Some models of change are better than others

models of changeHow can we work on facilitating change in our lives?

If we want to facilitate change in our lives, having a model of how change happens can be very helpful. But which model? To facilitate business change, there’s an entire industry of well-paid organizational change management consultants who use different change models. And though we may not be aware of it, we all carry around some kind of model in our head about we make changes in our life.

Some models of change are better than others

In this post I’ll describe four common change models. The first three are simplistic and sometimes misleading. In the corporate world, they have been responsible for significant employee misery. For personal use, these models have little utility.

Did I tempt you to skip to the genuinely useful change model that follows? Resist the temptation, because you may recognize one or more of the first three models in a wide variety of situations you’ve experienced. Discovering that an ineffective change model is in use can help you notice unproductive corporate and personal environments.

You can find more information and insights on these models in Jerry Weinberg‘s excellent book: Becoming a Change Artist.

The Diffusion model of change

models of change
The Diffusion model of change is a fancy way of saying “shit happens”. Change simply diffuses into our lives somehow. The word “diffusion” implies that change propagates, perhaps via social contact or some other process, throughout a group of connected people. But this change model doesn’t really add much to our understanding of how change can occur.

The Hole-in-the-floor model of change


The Hole-in-the-floor model of change implies that a carefully designed, top-down, controlled process can create an instant change. This is a common model in organizations, where high-level executives meticulously plan a change “that will go into effect on January 1”. Here’s Jerry’s drawing of how this supposedly works.

Traditional conference designs also adopt this model. Somehow, the inspiring keynote will instantly change attendees’ lives for the better.

Obviously we can make plans to initiate change. The biggest flaw with the Hole-in-the-floor model of change is the unrealistic assumption that change can occur instantly. In the vast majority of cases, however, change takes time. The model also implies the existence of controlling changers who can instantly change the passive changees. Even if the changer and changee are one and the same, we all know how difficult it is to make an instantaneous change in our own lives.

The Newtonian model of change


The Newtonian model of change tries to improve the Hole-in-the-floor model by adding a sort of human physics, fancifully based on Newton’s first law of motion. The concept is that you can push people to change, and the resulting change will happen over a time that depends on how hard you push. The harder you push, the quicker the change will take place. Naturally, the Newtonian model assumes that to change in a certain direction, you must push in that direction

Unlike the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model at least recognizes that change takes time. But what the Newtonian model of change overlooks is that when you push people, they often push back, or move in a completely different direction. Like the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model assumes that you can control people by pushing them in the direction that the controllers want them to go.

Jerry Weinberg also describes a variant of the Newtonian model: the Learning curve model. In this model, an S-shaped curve replaces the Newtonian model’s linear change over time. The above criticism applies to both models.

The Satir model of change

The Satir model of change was developed by the founder of family systems therapy, Virginia Satir, and described in her book The Satir Model, published in 1991.

Unlike the previous models, the Satir model describes multiple major stages of change, and what each stage of change feels like. The previous three models are clearly limited when applied to understanding how personal change happens. In contrast, the Satir model is universal; it applies to both personal and organizational change. It also suggests what kinds of interventions are appropriate in each stage.

models of change
Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change, which I’ll briefly outline. [Steven Smith supplies a longer summary, and Jerry’s and Virginia’s books go into more detail.]

foreign element disrupts an old status quo. Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event allows a period of transition away from chaos, via integration and practice, towards a new status quo.

To help clarify this model, here are two examples of each of these elements, adapted from Jerry’s book.

Old status quo examples

  • You have a bad heart and smoke two packs a day, but play racquetball intensively once a week to compensate.
  • Your product development team has stagnated over the last few years, and really can no longer produce anything innovative.

Foreign elements examples

  • You have chest pains when playing racquetball.
  • A competitor announces an innovative product, and your development team has no idea how to respond.

Chaos examples

  • You start playing racquetball left-handed, and only with certain opponents.
  • Your company’s old reliable product starts developing problems. Team members don’t show up at meetings or answer messages.

Integration and practice examples

  • You give up smoking and racquetball and start walking four miles a day.
  • The company purchases new tools to assist in product development. It also purchases training to go with the tools, and provides time for people to attend.

New status quo examples

  • You discover how much you enjoy walking, and how many creative ideas you get about work problems while you walk through the neighborhood.
  • All the development team members are using the new tools. Almost weekly, someone discovers a new way to use a feature and shares it with other team members.

The Satir model is useful because it delineates the major stages of change, and the human response to change. The model reveals that feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos. Keeping in mind that change is unsettling is key to devising change strategies that actually have a chance to work for human beings! (Conversely, noticing that I’m feeling unsettled is a reliable sign that something has changed or is changing in my life.)

Final thoughts on models of change

Until you understand how change occurs, and how it affects the people and organizations involved, you won’t be successful blindly applying prescriptive models of change, like the first three models I describe above. Yet again, I’m grateful to the late Jerry Weinberg, who taught me so much.


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

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