The Transition or Change Curve

Change Management, Workshops & Training | 0 comments

During a set of change management workshops that I designed for people in different national Kazakh companies who were involved in ‘Transformation’ a couple of years ago, I used to ask who had heard of the Transition or Change Curve.

And in any group of twenty-plus people only two or three hands would raise. And one of them was mine!

Yet for me the Transition Curve has been a staple concept in many of the change and transition processes with which I have been involved.

It is based on the classic Grieving Curve, the change curve developed in the late sixties by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, which is also known as the 5 stages of grief. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance and model the emotions experienced by someone who has either lost a loved one or indeed who themselves are approaching death. Knowing this model, death and bereavement counseling can be more effective.

Over the next twenty years, the parallels between the personal transition of the stages of grief and change that people experienced in other situations (being posted abroad for example) were recognized and – perhaps not surprisingly – the first link to the similar emotions people experience when affected by organizational change, was made in the health sector. All this work was finally summarized into what is now seen as the classic Change Curve in a publication by Schneider & Goldwasser in 1998, although I sometimes use the excellent drawing by John Fisher, who presented the curve a year later (and whose 2012 version I have added below, from the wonderful – and ethical – site, founded by Alan Chapman).

The various stages of the Transition Curve, (as you can see in his diagram below), are:

  1. Anxiety –You don’t know what’s going to happen next
  2. Happiness –You are feeling good about the change, that something will happen and change systems and processes that you know don’t work
  3. Threat –You are unsure about how the change is going to affect you personally
  4. Fear –You are fearful of the way the change will force you into a new way of thinking, working and behaving.
  5. Anger/(Hostility) –anger, frustration, aggression are directed at others, especially those who you believe are responsible for forcing the change and the change in general
  6. Guilt – You feel angry with yourself for not having coped as well as you believe you should have; and guilt if you are a survivor or have even prospered in the change whilst others have lost
  7. Despair/Depression –You may feel confused and apathetic and really start to wonder ‘Who am I?’
  8. Discovery – innovation and the ability to think and do new things are possible
  9. Acceptance/Moving forward – You begin to make sense of your environment and the change, start exerting more control and make things happen in a positive sense
  10. New beginnings – This can work and be good; seeing yourself part of the future

But there are also ways off of the curve.

  1. Denial – which we all recognize: Change? What change?
  2. Disillusion – which I often use in a positive sense, because some people will choose for very good reasons (for example the change does not fit with their value system) why they do not want to be part of changed organization and will leave

Managing people in different stages of transition is different: different approaches; different needs. And individuals and groups may be at different stages to others in the same group or other groups in the organization.

To find out where people or groups of people (teams or departments for example) are on the Change Curve, one listens – because the words people use and the things they say gives clues – and watches – because actions also betray where people are.

Simple examples of words are:

  • Not yet in transition: ‘Change, what change?’; ‘It wont affect us’; ‘If we ignore it, it will go away’; ‘This is just another initiative’
  • The downward curve, starting to deal with the prospect of change and things ending: ‘Why me?’; ‘This is my area, they don’t know anything about it’; ‘This is what happens when consultants come in who don’t know how we work’; ‘There goes my promotion’; ‘I’ve lost control’
  • Middle of the transition at the bottom of the curve: ‘How did we ever decide this?’; ‘Does management know what they are doing?’; We missed another deadline last week’; ‘This is for real’. But there are new possibilities…..’’We could do almost anything, nobody knows what anybody else is doing’; ‘I had a great idea, why didn’t I think of it before?’
  • New beginnings (starting up the curve): ‘This is worth thinking about’; ‘I see what you mean I just didn’t understand what you were trying to tell me’; ‘The team meeting felt good, we have got some energy back’; ‘I can see some ways to make this new system work’
  • Finished with transition: ‘It’s funny how upsetting it all was, it feels like a long time ago’; ‘I suppose they will change the new system one day but for now it works effectively’; It took me a while to get used to the people on the new team but now it feels like we have always worked together’

Examples of actions are:

  • Anxiety: Rumours can leave people anxious. When one group gets affected other groups will worry if they are next. Even when transition is finished, people may worry if another change will come. Anxiety reduces motivation and adaptability. Anxious people are difficult to manage.
  • Denial: Act as if nothing is happening and nothing is going to happen
  • Anger, resentment, hostility: People who don’t benefit from the change – or whose friends and colleagues don’t – are likely to feel resentful. They are angry. They blame the organisation, they want to know who thought up this crazy plan. They look for ways to pay the organisation back.
  • Guilt: Change creates winners and losers. Winners benefit, but because their friends or colleagues don’t, winners usually feel guilty. People who have to give bad news also feel guilty. They can overcompensate by blaming the losers. Or they just act uncomfortably around others. In both cases they are saying ‘Don’t blame me, I didn’t choose this (even if I won)’
  • Self-absorption: ‘How does it affect me?’ ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ people concentrate on themselves. Which undermines teamwork. Colleagues may become competitors. It undermines customer service. It undermines loyalty.
  • Stress: Being in transition is a major contributor to stress. Which can lead to illness and accidents.

If one knows where groups or individuals are, one can then tailor the leadership, communication or change management support, to facilitate moving through the various stages.

For example…….

  • Not yet in transition: help colleagues prepare for change, why it is necessary and how it can be helpful; answering questions; accepting what is happening and moving in the right direction
  • The downward curve, starting to deal with the prospect of change and things ending: Model and reinforce positive actions; be patient and tenacious; persevere; show you are keeping going
  • Middle of the transition at the bottom of the curve: focus on performance goals, minimize dips and failure, regain control, inform, communicate. Display understanding that it is normal for employees to react to the changes. Use rewards and sanctions to get the right behavior.
  • New beginnings (starting up the curve): rebuild morale and motivation; brainstorm ideas and alternatives; provide helpful training
  • Moving forward: create momentum and critical mass; set short term goals and encourage innovation
  • Finished with transition: encourage, recognize, celebrate and reward the new culture

I often combine this with thinking explicitly about losses. Who is losing what through this change? What are groups losing, or individuals or you yourself? It could be influence, structure, their planned future, meaning, control or identity. If you understand the impact of loss, it is easier to support the changes along the curve.

By the way, the dip in performance will almost always happen as old behaviours, processes and systems are unlearnt and new systems and processes are introduced.

Despite my having used the Transition Curve successfully for many years for change management in organisations, there have been some questions recently raised as to whether it is actually a myth. The excellent David Wilkinson of The Oxford Review has however debunked the myth: there is enough published research to show it does indeed exist.

The Change (or Transition) Curve: to my mind an extremely useful model to monitor people’s feelings during a reorganization or company transformation and to tailor one’s change management programme, throughout the process.

© BusinessBalls Ltd and J.M.Fisher (1999/2012). Based on the original concept of J.M.Fisher Full source material at J.M.Fisher /BusinessBalls Ltd accepts no liability for any issues arising.


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