How do people cope with change? Family therapist Virginia Satir has provided an interesting model that can also be applied to organizational changes. A stable status quo is challenged by a foreign element. After initial resistance to the foreign element, the confrontation with it initially leads to uncertainty and chaos and thus to a loss in productivity. Depending on the strength of this impulse, this phase lasts for a longer or shorter period of time until the chances of change are finally understood and utilized. Gradually, the group will return to its original productivity and hopefully grow even further. In essence, however, this model means that change can never come for free. As trivial as this sounds, organizations rarely admit this in both large and small changes. And then fail due to false expectations and their impatience.
This diagram from the detailed article by Steven M. Smith illustrates very well the model of Virginia Satir, whose various phases and their implications for change I will briefly examine in the following.
Phase 1: Late Status Quo
Stability prevails in this phase. Both the relationships and expectations are stable. The cooperation is well-established, albeit not without friction, but always with the same known shortcomings.
Phase 2: Resistance
The status quo, which may have existed for years, is challenged by a foreign element. This could be a new technology that threatens the existing business model (e.g. MP3 in combination with broadband Internet), a new competitor with a different way of working and higher productivity (e.g. lean production at Toyota) or a world that is becoming increasingly VUCA and requires a transformation towards more agility. Or a combination of all of this. The first reaction to this is denial, rejection and resistance.
Phase 3: Chaos
After initial resistance, the reliable relationships collapse in reaction to the foreign element. The clear roles and stable processes that have marked the late status quo are at stake. This leads to uncertainty and fear, because it is not yet clear what the new status quo will look like. However, this phase is essential and must not be bridged out of impatience with silver bullets like frameworks and blueprints used elsewhere (“Let’s just do it like Spotify!”).
Phase 4: Integration
In this phase, the group recognizes how the once foreign element can be successfully integrated and used. People change perspectives and begin to experiment with the new element and gain experience with it. Despite failures and mistakes during these experiments, new reliable relationships, clear roles and stable processes emerge.
Phase 5: New Status Quo
The foreign element is now fully integrated and everything has returned to a similarly stable state as in the previous status quo. Hopefully at a higher level of productivity, though.
Accompanying the Change
In order to be able to accompany change processes as a coach, it is first necessary to recognize where the group currently stands. Virginia Satir’s model helps here. It’s essential to get through phase three of chaos. It contains the seeds for a new and more productive status quo. The task here is to help people gain new perspectives and gradually promote experimenting with the new and the foreign and learning from each other. It is important to make first successes of these experiments visible for everyone, because exactly these successes can be the decisive impulse (the transforming idea in Virginia Satir’s model) for other teams. Even more important is to fight impatience and avoid tempting shortcuts with apparent silver bullets.
Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.