Surviving the J-Curve: Knowing is Preparation


Instituting positive change often involves a period of transition before that change is fully in place and part of the day-to-day routine. Your journey may be as rewarding or as difficult as your preparation. This is especially true of the new CEO or department head arriving on-scene where everyone is sure the company was doing just fine before you came along.

Why? Someone, somewhere, once said: “Because people over-value that which they have, and under-value that which they may gain.” Knowing this is as good a place to start as any.

I have led numerous changes in organizations, some more successful than others, and the difference was all about preparation and being visible. I wish I’d known then about the simplicity of Dr. Jerry Jellison’s “J-Curve.”

To understand his model, form a mental picture of a huge letter “J”. Imagine you are standing on the left side of the “J” atop the downward curve, like a swimmer preparing to dive into a pool. Everything is fine, until you institute the mere thought of organizational change. At that point you have dived in.

Long before you get to explain what you want to achieve, the naysayers’ minds kick into overdrive. How deep you go into the curve, and how long it takes to get out and back up into a position on the long end of the “J”, above where you started, is all about preparation.

The 5 Stages of Change

In his influential book “Managing the Dynamics of Change,” Jerald M. Jellison, a professor at the University of Southern California, divides the J-curve into five stages:

The Plateau – This is the status quo. All might seem well, but the leader knows that painful changes are required for the business to flourish. For that leader, this is where the preparation for change begins.

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The Cliff – The change has begun. As the team struggles to understand and adapt to a new system, the organization sinks down into the bottom of the J. It’s a time of error, failure, resistance, frustration and plummeting morale.

The Valley – This is a period of uncertainty, but the feeling of falling has eased – or stopped altogether. Employees begin to find their feet in the new world, and some stability returns. Success once again seems like a possibility.

The Ascent – Here things start to improve. Wins outnumber losses and the benefits of change become more apparent.

The Mountaintop – The organization has reached the level of the plateau – or that aircraft carrier deck — and is still rising.

How far down the J-Curve you go and how far up you climb afterwards depend on your preparation, planning, energy, morale and commitment. The less prepared you are, the deeper you sink and the longer you stay down. In fact, your ascent may fall short.

Communicate Your Vision

When you decide to initiate a major change, or you are a newly appointed CEO or manager looking to redirect the organization, be realistic. There will be plenty of pushback, either outwardly or inwardly, but it will be there. It is important at the initiating point that you have a clear vision and over-communicate not just the vision but its benefits for everyone affected. This may even include customers or suppliers, especially if you are affecting their interface with the company.

Lead From the Front

If you are leading a major organizational change, be a model of the behavior you are looking to develop. Establish a sense of “we will do this together.” If you are making a major change in how the organization does something, especially when it involves reliance on outside consultants, be a part of every key event. Be seen and participate in the planning and execution.

Making an announcement and leaving it up to the “professionals” to get things done is a long and painful path paved with unintended consequences that could undermine your success. And, when in doubt, communicate, communicate, communicate. Have a well-honed “vision and benefits” speech ready to whip out on a moment’s notice.