Hooked on the J-curve

Anticipating exactly what will resonate with your audience is not always easy. During the last couple of weeks I have been presenting some results from a study on the healthy digital workplace, as a part of the SISU-project. The presentations were part of the studied organisations change effort and my presentation was one part, embedded in the information from the organisations project leaders. The overall message was thus one of progress. The study I presented created a baseline for measuring the effects of the coming changes. It also indicated some strategic areas to observe during the change.

The one thing that really seemed to catch everyones attention was not so much the results as one of the slides I used to frame my message. In this slide I contrasted the idea of a linear progression from the current state to the next with the classic J-curve or change curve as it might be called (originally the Kübler-Ross model describing grief). The J-curve in this context is mainly a rhetoric tool, it presents a generic path through change, the big difference to the simple linear progression is the understanding that things will get worse, before they get better. As basic as this concept might seem, it did however seem to catch the interest of both managers and employees. It did seem as if it created a common ground for discussing the upcoming challenges.

The J-curve illustrated.

As time was limited I did not expand on the concept however. Taken at face value it might be misunderstood as support for the idea of simple linear progression (A->B), just with a more bumpy road. In practice there are at least two waypoints that should be noted. The first is that there is a worst case scenario where there is no recovery and the change not only fails but even fails miserably (C). The second is that if the organisation navigates the turmoil it might still end up in some kind of status quo or rather same same but different (D). The promise of actual progress still needs to be fulfilled. Taking a note from Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance one might suspect that we might be tempted to rationalize our new position as an improvement without this actually being the case. Thus, we need to be careful to measure the right aspects during a change effort.

Finally, I didn’t use my favorite take on the change curve, namely the hype curve (hype cycle) made famous by Gartner. The inclusion of the hype is interesting as it puts focus on the rhetoric behind the change. Getting the boards interest and approval might well include some mild exaggerations regarding the benefits of the change. As is obvious from the hype curve the discrepancy between these promises and the coming turmoil might turn out rather dramatic. Thus, it is–as we all should know–important to manage expectations during change so as to avoid a roller coaster experience of change.