Change is an inevitable part of all businesses. Whether it is to improve performance, increase sales or improve customer experience, change has to happen at some point. For that reason, part and parcel of many projects is the need to implement change. An organisation hires project managers to implement a new process, improve an old system, or develop new and more efficient ways of working. Whatever the goal or objectives of the project are, managing the change process is a crucial skill that project professionals need to tackle carefully from the very beginning of the project lifecycle to ensure successful implementation.
The Kübler-Ross Change curve comes from the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who developed a theory you may know as the ‘Five Stages of Grief’ outlined in her book ‘On Death and Dying‘. These five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and they identify the most commonly found emotions that people experience as they go through the journey of bereavement. After the publication of Kubler-Ross’s work, the model was widely acknowledged with accurately indicating the stages of emotions during grief. The model’s accuracy was also cited when considering emotions following any change, upheaval or trauma such as illness or other sufferings.
The Kubler-Ross Change curve for change management is a variation of these five stages of grief, built to identify the emotions of employees of an organisation or impacted stakeholders of a project as changes are implemented in their environment. It is used as a change management model guideline for organisations.
Project management is so frequently associated with organisational change, and one of the most common challenges that project managers face is getting staff accustomed to the changes they implement. It isn’t enough to list the positives of the new changes, even if it saves money and makes their lives one thousand times easier. Many people are used to doing things a certain way and do not want to change; new solutions are not always welcomed. The change curve gives project professionals a visual and detailed understanding of how the affected employees will likely feel about the change and how they will cope with the transition. For this reason, it is especially relevant to businesses experiencing change management. It is not simply enough to implement changes if the people operating the business are not on board; they must be equally accepting and willing to learn the new changes put in place. The Change Curve model can help project professionals support people through the change procedure.
As a Project Manager, the Change Curve should be considered at the beginning of the change management process to identify and plan mitigation for the risk of employees not accepting the change. Transparent and frequent stakeholder engagement at the start of the project can help alleviate problems in the early stages of the change process.
The Change Curve
Stage 1 – Shock
The first stage in the Kubler-Ross model is the initial shock or denial. Shock occurs when affected parties are informed of the intended change and are likely to experience an adverse reaction. During this stage, it is common for individuals to be inflexible and possibly even refuse the idea of the change as they aim to maintain the status quo. The project team needs to provide as many details as possible and offer support, outline the objectives and reasoning behind the change, assess the buy-in they have from the stakeholders, and allow them time to adjust to the news. By carefully considering the reactions at this stage, thorough planning can be made for the following stages to try and alleviate or reduce opposition as much as possible.
At this stage, good communication is essential. Setting up regular meetings and workshops with stakeholders is a good idea as it gives them a forum to ask questions, gather more information, and why they need to accept the change.
We can look at an example of a change management project where the Kubler Ross Change Curve would effectively predict and mitigate opposition to change. Let’s say you are a Project Manager who a company has hired to deliver savings by simplifying overly complex processes that are outdated and rely on paper, moving the services online. As the new change processes are more time-efficient, you identify that you do not need as many staff and will be making redundancies of 10% of the workforce.
When announcing this information to the affected people, they will experience shock. The employees have always done their work a certain way, and they do not see why it needs to change. They are also shocked that some of them will be made redundant.
Stage 2 – Disruption
During the second stage of the change curve or the ‘Anger’ stage, if you consider the original Kubler Ross model, it is common to see people experience negative moods such as anger, fear, denial, and resentment. You are likely to see active or passive resistance to the change and rejection of acceptance at this stage. Early risk management can help the Project Manager through this stage by carefully considering how each stakeholder might react at the onset of the project. The project manager should research and evidence their decisions as well as prepare for brutal questioning. There are likely always going to be critics to change in the workplace, but well-researched information can help the project team respond to questions and reduce anger.
