Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Leading Change By Managing Stability

My wife and I recently took Lincoln, our new puppy (a rescued German shepherd), for his first walk. As we strolled down our quiet street, a car drove by. Lincoln jumped away from the street and stared at me trembling. His frightened eyes seemed to be crying, "Woe, Dad that's way too new for me!"

How do your team members respond when they are hit by change?

People react to change in many ways. They may feel apprehensive about the new, fear losing the old, or some combination of both. Your job as a leader is getting your team to see the need for change so that they can begin learning the new behaviors needed to support the change. One of the best ways to gain buy-in to change is to explain “the paradox of change.” (1) Here’s how:

A. Draw a sigmoid curve

On a flipchart or whiteboard, draw a sigmoid (i.e., “S”) curve as seen in below.

The Sigmoid Curve


B. Label the curves and explain the curve

1. Germination. This is where new ideas are born and innovation is encouraged. Research and development (R & D) occurs here, although it's usually more research than development. Much time, money, and effort is expended with little return during this phase. Explain to your team that this is the work you do in the garden in order to get the plants to grow. Tilling the soil, planting the seeds, fertilizing, and watering are all necessary in order to move into the next stage.

2. Growth. Growth occurs when the product takes off. The market wants it and sales are great. If sales really take off, it is often hard to meet demand because the process, policies, and people are not in place yet. Production is often strained at this time because operations and plans are not fully implemented. Toward the end of the growth phase, you harvest the crop.

3. Maturity. This is that time in the product's life when demand starts leveling off. Usually the competition has joined the field and affected your market share. The crop is harvested and people wonder how they'll make it through the winter.

C. Ask your team several questions.

Ask your team what options they have when their product reaches maturity. Of course, they'll tell you that you need to start a new curve. Ask them where you should start this new curve. They'll probably tell you it needs to be done during the growth phase of curve number one, as illustrated in below. Next, ask your team a series of questions, such as:

1. How well accepted is this new, second curve?

2. Is there any tension between the first and the second curve? When they answer yes, draw a line between the curves as seen in figure 3. Label that line “bifurcation,” and define it as "the place of maximum tension between the old and the new curve."

3. How have you experienced these growth curves at work and at home?

The Stability-Change Curves


D. Discuss key ideas

Help the team understand the following key ideas via your questioning strategy. Don't lecture. If you say it they doubt it, if they say it they’ll believe it.

1. Curve one is the stability curve, while curve number two is the change curve.

2. You need both curves to survive. For example, revenue from the stability curve finances the change curve.

3. There is often tension between the two curves.

4. Different groups in the organization value and defend different portions of the curve.

5. Different leadership styles need to be emphasized at different phases of the curve. While visionary and commanding skills (the preferred styles of adventurous pioneers) need to be emphasized during germination phase, more rational and empowering skills (the preferred styles of organized administrators) are needed during the growth and maturity phase. Of course, you need all four styles all the time. Yet, successful leaders accent specific styles to meet the unique demands at different phases.

6. In a rapidly changing environment, the length of the cycle is shortening (e.g., shorter product lifecycles). Therefore, more time is spent in bifurcation - managing the tension between the old (stability) and the new (change).

7. Life is a series of growth curves. Going off to college, getting married, having children, death of loved ones, children growing up... These life transitions are illustrations of growth curves. The essence of "The Hero's Journey," (and most heroic movies) popularized by Joseph Campbell, is really the story of growth curves.

8. Old (and young) dogs can learn new tricks (change) if you give him comfort (stability).

This exercise will help you explain the need for both change and stability. They are interdependent. All those consultants teaching change management and all those books pushing change as the answer are only half right. Your team will always seek stability when they are bobbing around in a sea of uncertainty. They're looking for something to hold onto. You are their mooring.

Professor Laurence and his colleagues from Canada summarized 15 years of change research by stating, "Initiating and maintaining continuous change in an organization requires a foundation of stability. Understanding that paradox is crucial" (3)

So, how do you build your platform of stability with your team?

Keep eXpanding,


1. Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox, Harvard Business School Press, Boston 1994.

2. Harvey Robbins and Michael Finely in Why Change Doesn't Work, Texere Pub., 2001.

3. T. Lawrence, B. Dyck, S. Maitlis, and M. Mauws, The Underlying Structure of Continuous Change, MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 59-66, 2006.

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