itmWEB TechWeekly

April 21, 2003

Managing the Organizational Change Curve

A phase by phase examination of how the organizational change curve impacts the systems development process.

Peter Drucker, the celebrated author of numerous works on management principles, once wrote that "quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it". Certainly at the implementation stage of the systems development process, those words carry an increased level of appreciation.

Implementation of a new system or software package is the decisive moment. All of the hard work, planning, and creativity have resulted in a constructed or configured product. This is the System Builder's opportunity to turn over the carefully coded, tested, and finalized results. The team has put all of its talent and spirit into creating what it considers to be a high quality accomplishment. But how will the client feel? What about those last minute screen and report changes that had to be made? Will the client react favorably to the additional functions and features the team added? Does the client even remember the deliverables presented months ago at the prototyping, design, and testing sessions?

This reunion with the client must be handled properly. This process represents change, and change, whether it is perceived as positive or negative, will always encounter a certain degree of challenge, resistance, and scrutiny. Recognizing this situation, the System Builder must strive to make the organizational change process as painless and smooth as possible. For the client, moving from the old system to the new, is both an exciting prospect as well as a journey into the unknown. Several techniques should be employed to ensure a successful transition.

Overcoming the Resistance to Change

Winston Churchhill once said that "there is nothing wrong in change if it is in the right direction. To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often". If the resistance to change can be overcome, and the client is sincerely open to an innovative or "different" approach to the new or existing business situation, a major hurdle has been overcome toward the new system existing in concept.

Unfortunately, the management of organizational change is one of the least appreciated concerns of the system building professional. Viewing clients as "users" who only perform redundant, clerk-type work seems to be common attitude among project teams who only consider the proposed system from a "technical" viewpoint. After all these years, it's no wonder business clients fear the delivery of new systems! What new and clever ways of making our lives miserable have the system builders come up with this time?

The first step to breaking through the resistance to change is to begin to take the client "perspective". Business challenges and day-to-day responsibilities must be viewed in the same light as the client sees them. This means understanding both the underpinnings and objectives of the client's activities. The second step is to realize that the business client is being placed into a position of incompetence. No matter how ineffective the current way of conducting business may be, at least it is familiar and the client understands how to make it work. The prospect of a new way of doing things represents a level of uncertainty to the client which is very real and somewhat threatening.

The system building professional must initially develop a sensitivity for these concerns, and then later, form a strategy for reducing their effect. In many cases, this can be achieved through continual, sustained client involvement through each phase of the development process. This participation serves to counter the client's fear of uncertainty, and it gives them a firm stake in the project outcome.

Riding the Organizational Change Curve

One fact which all system builders should always keep in mind is that change is not always easy to cope with. In fact, any change will evoke a degree of emotional reaction from almost everyone.

Take the business clients through all of the phases of the organizational change curve:


This is the initial reaction to change. Depending on the current state of the client's preparedness, this reaction may range anywhere from a barely noticeable flinch to highly traumatic outpouring of emotion. In any case, what the client is reacting to is the possibility of a threat to the established status quo. This always disturbing and somewhat disarming.

The system builders should be somewhat empathetic, but they should not attempt to minimize the real effect of the change on the business clients.


The next reaction tends to be one of disbelief or denial. This is the classic "maybe if I don't think about it - it will go away" response. In some cases this actually works, and the irritating change does go away! To make this happen, the business clients simply drop out of the process, withholding their support and participation to such an extent that the proposed change becomes very difficult to implement.

The system builders should strive to keep the business clients actively involved in the change implementation process. This involvement should include exploring the various options which will help to make the upcoming change work within the client's business environment.


Once confronted with the reality of the pending change, many of the clients may express their displeasure either through subtle negative reactions, or through more open and direct challenges. They are literally mad about being put through this! Even the strongest project sponsors will show slight flare-ups as they work through their temporary states of incompetence. "I never thought it would work like this!" is a fairly common statement during this period.

The system builders should absolutely not take this reaction personally. They should assist the business clients in working through these feelings by helping them to understand how to make the new/updated system work to their benefit. In addition, a clear approach show be developed and presented to address the anticipated business client learning needs.


As the actual implementation of the change nears, the affected clients may begin to look for concessions. "Before I really go along with this, can you make this additional change for me, since I am changing for you". If this response is not handled right, it can also turn into another effective defense against change. In fact, this is the last ditch effort to stop the momentum!

The is the point which the system builders need to start exhibiting some resolve. Each request should be weighed carefully. If it will truly help to get the client completely through the curve, making the client requested change may be beneficial. If it appears to be just a stall tactic, the system builder has to toughen up and keep things progressing forward.


From the business client's perspective, it is beginning to feel like nothing really worked. Maybe they managed to get a few concessions here and there, but it seems that the system builders are really going to go through with it! The change is actually going to happen. A feeling of depression sets in. For the clients, this is a kind of mourning for the old, familiar way of doing things, and a slight dread of the unknown.

Now is the time for the system builders to provide maximum assistance. They must work hard to help the clients see themselves working in a new way. Training, presentations, hands-on testing assistance, and easy to use documentation all help the clients feel that they will be able to cope with the new situation.


Finally, the day arrives when it is time to start doing things the new way. This is the part of the curve which is a steady progression from incompetence to competence. Depending on the ease and success of the transition, the client's reaction to the new change can be very positive and rewarding.

At this point, the system builders should be providing real encouragement, and confirmation of progress. Any concerns should be handled appropriately, and in as timely a fashion as possible.


Once everyone has again reached their individual comfort and competence level, things begin to settle down into the new, sustainable routine. In some situations, one may actually overhear something like "I can't believe we ever did this function any other way!".