Tools & Templates

The Change Curve: Four phases for change

Change is inevitable and we all go through new changes regularly. If you want to get through the next change process easier and faster it's a good idea to understand how people typically react when going through change. According to Dennis T. Jaffe and Cynthia Scott, the people behind the model called The Change Curve, it’s actually the same four phases that we all go through.

When we face a change everybody more or less move through these phases, claim Jaffe and Scott. Sometimes we move quickly, sometimes slowly and sometimes we get stuck in one of the phases. We can even move backwards into a previous phase. But if you end up committing yourself to a change you will have moved through the four phases. This is especially the case if you're not the cause of the change.

The model begins with “business as usual” in the top-left corner. When the change begins, a downward movement occurs through increased level of stress, uncertainty, radical change and reduced productivity. As the change takes place, an increase also happen on the other side of the curve, as we rediscover our orientation, learn new skills and roles and begin working in a new way.


The four phases of change

Phase 1: Denial

Denial is probably the most common reaction to change, but according to Scott and Jaffe it is also the most difficult. Denial is the psychological term for our defense against change, and it means that we ignore or avoid reacting upon information that require change. Denial is an attempt to retain the success and security of our past by ignoring that the past is over, as they write in Mastering the Change Curve (2003).

In the denial phase change doesn't penetrate and we don't believe that it's real. We continue with “business as usual” and avoid thinking and acting on the imminent change.

Denial is, ironically, difficult to identify within ourselves. We are often unaware that we deny change and this is why it is necessary for others to confront and inform us about our act of denial. This can turn out to be a big problem when groups of coworkers deny the state of things at the same time, because the entire organization may find itself in the phase of denial at once.


Phase 2: Resistance

We reach the resistance phase when we wake up from our denial and discover that change WILL happen. When we're in the resistance phase we feel incapable of changing. We still experience an attachment to the past and the familiar ways of doing things, but we also experience different unpleasant feelings and reactions towards the change.

Everybody experiences resistance to change. This is a perfectly normal reaction and no matter how exciting the change is we will still feel some degree of anxiety and worrying towards the imminent change. 

When we get closer to the end of the resistance phase we come to accept the change, we begin to let go of the past and consider how we can make the change work.


Phase 3: Exploration

The authors describe this as the fun phase, full of energy and willingness to learn something new and to test new methods. Generally, people have accepted the change and are now ready to examine the situation, determine new goals and explore alternatives.

In the exploration phase we begin to act and learn new tricks, and decide that we want to act upon the change. We no longer fight the change and instead begin to wonder how we can make it work.

As we move up through the bottom-part of the curve we begin to accept the change and believe that we're going to make it. The best thing for us to do is to create a vision for what it is we want to achieve and to collaborate with others involved in order to make it happen. Researchers claim that it's normal to zigzag between Resistance and Exploration.


Phase 4: Commitment

We reach the commitment phase when we discover which set of skills we need in order to manage new times. We rediscover our productivity and the sense of control. We probably also notice a sense of “we did it”, that we have actually made the change. But because change is continuous we must prepare for the next change.

This is not an actual period of enthusiasm, rather a pleasant one.

The model below shows the key things you have to consider as you move through each phase of change.