Is the change process real?

Is there such a thing as the change process? That might sound a strange question because there are hundreds of models of the change process and people have been studying it for decades. But is it a real thing and, if so, what is it?

Models of Change

Arguably, the best analysis of the change process is the Transtheoretical Model. This model postulates that change unfolds through a series of five steps, or stages. It begins with Pre-Contemplation, where a person is not even thinking about change. Then, if something happens, they may enter the Contemplation stage – Step 2. Here they begin to think about whether change might be a good thing or a bad thing and weigh up the costs and benefits. In this stage, people are considering what they implications of change could be and whether it offers enough value or poses enough risk.

If people come to accept that change can’t be avoided or that it presents enough value to outweigh the risks, they may decide to progress with change and make some necessary preparations. This is what happens in Step 3 of the change process.

In Step 4, people begin implementing the change. The previous steps were also part of the implementation process, but in Step 4 people really look like they are changing. Here they are doing new things or doing old things in new ways. This is a time of learning, of experimentation, of making mistakes, of experiencing setbacks.

At some point, the steep learning curve starts to flatten out. The new behaviours are not yet the new normal, but they are beginning to feel more familiar. Setbacks and discouragements can still happen – the new neural pathways are still being established. This is Step 5 – the Maintenance stage. Ultimate success lies at the end of this stage.

The Model is Not the Territory

The Transtheoretical Model has been widely accepted for over 40 years. It is a valid model of the change process. But it is a model of what happens when people engage in change. It is a description of what is normal for people who are successful.

Normal doesn’t mean everyone does it. It’s a description of what is normal when change is done well. Many people can’t handle change because they don’t do it well. They don’t think it through enough at the start, they rush through the steps impatiently, they underestimate how hard it might be and how long it might take, and they give up when they make mistakes or when it gets hard.

So, the change model is not so much a model of change as it is a model of how humans negotiate change when they do it well. It is like a model of the change architecture of the human brain.

If you go out into nature with a microscope and a camera, you won’t find something called ‘the change process’. Nor will you find anything called ‘the Transtheoretical Model’. These are not really things in the sense that a tree is a thing, or love is a thing.

The change process and the Transtheoretical Model are observations about how humans negotiate change when they do it well. The best physical evidence of the change process might be the neural connections in our brains – the ones we use when we succeed at change. This is where the hard wiring for the change process is to be found.

Right Information

But, as I said in a previous article, you need more than hardware to do change well. You also need the right information.

There are two main bits of information you need. You need information about how to navigate the change process. This is done by following the steps outlined in the Transtheoretical Model and ensuring you succeed at every one of them. This is a map of the change territory.

The second source of information you need is change fitness. This is the software (mindset, psychological capacity) needed to successfully meet all the demands posed by the change process. This is the kind of fitness you need to complete the change journey. If you follow the map and have the fitness to complete the journey, you are much more likely to succeed at change.

Change How You Change

If you already handle change well, congratulations because you are in the lucky minority. But if, like most people, you sometimes struggle with change, the good news is this: you have the capacity to change how you handle change.

You can get good at the change process because you already have all the hardware you need. You might need to do something about the software in your mind, but that is something you can learn.

So, if you want to get better at succeeding at change, we have programs that can help you. This is the area we specialise in and we know how to help. Why don’t you book a time to find out more?

Written by Dr Steve Barlow