Stages of Change (#81)

One thing I have noticed over the years is that our relationship with change is complicated. We want change, demand and clamor for it. Politicians promise it, but then are often not very welcoming when it arrives. Dealing with change is something we all struggle with – even reject outright – and it can take us a while to accept the realities that change brings.

I have seen this repeatedly in both in the workplace and in my personal life. Over this time, I’ve come to see a pattern that I think parallels the five stages of grief, which I’ll refer to it as the four stages of change. These are:

  1. Confusion and Surprise: Upon being presented with change, we often react with surprise and want to know why the change was necessary.
  2. Reacting to the Differences: Rather than focusing on what’s new, we tend to hyper focus on what is missing or different, ignoring things that have been added, often to our benefit, but carefully noting something that was taken away.
  3. Pining for the Past: Suddenly we are nostalgic for things we did not realize we even cared about; this often this results in anger and frustration.
  4. Adaption and Acceptance: Eventually, we adapt and get used to what’s new through repetition; we might even begin to appreciate it. Now, something that was a significant change has become the norm. Through repeated exposure, we’ve adjusted to it, whether we like it or not.

These stages are often most prevalent when we don’t know change is coming (e.g. a new website update, a software upgrade, etc.). All of these stages came together for me a few years ago when Starwood launched its new responsive website.

When I first logged on and saw the changes, I was confused and surprised. As the differences unfolded, I became annoyed and angry. I couldn’t find the simple functions that I had become familiar with. I even wrote an article on why companies should not design desktop sites for mobile experiences. I looked for user groups of angry people who felt the same. Alas, after a few weeks and months of using their new website layout, I eventually got used to the changes and forgot what I was missing. My brain had adapted and I accepted the new structure.

Change is inevitable. Although it may not always feel like a positive thing at first, it’s necessary for progress. If you want to improve your ability to affect change and encourage acceptance, here are two rules that I think are very helpful to consider:

  • Don’t let change be a surprise: In fact, the earlier you can discuss and prepare others for the changes ahead, the sooner they can go through the aforementioned stages, which will likely accelerate the process towards acceptance.
  • Everything new is old: When there is a familiarity in something new, it can go a long way towards speeding up the acceptance process. Nowhere is this more evident than vinyl records and vintage tricycles. Vinyl record sales are up 100 percent a year and Radio Flyer’s vintage tricycle is now one of its best sellers. In fact, in a recent presentation, Radio Flyer’s CEO shared that the idea for their vintage tricycle came about from customers reminiscing about their “Radio Flyer bike” that they had as a child—a bike that Radio flyer never actually made.

And finally, for my favorite quote on change:

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

General Eric Shinseki

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