Caution. Future.

How do peo­ple cope with change? In Vir­ginia Satir’s Change Mod­el, the phase of chaos and uncer­tain­ty is cru­cial. This is where the seed for the new and bet­ter sta­tus quo lies, pro­vid­ed that it is pos­si­ble to exper­i­ment with the new and inte­grate it prof­itably on the basis of a feel­ing of psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty. This can be well observed at the moment with the top­ic of the home office.

Then came Coro­na. From one day to the next, dis­trib­uted work from the home office became the New Nor­mal. Overnight, dig­i­tal­iza­tion was no longer just a dec­o­ra­tive acces­so­ry, but crit­i­cal to the sys­tem. COVID-19 has dri­ven dig­i­tal­iza­tion faster than CIO, CTO and CDO com­bined in the last few years. At least where orga­ni­za­tions have embraced this change to cre­ate a bet­ter future after Coro­na.

The Satir Change Model

How do peo­ple cope with change? To this end, fam­i­ly ther­a­pist Vir­ginia Satir has pro­posed a mod­el that can be eas­i­ly trans­ferred to change process­es in orga­ni­za­tions.

A sta­ble sta­tus quo is chal­lenged by a for­eign ele­ment. This can 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 per­haps a pan­dem­ic that shows us what VUCA means and how impor­tant respon­sive­ness and agili­ty are.

Prob­lems are not the prob­lem; cop­ing is the prob­lem.

Vir­ginia Satir

After ini­tial resis­tance to the new, the inevitable con­fronta­tion with it leads at first to uncer­tain­ty and chaos and inevitably to a decline in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Depend­ing on the strength of this impulse and the will­ing­ness to deal con­struc­tive­ly with the for­eign ele­ment, this phase lasts more or less long until it is final­ly pos­si­ble to under­stand and use the oppor­tu­ni­ties of change. Lit­tle by lit­tle, the orga­ni­za­tion then suc­ceeds in inte­grat­ing the new and using it to its advan­tage.

Das Change Modell von Virginia Satir
Source: Steven M. Smith

This dia­gram from Steven M. Smith’s worth­while arti­cle illus­trates well the mod­el of Vir­ginia Satir, which con­sists of the fol­low­ing five stages

  • Stage 1: Late Sta­tus Quo
    We have sta­bil­i­ty. Rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es are sta­ble and well-estab­lished. Busi­ness as usu­al.
  • Stage 2: Resis­tance
    The proven sta­tus quo is chal­lenged by a for­eign ele­ment. The first reac­tions are denial, rejec­tion and resis­tance. The sta­tus quo is there­by to be pre­served as long as pos­si­ble.
  • Stage 3: Chaos
    If the for­eign ele­ment can no longer be ignored or com­bat­ed, the sta­bil­i­ty of the sta­tus quo begins to become frag­ile. Rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es are sud­den­ly called into ques­tion. This leads to uncer­tain­ty, fear and chaos.
  • Stage 4: Inte­gra­tion
    In this stage the group rec­og­nizes how the once for­eign ele­ment can be prof­itably inte­grat­ed and used. Peo­ple change their per­spec­tive on the new, begin to exper­i­ment and gain expe­ri­ence. Lit­tle by lit­tle, despite set­backs and mis­takes in these exper­i­ments, new reli­able rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es emerge.
  • Stage 5: New Sta­tus Quo
    The for­eign ele­ment is now ful­ly inte­grat­ed. As in the pre­vi­ous sta­tus quo, rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es are sta­ble and steady again. But hope­ful­ly on a high­er lev­el.

Crisis as an Opportunity

Neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion. Even if it may not feel that way for every­one at first and cer­tain­ly not always, Max Frisch is essen­tial­ly right: “A cri­sis is a pro­duc­tive state. You sim­ply have to get rid of its after­taste of cat­a­stro­phe.”

A crisis is a productive state. You simply have to get rid of its aftertaste of catastrophe.
Foto: ETH Library / CC BY-SA

This is espe­cial­ly true of the chaot­ic stage 3 in Vir­ginia Satir’s Change Mod­el. It is impor­tant to endure it and to get through it as fear­less­ly as pos­si­ble. In it lies the seed for the new and bet­ter sta­tus quo. And this seed thrives best when peo­ple are able to enjoy exper­i­ment­ing with the new and for­eign and ide­al­ly learn from each oth­er.

How­ev­er, the deci­sive fac­tor is that lead­er­ship, espe­cial­ly now, on the one hand pro­vides psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty on the inside and, on the oth­er hand, ensures relent­less clar­i­ty about the sit­u­a­tion, the threat on the out­side and the joint strat­e­gy to fight it. If this suc­ceeds, one can hope for the cre­ativ­i­ty and moti­va­tion of the peo­ple con­cerned and thus for solu­tions and ways that no sin­gle cap­tain, how­ev­er bril­liant, could ever imag­ine.

The Thing About Home Office

Overnight, the Coro­na pan­dem­ic made dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tion the stan­dard for many knowl­edge work­ers. Even though mobile work­ing was already pos­si­ble in prin­ci­ple in many com­pa­nies, it remained the excep­tion. Work­ing from home always was sec­ond-rate, always a bit sus­pi­cious and there­fore had to be jus­ti­fied specif­i­cal­ly. Let’s not kid our­selves, in many places before Coro­na there was a dis­tinct cult of pres­ence and its cre­do was: Real work only takes place in the office and only under super­vi­sion.

This cre­do has now begun to fal­ter even in tra­di­tion­al Ger­man com­pa­nies such as Siemens and Allianz. In those com­pa­nies, the impulse of the coro­na pan­dem­ic after the phase of uncer­tain­ty was con­struc­tive­ly tak­en up and the for­eign ele­ment of a stan­dard dis­trib­uted coop­er­a­tion based on pur­pose and trust was suc­cess­ful­ly inte­grat­ed into a new sta­tus quo.

The prob­lem is not the prob­lem. The prob­lem is your atti­tude about the prob­lem.

Cap­tain Jack Spar­row

The cri­sis was not used as an oppor­tu­ni­ty every­where. In many cas­es, how­ev­er, peo­ple have clung and con­tin­ue to cling des­per­ate­ly to the old sta­tus quo. The rather mod­er­ate­ly pro­duc­tive meet­ings sim­ply became even less pro­duc­tive video con­fer­ences. With a great deal of effort and dis­ci­pline, it was pos­si­ble to avoid being immersed in the chaos of Stage 3 in Vir­ginia Satir’s change mod­el for a few months. A con­fronta­tion with the new, how­ev­er, does not take place because the orga­ni­za­tion, led by a cap­tain who nev­er leaves the bridge and nev­er works in the home office under any cir­cum­stances, always remains in Stage 2 of resis­tance and denial.

Of course, from this per­spec­tive it is con­sis­tent to restore the old sta­tus quo as quick­ly as pos­si­ble under mas­sive safe­ty pre­cau­tions. But the ret­ri­bu­tion for this missed oppor­tu­ni­ty will come in a few years. On the one hand, com­pa­nies with­out mobile work­ing based on equal rights and self-deter­mi­na­tion will no longer be suf­fi­cient­ly attrac­tive as employ­ers. On the oth­er hand, the par­a­digm shift towards dis­trib­uted work as a stan­dard will also bring unprece­dent­ed momen­tum to dig­i­tal­iza­tion and, in the long run, this will sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty com­pared to the cur­rent sta­tus quo of the cult of pres­ence.

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