Flattening the Change Curve: A Predictive Model for the People Side of Change

May 11, 2020 Kate Townsend

The COVID-19 pandemic has created one of the greatest global experiments in change management the modern world has ever faced. Lacking a readily accessible vaccine, leaders at all levels have launched calls to action and implemented social-distancing guidelines in order to slow the rate of infection and “flatten the curve.” By will or necessity, people have largely adopted these measures, making significant changes to the ways they live and work. Businesses are shifting their priorities and workplaces are being reinvented. What can business leaders do to proactively manage the impact of these changes on their workforce? Just as studying the epidemic curve enables public officials to determine the policy interventions necessary to lead our society through crises, understanding the Change Curve can enable business leaders to determine the organizational change management efforts necessary to lead the workforce through transformation. 

The Change Curve 

The Change Curve is a behavioral science tool that models how people react to change. It is derived from a model developed in the 1960s by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to explain the grief cycle. Though the connection between bereavement and business may seem counterintuitive at first, it’s important to understand that all change involves loss on some level; the grieving process is a powerful example of a transformational process that we all either have or will experience at some point in time. 

The dynamics of the Change Curve show how morale and productivity normally fluctuate throughout the transition from a current state to a future state. By strategically implementing key organizational change management tactics at critical points in time, leaders can change the shape of the curve in order to greatly influence the speed, level, and quality of adoption—effectively maximizing the value of benefits realization and developing organizational resiliency so that the next wave of transformation is eagerly met with confidence grounded in change competency. 

Understanding and managing responses to change

The Change Curve can be visualized as three distinct phases of transition. In the model provided below, we’ve identified these phases as rationalization, transformation, and integration. Let’s explore what people are experiencing in each of the phases and identify important steps leaders can take to “flatten the curve” of organizational change. 

Phase 1: Rationalization

It’s normal for any change—whether incremental or transformation—to cause a shockwave when first introduced. Natural human “fight or flight” tendencies kick in as people absorb and interpret new information and form initial assumptions about the impacts of the change. Some people may question whether the change is really necessary, while others will deny that it will have any impact on them as they continue to cling to the status quo. Fear of the unknown can cause levels of morale and productivity to plummet if not properly addressed. 

During this stage, it’s important for leaders to develop and articulate the business case for change, which communicates why the change is necessary. They should also articulate the vision for the future state and it can be beneficial to pull together a cross-functional team to develop a vision map for the change. In addition to creating a cornerstone for execution, this exercise itself provides key stakeholders with an important role in driving the change, increasing the likelihood that they will become champions of the change, able to help others understand the value proposition and expected benefits in spite of apparent or perceived challenges. Additionally, leaders should prioritize this change against other changes occurring throughout the organization, as this will help align resources and avoid change saturation. 

Phase 2: Transformation 

Once the change initiative is fully underway, key stakeholders may worry that they have overestimated the expected outcomes of the change initiative and underestimated the effort and time it will take to achieve them. Some groups may seem apathetic or anxious, especially if they worry their knowledge and skills will no longer be valued as highly as they once were. Dismissing these reactions will result in serious consequences. Change fatigue and resistance should be viewed as project risks and issues that require the same level of mitigation and resolution as any technical task. If they are not addressed properly with change management, morale and productivity may further decline. Not only will this impact the scope, timeline, and budget of the project, but it will also impact the quality and level of adoption of the future state solution. Conversely, if the process of change is carefully managed, this phase can be a time of forward momentum and rewarding acceleration. 

Transparency is key to encouraging and building trust during this phase. Leaders must communicate with empathy—validating the concerns of individuals about the change and providing reassurance wherever possible. They can do this by sharing details about how the change will impact each group and what benefits they should expect to see. They should also clearly establish an understanding of what it will take to achieve those benefits. Communicating the details of go-forward plans and assigning groups of individuals to be responsible for specific readiness activities will enable individuals to begin working with the change, rather than against it. 

Phase 3: Integration 

Once people have accepted that change is inevitable, they will begin to explore what benefits or opportunities the future state yields. People will generally be glad to see the change finally come to fruition—either because they genuinely look forward to taking advantage of new ways of working or simply because they are ready for the change to be completed in order to regain a sense of normality after what they feel has been a turbulent experience. Levels of morale and productivity will gradually increase as people find a “new normal.” If the process of change has not been adequately managed in earlier phases, the upward climb toward the future state will likely be steep and long. Organizations that have not developed change management competencies may journey over many valleys and peaks before reaching the final summit of the future state, as they will have to overcome many self-imposed obstacles throughout the transition. 

However shallow or steep the final ascent, it is critical for leaders to recognize and reward individuals for making the change possible. Communications should be data driven, informed by an adoption measurement plan operationalized to continuously track key business and performance metrics against targeted goals. It’s important for leaders to identify early indicators of success, but they should be careful not to jump ahead and declare victory prematurely when employees are still adjusting to new ways of working. The deployment milestone may represent the finish line for project management tasks, but leaders must acknowledge that people are still just warming up. Like good sports coaches, leaders should continue to exhibit active and visible sponsorship of the change throughout the phase of integration and beyond.

Flattening the Change Curve

One of the most important lessons we should pull from our shared experience during this pandemic is that dedicated focus on the people side of change should no longer be considered an option, but rather a core requirement whether we are implementing new tools and technology to enhance the worker and customer experience or devising crisis response strategies to protect our society. 

Organizations that do not adequately manage the people side of change will experience lags in productivity and may never experience the full potential of their investments in new ways of working. In order to accelerate benefits realization and maximize value, leaders must learn how to “flatten the curve” of change within their organizations. By developing change management competencies, business leaders can become change leaders—equipped with the skills necessary to build the future of work. 

About the Author

Kate Townsend

Kate is an Organizational Change Management Principal Consultant in the Digital Strategy practice at Appirio. She is passionate about helping clients accelerate organizational and digital transformation by optimizing connections between people, processes, and technology. She has experience designing and executing Agile enterprise-scaled employee readiness and adoption strategies for clients across industries ranging from nonprofit to banking and finance.

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