kubler ross

Rumours of the change curve’s death are exaggerated

The change curve isn’t quite dead yet.


In their new study, The Agile IC Function, Melcrum have looked at how organisational complexity has changed the demands on managing the IC function. In outlining the research, Melcrum point to three ‘foundation beliefs’ about communication that are ready for disruption.

It is exciting work, providing real benefits for comms leaders looking for new approaches to manage in workplaces that are changing constantly.

The study points to the non-linear nature of transformation, and proposes that the curve has outlived its usefulness do to the degree of concurrent change within organisations. Here I am taking on the change curve’s right of reply. I would argue that it the change curve is the only model comms and leadership use for managing change, they are doing it wrong.

Models out of context are lines on a page

So many models in communication get applied to the wrong thing, and then practitioners are surprised when the result wasn’t what was intended. This particularly applies to applying linear approaches to complex interactions.

One of the most famous misuses of a communication model is that of the Shannon-Weaver ‘communication model.’ This linear model that shows the flow of ‘messages’ being diluted by ‘noise’ is still embedded in many resources about communication.

Here’s the problem. This model was designed to describe how data is diluted as electrical signals move through circuits. The context for the model had nothing to do with human communication*.

Shannon-Weaver's communication model has little to do with human communication

Shannon-Weaver’s communication model has little to do with human communication

But it is a compelling diagram. So much so that it has been taught as a model of communication in business schools, leadership training, and is in the top search results in response to the question ‘How does communication work.’

The problem isn’t with the model; it is with how it is used.

Let’s go back to the origin of the change curve: it was an interpretation of the work of Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her book On Death And Dying to look at how people move through bereavement in five typical stages.

 Denial | Anger | Bargaining | Depression | Acceptance

 It was then and remains a heuristic model for viewing human experience.

Organisational change practitioners in the 1970s and 1980s soon understood that there were parallels at work. Organisational change is a process of managing loss. Resistance to change is a form of loss aversion: loss of job, loss of status, and loss of certainty.

Many change models derive from the theory of loss

Many change models derive from the theory of loss

Download the PDF of all the models

Any leaders who has had to conduct layoffs face to face with employees, or who has had to manage a major relocation, or change a structure, or communicate that there will be no bonuses this year will have seen how accurate the change curve is in describing the individual response to change.

The challenge, as identified in the new Melcrum study, is that this response doesn’t ‘scale up’ very well. The individual experience of change can be understood, but how do you design change communication for people going through multiple iterations with no beginning and no end?

Babies and bathwater, and a little irony

Models are ways for us to understand behaviours and systems. They are a proxy for the real experience of the organisation. Understanding the balance between the context for the model and its pragmatic application is essential in order to navigate the world of work. Complexity in organisations means that few linear models will work in isolation. There are seldom the ‘simple answers’ practitioners crave.

Melcrum’s new study raises very important questions for IC leaders and encourages them to think smarter about how to deliver services in a changing workplace. Leaders do need to work with new models and approaches for this new environment.

This means challenging lots of assumptions and existing processes as they ask leaders and partners to change their understanding of what contemporary IC practice is. And that’s going to provoke anger and denial in some practitioners before they accept it and commit to working in new ways.

As they introduce new ways of working, IC leaders can expect to face resistance from the ExCo to doing things in new ways. Or their HR Director may not initially be supportive of changes to the structure to be more adaptive. And the manager in the business area who is used to embedded communication support will almost certainly resist having resources taken away.

And this is exactly where the understanding (rather than the rigid application) of the change curve will remain useful. Maybe there is some life in the old curve yet.

The change curve still has some life in it yet.

The change curve still has some life in it yet.

*For an excellent description of the birth of the Shannon-Weaver model, I recommend James Gleick’s The Information.

Disclosure: From 2012-13 I was Research & Content Director, Asia Pacific for Melcrum. These views are my own.