The Change Curve

The Change Curve is based on a model originally developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process. Since then it has been widely utilised as a method of helping people understand their reactions to significant change or upheaval.

Kubler-Ross proposed that a terminally ill patient would progress through five stages of grief when informed of their illness. She further proposed that this model could be applied to any dramatic life changing situation and, by the 1980s, the Change Curve was a firm fixture in change management circles. The curve, and its associated emotions, can be used to predict how performance is likely to be affected by the announcement and subsequent implementation of a significant change.

The Change Curve

The original five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – have adapted over the years. There are numerous versions of the curve in existence. However, the majority of them are consistent in their use of the following basic emotions, which are often grouped into three distinct transitional stages.

Stage 1 – Shock and denial

The first reaction to change is usually shock. This initial shock, while frequently short lived, can result in a temporary slow down and loss of productivity. Performance tends to dip sharply, individuals who are normally clear and decisive seek more guidance and reassurance, and agreed deadlines can be missed.

The shock is often due to:

  • lack of information
  • fear of the unknown
  • fear of looking stupid or doing something wrong

After the initial shock has passed, it is common for individuals to experience denial. At this point focus tends to remain in the past. There’s likely to be a feeling that as everything was OK as it was, why does there need to be a change?

Common feelings include:

  • being comfortable with the status quo
  • feeling threatened
  • fear of failure

Individuals who have not previously experienced major change can be particularly affected by this first stage. It is common for people to convince themselves that the change isn’t actually going to happen, or if it does, that it won’t affect them. Performance often returns to the levels seen before the dip experienced during the initial shock of the change. People carry on as they always have and may deny having received communication about the changes, and may well make excuses to avoid taking part in forward planning.

At this stage, communication is key. Reiterating what the actual change is, the effects it may have, and providing as much reassurance as possible, will all help to support individuals experiencing these feelings.

Stage 2 –Anger and depression

After the feelings of shock and denial, anger is often the next stage. A scapegoat, in the shape of an organization, group or individual, is commonly found. Focussing the blame on someone or something allows a continuation of the denial by providing another focus for the fears and anxieties the potential impact is causing.

Common feelings include:

  • suspicion
  • scepticism
  • frustration

The lowest point of the curve comes when the anger begins to wear off and the realization that the change is genuine hits. It is common for morale to be low, and for self-doubt and anxiety levels to peak. Feelings during this stage can be hard to express, and depression is possible as the impact of what has been lost is acknowledged.

This period can be associated with:

  • apathy
  • isolation
  • remoteness

At this point, performance is at its lowest. There is a tendency to fixate on small issues or problems, often to the detriment of day-to-day tasks. Individuals may continue to perform tasks in the same way as before, even if this is no longer appropriate behaviour.

People will be reassured by the knowledge that others are experiencing the same feelings. Providing managers, teams and individuals with information about the Change Curve underlines that the emotions are usual and shared, and this can help to develop a more stable platform from which to move into the final stage.

Stage 3 –Acceptance and Integration

After the darker emotions of the second stage, a more optimistic and enthusiastic mood begins to emerge. Individuals accept that change is inevitable, and begin to work with the changes rather than against them.

Now come thoughts of:

  • exciting new opportunities
  • relief that the change has been survived
  • impatience for the change to be complete

The final steps involve integration. The focus is firmly on the future and there is a sense that real progress can now be made. By the time everyone reaches this stage, the changed situation has firmly replaced the original and becomes the new reality.

The primary feelings now include:

  • acceptance
  • hope
  • trust

During the early part of this stage, energy and productivity remain low, but slowly begin to show signs of recovery. Everyone will have lots of questions and be curious about possibilities and opportunities. Normal topics of conversation resume, and a wry humour is often used when referring to behaviour earlier in the process.

Individuals will respond well to being given specific tasks or responsibilities, however communication remains key. Regular progress reports and praise help to cement the more buoyant mood. It is not uncommon for there to be a return to an earlier stage if the level of support suddenly drops.

Individual Reactions

Each person reacts individually to change, and not all will experience every phase. Some people may spend a lot of time in stages 1 and 2, whilst others who are more accustomed to change may move fairly swiftly into stage 3. Although it is generally acknowledged that moving from stage 1 through stage 2 and finally to stage 3 is most common, there is no right or wrong sequence. Several people going through the same change at the same time are likely to travel at their own speed, and will reach each stage at different times.


