Navigating the 9 States of Mind During Digital Transformation
Digital transformation is just one big change management project, and as such, the tried-and-tested rules of change apply.
Success in the digital sphere means taking people on a journey, and preparing them to both accept and embrace the change that’s before them.
Much of that responsibility falls to leaders. But how can they be sure that the changes they sponsor drive people to greater heights, and not over the edge or out of the organization altogether?
A useful way of visualizing each individual’s change journey is with Fisher’s Personal Transition Curve. It has nine different stages, denoting different emotions or states of mind that people may experience or confront while on a change journey.
For organizations and leaders driving change programs, it is important to understand how people are processing what is happening around them, and how their state of mind might be supported.
The 9-Stages of Transition
There are a number of variations and revisions to Fisher’s curve. For digital transformation and process improvement programs, the stages of transition may be best described as follows.
At the start is the status quo. When broaching the subject of transformation, the question that has to be asked is whether people see any need for the change. Many people will indicate they are fairly happy with the status quo but, when challenged if they think it can be improved, will agree. So the question to ask from the outset is really to gauge openness to and appetite for continuous improvement. If neither of those exist, there is no prospect of transformation initiatives being possible or having a desired effect.
The next stage is review, where people can provide feedback about the change process. Are they being heard and appropriately responded to? Is the feedback relevant? While change is often communicated top-down, review of that change is bottom-up — that is, given by individuals to the leaders or sponsors of the change. What they do with that feedback is important. We often find few people self-identify as being at the review stage. If they’ve never been at this stage, does that mean they’re not being given an opportunity to provide feedback and aren’t being listened to?
Stage three is excitement. When people are listened to, and things are moving in the right direction, people get excited about the change. They get onboard and are receptive to it. This is distinct from the excitement that the program’s sponsors may feel at the transformation opportunities. That excitement has to translate into real-world benefits. When people know what’s in it for them, and what they’ll get out of a change, they’re more likely to buy in.
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The next four stages — denial, anxiety, threat and guilt — are where the reality of the transformation sets in. Without a vision, people are confused; without the right skills, they get anxious; without appropriate incentives, they stop moving in the right direction; and without consensus, there's the possibility of sabotage of progress. In group settings, we often see many people clustered in anxiety or denial. Depending on the job role, there may also be a reasonable proportion of people with guilt over the way the transformation has progressed. These are known challenges, and the use of additional models, notably the Lippitt-Knoster model for complex change management, can be extremely helpful to address concerns here.
The point is, these valid concerns must be addressed. If they go unaddressed, people may reach a stage of crisis. Crisis is probably not something you want to associate with business transformation. But leaders and sponsors whose projects are going off the rails may experience it, potentially due to outside factors such as skills shortages or changes to the macroeconomic environment impacting resourcing. It may also be experienced by people in the business if their feedback goes unheard and the change progressively occurs around, but without them.
After a crisis, the path forks. A smart organization sees these signs and goes back to the review stage, working people back to excitement, in the hope that will allow them to get past the negative feelings and move into more positive territory, where there is gradual acceptance of the change, followed closely by an attitude to move forward. That is likely if people start to learn new skills and see personal and professional growth options materialize as a result. This is the true definition of ‘never letting a good crisis go to waste’.
The flipside is that the crisis becomes existential, and leaves people questioning their future at the organization. Obviously, no one sets out for a transformation to culminate in this. For a small percentage of people that do not want to change, it’s a possible ‘point-of-no-return’, and it may be in everyone’s best interests to part ways. However, for most people, leaders included, it likely means some serious soul-searching as to how the earlier signs were missed, and what can be done better in future.
Ideally, if the review stage is well-run, it may be possible for people to move from excitement to wholesale acceptance of the change, and skip the more negative phases altogether.
This is the North Star that most organizations undergoing a transformation strive for. It is important to go through this exercise and regularly check in with your people to determine which stage they are at. This focus on the human element of change can make the difference between failure and success.
Related Article: Communicating Change: Overcoming Resistance Through Empathy
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About the Author
Chris Ellis, director of pre-sales at Nintex, gained invaluable experience in SharePoint, Office 365 and the Nintex Platform as a pre-sales solution specialist within the partner network. Hailing from Aberdeen in Scotland, his work with the Nintex Platform exposed him to the full lifecycle from analysis and requirement gathering to delivery, support and training, contributing across a spectrum of projects in various industries and in some interesting places. Connect with Chris Ellis: