Avoid Extinction - Managing the J-Curve of Change | by Rich George


Avoid Extinction

Managing the J-Curve of Change

“That’s not the way we used to do it”, these are the most dangerous words to any, company, church, home, or career.  As anybody involved in a major business initiative, such as new operational software, new processes, or leadership changes will tell you, change is a process. If we continue doing it the way that we have always done it, we will experience diminishing results.  Processes and expectations continue to evolve; if we don’t evolve, we will become extinct. Change is inevitable.


Yet, those put in charge of overseeing the operational details of change often lack the skills needed to help employees migrate through this transition.  They are too busy setting up benchmarks, negotiating contract terms, reporting to upper management on the progress. And that can mean disaster for the effort. Sabotage of the most innocent variety (withholding information, taking a position of passive resistance, out and out morale-crushing hallway conversations) can derail schedules, energy levels and the overall outcome of the endeavor.

As I have matured in my own life, I have discovered that we naturally become more resistance to change as we age.  I think the reason we are naturally resistant to new things is because we have certainty that what we did yesterday did not kill us.  What you are asking me to do today, may actually be the thing that kills me.  I know this is a facetious statement, but it is the underlying core fear of change.  

Most organizations begin the change process with the generic change speech, where the leadership gives the “come join me on the mountaintop and see how glorious it is” speech.  This is where the leader "vividly portrays the mountaintop and the wonders we will behold when we get there: higher profits, improved efficiency, and happy workers everywhere. The virtues of this corporate Eden are described in glowing phrases, regardless of whether any of the leaders have ever actually been to this shining city on the hill.

Understanding the predictable roadblocks and barriers, from resistance through acceptance, is paramount to achieve success throughout the process.  Understanding the five steps of change management can help, not only the leadership group, but the affected team members as well. Embracing that “change is a predictable” process will help managers avoid using persuasion tactics or force to overcome the natural and predictable resistance.  

These "persuasion tactics," in which managers assume they have to change employees' attitudes before they will actually move in a new direction rarely work. People may leave the vision meeting feeling good, but then reality hits and the change curve thrill ride will inevitably leave the station.  Keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle at all times and hang on, because this will be a bumpy ride.

The alternative to this amusement park ride is a technique labeled "activation”.  It is also known as "learning by doing." You can change peoples' attitudes by changing their behavior. There are several tools that you can deploy as the need arises. 


One example of an activation tool is "the bamboo technique." Just as bamboo bends and then snaps back when a strong wind blows, so should you.  You do this by acknowledging the other person's feelings. Maybe somebody on your team is complaining, "We'll never make this work." You “bend” by saying, “You may be right that it's going to be challenging to make this work”.  Then you "snap back" by describing the actions the person should try next. After bending, you could use statements such as these:

  • If you just do it a few more times, I think you'll get it.
  • Keep doing what you just did, and I think it will work for you.
  • Let's try again with a little more energy and enthusiasm.

In other words, you get the person focused on taking a particular, concrete, doable action. And you keep doing it -- because the change curve has no predetermined timeline. People adjust at their own paces.

This is why even the tiniest of signs of progress deserve celebration. There are several techniques for getting people started in the direction where you want them headed. These techniques require a measure of sincerity -- because they involve meeting people not at the 30,000-foot level where corporate visions often reside, but on the ground, where members of your staff are trying to do their jobs.  You must confront and acknowledge the pains of change from the vantage point of those that will experience these growing pains. 

To understand that every change process will go through five steps and to be able to identify where every team member, from entry level employees to middle management and senior management is at.  Confronting and acknowledging this will make your change process smoother, and more tolerable. 

Stage One – The Plateau, STATUS QUO, this is where we start on our journey of change. We're going along just fine doing our work; we have a high degree of mastery; we know the routine. Suddenly, news of a big change arrives. Suddenly, we're faced with the great unknown: What will this mean to me?

Stage Two – The Cliff, FEAR, after a period of turmoil and questioning, we approach the cliff. Here's where we are about to step into the abyss because we feel we have no choice but to go along.  The unknown and the skepticism begin to overwhelm the team.

Stage Three – The Valley, DENIAL, things begin bottoming out.  Performance drops sharply, failures now outpace successes.  The problems accumulate. We consider ourselves failures. We begin to panic. We want to escape.  Some team members begin to sabotage the process and others suffer from paralysis.  This is the critical point, either we make it, or we back out.

Stage Four – The Ascent, ACCEPTANCE, we make it through, and we are able to achieve similar productivity to the way we used to do it.   At this point, we begin thinking, "Maybe we can, sort of, do this."  Our attitudes change. Challenges that appear insurmountable in previous stages now begin to look like obstacles we can overcome with a bit of creative problem-solving. There is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Stage 5 – The Mountain Top, CHAMPIONSHIP, we begin to feel good about ourselves again. We begin to think, we should have done this long ago.   Some of the biggest naysayers may even claim it was their idea.  The original idea of the change is achieved

Sound familiar? A lot of us have lived through this process, some more successfully than others.  To know the process and to lead our team members through this process is paramount to the success. 

To fully understand the dynamics of a team one must understand the barriers to team cohesiveness.  The first step is to confront the truth that this change initiative will be a process.  We must truly seek to understand the strengths and talents that each team member contributes and leveraging those strengths will allow for people to meet success on a more consistent basis.