The Change Curve is a very useful tool when managing individual or team change. Knowing where an individual is on the curve will help when deciding on how and when to communicate information, what level of support someone requires, and when best to implement final changes. Furnishing individuals with the knowledge that others understand and experience similar emotions is the best way to return, with as little pain as possible, to optimal performance.

The Business Impact of Change Management

If your company is considering a major change project, anything from a software implementation to a merger/acquisition, this article may help you as it focuses on the results of studies (over the last ten years) on organizational change management (OCM) and its impact on obtaining a high project return on investment (ROI.) read more

Keep It Simple for Success

Keep It Simple for Success

Anyone who has led a major change in their organization knows that change is painful, complicated and messy. What if there was a way to make it simpler, easier and less painful? (Note that I am using relative adjectives because NOTHING will totally eliminate these aspects of change.)

There is a widely used acronym called KISS…

Keep It Simple Silly
(insert any other “s” word here)

Here are 4 things you can do to keep things simple when it comes to implementing major change…

1. Be real and realistic

Tell people what is really happening. No corporate speak or spun messages. They can tell. That’s the being real part.

Be realistic and do not expect miracles. Get to know what can be done with the budget, talent and timelines you have available. Set expectations that can be met.

2. Adjust and adapt

This project is not going to happen the way you think it will – even with a lot of careful planning. Plan on your plan getting revamped, recast and re-everythinged as you go through the journey. Have contingencies built in to allow for the unexpected… it is expected.

3. Measure what matters

Don’t go Gantt chart and variance report crazy. Find the 2 or 3 (okay maybe 4) key metrics for defining the success of your project and keep your eyes on that prize. Make sure the people doing the work are doing the work and not distracted by tedious project report update meetings. Short, sweet and to the point is always better. Here’s a simple dashboard we use to measure how many people are at each stage of adoption.


4. Balance pull and push

Help people through the change with the right balance of compliance and commitment. Each person needs to process and accept the change in their own ay in their own time. Accept that and help them – not push them – through it. Major change will not stick until enough people have embraced the change. Understand where people are and what they need to get them through it.


Keep these four things in mind as you embark on a major change with your organization and it will help you “KISS” away a lot unnecessary disruption and stress.

Change Scorecard

Change Scorecard

Measuring the progress of people through the journey of change is a challenge for many projects. Any well run project will assume measuring “the big three” – time, tasks and budget. But what about the metric that really matters, the people dimension?

A project can be on time and on budget with all tasks completed but if there is no measure of adoption of the change how can we label it successful?

Here are 3 things to consider when measuring the people side of a project.

1/ Measure What Matters

What is adoption or buy in? Just training people on a new procedure or way of doing things does not equate to using those skills or behaviours back on the job. In the world of training and development there is a widely used notion of “levels” of training measurement. These are:

  1. Did they like it? – Was the training experience one that was conducive to learning i.e. materials were useful, instructor was effective, flow was easy to follow etc.
  2. Did they learn it? – Can you observe the person using the tool, software, skill or demonstrating a behaviour without assistance? (Usuually conducted during the learning session)
  3. Did they use it? – Here is the critical level of measure for this discussion. Can you observe the person using what was taught back on the job in their day to day work environment? Are they choosing to use what they learned back on the job?

It is the 3rd measure that demonstrates buy in or adoption. Make sure you’re measuring what counts.

2/ Measure the journey not just the destination

Measurement is about knowing when you have succeeded but it is also about knowing where you are on the road to getting getting to success. So having a roadmap with critical stops along the way give you information about how to adapt our support for those on the journey. Educating people about those stops also gives them a heads up on what to expect and make it easier for them to travel the journey a little easier.

3/ Keep it visual and simple

Remember that any measurement system or scorecard is a tool for the project. Sometimes maintaining and explaining the measurement system takes up almost as much time as doing the work of the project! I remember being on a project that took me one full day of updates and producing reports. The tail was wagging the dog!

Here are two simple and effective scorecards that we use to measure both the individual and organizational journey of change and each takes only minutes to produce.

Team Scorecard


Organization Scorecard

Each of these provides quick insights into who is where on the journey to adoption and helps shape course corrections, extra support etc.


What gets measured gets managed is a cliche that rings true when it comes large change projects. Considering the three points above when creating your scorecard will help you keep things on track and headed towards success.