It is common for the employees at risk of redundancy to fight back against the idea or stay in denial, insisting that the change will not happen or should not occur. Some employees may seek Union involvement and may reach out to internal management and the project staff involved to argue against change. In extreme cases, some will not work and demand more information or dispute the facts set out in the business case. At this stage, the Project Manager needs to have access to the evidence that helped them make the project decisions and confidently express the reasoning behind the change being implemented. Without a solid rationale behind the change and a clear outline of the project benefits, there is a chance that the project may be successfully challenged. Careful and decisive leadership is required at this stage from the project team to reduce anger and allow the change process to move to the next step. This stage can also incorporate depression and bargaining as people try to understand what is expected of them as part of the transition while also suggesting alternative ideas that better suit them. In the concept of grief, we bargain by saying things like, ‘If I survive this, I will never be depressed again, I promise.’ In the workplace, it can be things such as ‘We will improve performance as long as we don’t have to go through this change,’ it cannot be relied upon as a solution in place of the new change. The change curve shows that the curve moves upwards after this stage as people embrace the change, so getting through this stage is difficult, but the positives are soon realised.
Stage 3 – Exploration
During the third phase, stakeholders will begin to accept the idea of the change, and this gives way to the ‘testing’ phase, a stage where feelings will become more positive and the team members delivering the change can breathe a sigh of relief. During this phase, stakeholders will be more willing to explore what the change means for them and start to prepare for transitions in procedure and question how they can better work with the changes. Anger is reduced, and the affected employees work with each other and the project team to understand the change. At this stage, Project Managers can give people some insight into what the change means for them and begin to initiate training that will support them with the implementation of the change and prepare the organisation for the change rollout. People will now be willing to address their knowledge gaps and work on problem-solving to help initiate the change.
Using our example, at this stage, you would begin to see employees asking more positive questions about the change and trying to find out what this means for them and how they start to adapt to the change and use it in their work. They will be willing to attend training sessions and begin to adapt early changes into their work, and overall communication becomes more positive and in control. They will show resilience and understanding as they adjust.
Stage 4 – Rebuilding
At Stage 4, the change is initiated and integrated into the organisation as acceptance of the change is found more frequently among the staff. People embrace the change, and the benefits set out at the start of the project are realised as productivity increases. Benefit realisation workshops can help the Project Manager identify the project’s success, get positive feedback from stakeholders and begin to close down the project.
Using our example, we now have fully integrated digital services in the organisation, and the remaining staff members are trained on how to integrate this into their work. They understand their role, can see the benefits, and their performance will improve. They are pleased that the procedures are more straightforward, customers are also pleased that they can use digital services, which have reduced waiting times and improved their overall customer experience.
The Change Curve – Conclusion
Across organisations, change is always inevitable. As technology advances and the requirements of organisations change over time, organisational change needs to be secured to ensure businesses are running efficiently for both staff and the customers. Change management is frequently not appropriately run and is a leading cause of project failures.
Using the change curve model helps organisations who are undertaking change understand how people are likely to handle the journey through the change on an emotional level, broken down into easier to understand phases. It helps predict behaviour, mitigate the risk of disruption and increase the likelihood that the change will be implemented successfully following acceptance from staff. The change curve is an excellent tool for change management professionals to review at the start of any project. It helps to identify likely questions, risks, and reactions to change, allowing them to curve the change procedure in their favour.
The change curve is a guideline, and there are situations where employees’ response will not precisely mirror the Kubler Ross change curve model. Still, it is a valuable guideline for reducing frustration and confusion and helping the project leaders control the change process. It has a track record of being a highly successful model. There are variants of the Kübler-Ross change curve, some with additional stages added to the curve to highlight each stage people might go through during the transition in more depth. Many businesses have widely accepted the change curve as a change implementation tool. The curve is a great visual indicator of the journey people go on as they experience change. Therefore, the change curve is a handy tool and should always be considered when embarking upon a change that will impact others professionally and emotionally.
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