– Forcing someone to adopt a change that’s ultimately not in their best interest could lead to resentment. That’s where the passive rejection of change comes in.

– Guiding someone toward a decision to part ways might actually save both sides a lot of grief.


Summary: The Change Adoption Curve is a classic Organizational Change Management tool and you’ll be hard pressed to find a consultant that hasn’t drawn it on a whiteboard or used it on a slide during a sales call. Just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s a perfect theory and just because it’s easy to illustrate doesn’t mean it’s not real. It does have a ton of psychological research behind it and thousands of business success stories to back it up, so it is largely valid.

One commonly missed element of the change curve is the notion that stakeholders have decisions to make about accepting or rejecting your change. Most curves deny this reality – but that doesn’t mean we should.

Next week, I’ll address a few more dangerous assumptions that are baked into the standard change adoption curve.


Question for Chatter:

  1. Have you found (as I have) that different people go through the curve at a different pace? What can be done about that?
  2. What techniques have worked for you to help people get through that “dip” and move toward making a decision about a change?

Incoming search terms:

  • valley of despair change management
  • change curve valley of despair

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

About the author

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

3 Responses to “The Change Curve”

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

    […] one or two “pits of despair” along the way (See my earlier posts on “the Change Curve” here and […]

  2. Help Yourself | theBigRocks of Change says:

    […] 1. Everybody’s Got One: There truly are a thousand change curves out there, and most of them have some clear common sense and/or science behind them. In this post, I go into a more full description of the change adoption curve and various versions you might see: […]

  3. Change Agents can be more effective if they adopt the change first! says:

    […] You might recall a while back I introduced a little graph called “the change curve”. It shows how people tend to react to change along their journey toward either accepting of rejecting it. One premise of the change curve is that Change Agents will typically be more effective if they go through the change prior to helping others. For the full article, click the picture or click here.  […]

Leave a Reply to Change Agents should Never Trust Polls - How to Avoid Eating Your Hat

Cancel Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.