What is the change curve and how is it applied in business?
The change curve – shorthand for the Kubler-Ross Change Curve – is used in a variety of disciplines to help people emotionally transition through major changes.
In business, change managers have used this to help employees transition through large-scale organizational shifts.
To better understand how this model can be used, let’s learn what it is, what it is not, and how it can be used alongside other change models.
What Is the Change Curve?
The Kubler-Ross change curve originally began as “the five stages of grief,” a loose framework to describe how people cope with grief. Yet, as mentioned, this same model has been applied in a variety of emotionally distressing situations, such as the loss of a job, divorce, the onset of disease, or similar disruptive events.
The framework consists of five stages:
- Shock and denial. The first response to a major change is typically shock and, in many cases, to actually deny that a negative event is occurring. It is often more pleasant to cling to a false reality than it is to accept an unpleasant one, though, naturally, most people cannot live in denial forever.
- Anger. When people begin to let go of their denial, the next response is often anger. That can create friction, especially with those around them.
- Bargaining. Another typical response is to attempt to “negotiate” with the cause of grief in an attempt to avoid, mitigate, or remove it completely.
- Depression. As people move closer toward accepting these changes, the next most common response is to simply become depressed and dwell in their negative emotions.
- Acceptance. The final stage is full acceptance, often accompanied by a more stable emotional state.
Since its creation, it has taken on a life of its own and has been applied by doctors, therapists, and even businesses.
This model can be particularly valuable for change managers, since major business changes often have a significant impact on the way employees work.
How to Apply the Change Curve During Business Transformations
Organizational changes, particularly large-scale change initiatives such as digital transformations, are inherently disruptive to the workforce.
Changes can impact areas such as:
- Employees’ job duties and workflows
- The skills needed to perform a particular job
- Organizational structure
- The corporate culture
- Team structures and team dynamics
The curve can help managers and leaders better empathize with employees emotional reactions.
In turn, employers can develop strategies for tackling common obstacles to business transformations, such as employee resistance.
For example, managers who know the change curve can use that insight to design better change management communication strategies. After all, communication can have a direct impact on how employees react to change, interact with managers, and engage with a project.
The Change Curve vs. Other Change Models
The change curve certainly has its place in change management.
However, it is only one among several models that can be used to streamline the execution of change projects – and since managing change can be such a huge challenge, it is important to take a well-structured approach to change.
To achieve the best outcomes in any change project, it is best to use the change curve alongside change management frameworks, such as:
Prosci’s ADKAR Model
Prosci’s ADKAR model is one of the most straightforward and well-known change models.
Like the change curve, it pays close attention to employees’ emotional states and needs. Yet this model’s scope is specifically geared towards guiding organizational change.
According to this model, managers should follow these stages when leading change efforts:
- Build awareness of the need for change
- Cultivate a desire to support the change
- Create knowledge of how to change
- Ensure employees have the ability to demonstrate skills and behavior
- Reinforce change to make it stick
Clearly, this model is specifically designed as a framework to guide organizational change.
However, just as the change curve focuses on the individual, this model also focuses on change at the level of the employee.
Change management tends to focus on the importance of individual change – in areas such as skills, mindsets, and attitudes – but it is equally important to focus on change at the organizational level.
Prosci’s 3-Phase Organizational Change Model
In addition to the ADKAR model, Prosci also outlines a three-stage change model that focuses on managing and leading change from the top down.
The stages in Prosci’s organizational change model include:
- Preparing for change. During this phase, change leaders and managers perform tasks such as identifying the impacted business areas, anticipating resistance, and defining which individual changes need to occur.
- Managing change. This stage focuses on tasks such as communication, training, resistance management, sponsor engagement, and related tasks.
- Reinforcing change. During the final stage, managers will listen to and learn from stakeholders, analyze that feedback, identify gaps, measure the project’s health, and make adjustments if needed.
Ultimately, Prosci says, successful change hinges upon how well individual change and organizational change are integrated and executed.
The change curve is an excellent framework that can help change managers understand and anticipate employees’ reactions to a major business change.
Used successfully, that model can help managers design better communication strategies, reduce employee resistance, and more.To successfully lead change, however, it is important to also use models specifically designed for change management, such as those discussed here.