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Adapting to Change: Directions

If feeling at ease with change is the destination, here is a journey planner

Depending on its significance and how much control we have over it, change can be difficult and unsettling. Right now, as we settle into our first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, the winds of change are blowing hard across societal, organisational and personal landscapes. Everyone is being asked to do things differently to some degree.

If we imagine feeling at ease with change as a place to get to, we could see getting there as a journey each of us needs to make.

The bend in the road is the turning point

Before travelling to somewhere we haven’t been before, it’s wise to plan the route we’ll take. Doing so makes sure we will reach our destination in the most direct and timely manner.

Likewise, when navigating to that place of ease, learning about the road that leads us there helps us know what to expect along the way and understand how we can support ourselves or guide others in getting there.

The nature of the road

Change has been considered from the viewpoint of the individual, families and organisations and a variety of “change models” developed to describe it.

Probably the most well-known is the Kubler-Ross Change Curve. Named after the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who first described the model in the book “Death and Dying” (1969). In it she mapped the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance associated with coming to terms with terminal illness but can just as equally be applied to any change in situation or circumstance.

Scott and Jaffe’s Change Grid founded on Kubler-Ross’ grief curve was first explored in an article by Cynthia Scott and Dennis Jaffe “Survive and Thrive in Times of Change” published in 1988 which examined organisational change. Their model suggests people move through four stages: denial, resistance, exploration and commitment.

Another is the Satir Change Model that Virginia Satir developed as a family therapist to help people improve the way they coped with major, unexpected change. This model was developed over three decades and is explored in the book “The Satir Model” (1988). Satir posits that between the old status quo and the new normal, there are three steps: resistance, chaos and integration.

There’s also Bridges’ Transition Model created by change consultant William Bridges and shared in his book “Managing Transitions” (1991). In it he identifies three phases that people must go through to accept a new normal: ending, neutral zone, new beginning.

No matter which one is examined it is clear that it is not really “change” that is being plotted but our adaptation to it. In other words, how people experience and react to change, emotionally and psychologically.

Returning to the journey theme it could be said to reach our destination of being comfortable with change, let’s call it the Point of Ease, there are certain places to be passed through.

All of the models outlined describe a u-shaped process with a lower point somewhere in the middle where morale, mood and performance are likely to reduce. Yet this bend in the road is literally the turning point; it’s where the old way is let go and where adaptation to the new begins.

Based on the four models presented above, here is a route to the Point of Ease.

Adaptation Road: Directions to the Point of Ease

Denial Driveway

You’ll likely be starting off from Denial Driveway. This is probably where you parked yourself when the Change was first announced; it’s where we go to get clear and process what has happened.

Part of that process, if the change is something we didn’t initiate, will involve finding reasons not to accept what's happened or is to come. This includes looking for evidence that whatever is to be new or different isn’t true, needed or necessary.

We continue to search for reasons to stay parked in the status quo until we're able to see that the Change is here to stay.

Resistance Roadblock

Turning towards reality we move off Denial Driveway but whilst we can look at the truth, it doesn’t mean we're ready to embrace it.

Change is a disruptor, especially when it's beyond our control. It removes the security of the familiar and pushes us out of our comfort zone. Depending on the scale of the change, it’s impact on us and how much agency we feel, we may be pushed a long way from home, so to speak.

It is normal as human beings to fear the unknown and, coupled with a sense of loss, thus natural to resist. We may feel strong emotions in this stage such as anger, frustration and anxiety, as well as sadness. We may actively express these (fight), turn inwards and go to ground (flight) or become passive (freeze).

Like being held at a red light because it’s not safe for you to move, you will stop at Resistance Roadblock until you feel a sense of agency, no matter how small.

Chaos Corner

Once through Resistance Roadblock continue down the road to Chaos Corner. You’ll need to change gear and slow down to take the bend here. Prepare to be travelling along this part of the road for some time.

This can be considered the most uncomfortable and stress inducing place when it comes to adaptation. But it’s this discomfort that drives us to start considering options.

Here we will likely begin to gather information about both the change itself and what has worked for others. We will consider how applicable the information is to ourselves and perhaps begin to implement some of the actions we have heard of.

We will try out various things; some will be familiar, others will be adaptations or entirely new. It is with trial and error that we start to adjust or at least function. Eventually a breakthrough, or what Satir calls a Transforming Idea, occurs and you put your foot down.

Experiment Expressway

Accelerating out of Chaos Corner, you are onto the Experiment Expressway. This is where the rubber really hits the road. Your sense of control, ownership and agency is increasing and your thinking is becoming less pessimistic.

There may be a future here after all.

Here is the upswing of the “change" models as you begin to explore what the future might be like for you. You feel empowered to continue to test this new way. You are learning what works and what doesn’t. With each win, you make your way to Integration Island.

Integration Island

You know you've arrived at Integration Island when you begin to connect and feel rooted (excuse the pun) in the new way. It’s not far now to Point of Ease, it's just a matter of time.

The map is not the territory

As with all models, the Adaptation Road route planner provided here is just a representation. And although it can provide insight to how humans respond to change, everyone goes through the process in their own way and at their own pace.

This means that the journey is your own and, as Machado says the path is made by walking.

You cannot be towed or pushed off the driveway nor avoid the roadblock. Both these stages are driven by a very normal need for self-protection and preservation, you will pass through these in your own time.

Your way through Chaos Corner, the options you test and the idea that drives you on to Experiment Expressway will also be unique to you. It has to be that way, if it isn’t then getting to that Point of Ease will either take longer or not happen at all.

Having made your way to Point of Ease it is worth reflecting on what you've discovered about your ability to deal with change, your resilience and resourcefulness. Knowing these things will support you when you next need to make your way here.

Take care of you.


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