You Can't Afford To Ignore The J Curve Of Change
And like a roller coaster, when confronted with change, some people throw their arms up in the air and enjoy the ride - and others shut their eyes and scream the whole way. As a leader, it's your job to help people cope with the fear and tension, and ultimately, embrace the thrill of change and growth. Easier said than done - but essential all the same. In Managing the Dynamics of Change, Dr. Jerald Jellison introduces the J Curve - a concept that enables you to "change how you manage change," and achieve better results.
The Human Dimension in Change
Our world is constantly, inexorably, changing; and we don't like it. Research shows that we love our status quo, and the longer it's been entrenched, the better.
In one study of college students, for example, participants showed a much stronger preference for a course that was described as the "status quo" over a new version (even if the new version required less coursework). Further, they liked the course even better when told it had been around for 100 years rather than just 10.
Change, and the associated unknown, often sparks fear. And, as Jellison writes, "Fear produces anxiety, which in turn produces resistance. These feelings then become roadblocks that slow, or even doom, the effort..." Unless. Unless you understand how your people feel as they face change and commit to helping them through it.
Understanding Change: The J Curve
The J Curve "provides a platform for dealing with the human dimensions of change." The J shape approximates the path of most major changes, and Jellison has identified five key stages.Stage 1: Plateau
This is where your team is at the beginning. They're chugging along with their status quo, comfortable in their routines. As the implementation of change nears, the feelings of anxiety, fear, and even anger and hostility, mount. People don't know what to expect. Imagine yourself on that rollercoaster; this is point right just before you plummet down a big descent.Stage 2: The Cliff
Here we go: people take the plunge into change. They're trying things a new way - and performance declines. Errors are common; people forget the new procedures or use the wrong tools, and training cannot keep up. It seems that their fears have been realized: "This is never going to work." You know what they say about rock bottom? That it can only get better from there. And it does.Stage 3: The Valley
Your team begins to understand the new procedures and processes. They're hitting more of their goals and doing so with fewer mistakes. Performance is still trending down, but at a much slower pace. Because of this, folks begin to feel relieved. Most trade negativity for hope - for even a glimmer.Stage 4: The Ascent
Now you're getting somewhere. Performance is improving rapidly as your team integrates new skills, procedures, and attitudes. The mantra switches from, "This will never work" to "Hey, this may work!" Confidence is contagious, and motivation creates momentum.Stage Five: The Mountaintop
You've now exceeded your original plateau, and you're still climbing while high-performers within your company develop new solutions to old problems and apply the new approach in creative ways. This will fuel "further innovation and increase productivity, giving you added credence as a leader of vision who can harness the power of change." That has a nice ring to it.
Applying the J Curve to Your Change Initiatives
When implementing change in your organization, it is important to remember this fundamental truth: "Management is usually at Stage Four and heading into Stage Five by the time they decide an idea is good enough for everyone."
You've thought about it; you've discussed it; you've run tests; you've wrapped your mind around it. You're there. But your people are way back at the plateau. You have to meet them where they are and guide them through the rest of the journey. Remember the fear, trepidation, or uncertainty you felt at Stage 2 and 3: use this insight to empathize with, and lead, your team.
Putting It Together: Making the J Curve Work for Your Team
Jellison argues that you need to accept three "realities" in order to manage change through the J Curve:
- You must be "imbued with the benefits of being in Stage Five." Your people need to see your confidence and belief in the upcoming change. You need to articulate how the change will benefit them and communicate your belief that they will be successful.
- You must be aware that change is a process and that people have to go through the stages of the J Curve in order to reach success. Plan for each of these stages. Setbacks - and resistance - do occur. Anticipate them, address them, and help your people move on.
- You must be able to put yourself back in Stage One. Understand your team's resistance and anxiety.
In acting on these realities, "you can be part of - yet remain above - the daily ups and downs of the change process." This is exactly where you need to be to help your team accept and implement change successfully - with a minimum of closed eyes and screaming.