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Chaos during change – don’t try to avoid it, manage it

Virginia Satir change_process by Michael Erickson„We are in the middle of a big transformation and it is an absolute chaos.”

This is not a quote from one particular person. Rather it is something almost everybody has said, or could have said at some point during an organisational change process, irrespective of what kind of change we are talking about. Whether it is a change of organisational structure, the introduction of the new SAP or a big cultural change project, the phenomenon of “nobody knows what they are doing” is always there at some point.

This chaos causes employees to despair and managers to panic. So, you might ask, how can we plan and implement a smooth and chaos-free change process? The answer is: we can’t.

Virginia Satir’s Change Model

Virginia Satir, an American psychologist, or the “Mother of Family Therapy” as she is widely referred to, developed a model to describe the different phases in change process families go through during therapy.

Although the Satir’s Change Curve Model was initially developed for families, it is equally relevant for bigger systems such as organisations.

The essence of the Satir Model is that systems going through changes will inevitably go through 5 distinct stages. Each of these stages is characterised by different behaviours and very different levels of productivity. These stages are referred to as Late Status Quo, Resistance, Chaos, Integration, and New Status Quo.

If you have a close look at the change curve (see above), you can see that the change described in the model is positive overall: the performance of the system eventually improves compared to the initial stage – the level new status quo is higher than late status quo. However, before this improvement there is a drastic drop, the Chaos phase – a period with significantly decreased performance.

This is a general phenomenon: changing the system for the better involves having to go through a rough period. You can’t avoid it. However you can manage the process. But only if you are fully aware of the nature of the change curve.


Late status quo

“When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn’t see it. He can’t. He’s average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo.”(George Saunders)

Any change process starts from the “late status quo”. The old way we do things, methods we have been familiar with for a long time. It is not necessarily the best way, but it is something we know, and therefore we are relatively comfortable with it. We don’t want to change it, because it is how we have always done things. What’s more, often we can’t even imagine any other way of operating.

But then the so-called “foreign element” enters the system.

Often the “foreign element” comes in the form of a new colleague, or perhaps new management, who bring with them new ways of thinking. They might start questioning the status quo and might want to bring in some changes.

But an organisation doesn’t necessarily need new people to change. The foreign element can be an event, an occurrence that doesn’t fit in to the existing paradigm, and therefore it makes people start thinking about change. A significant drop in the company’s quarterly income. Loss of one of its biggest clients. Serious quality problems with the new product. Sudden change of the business environment. These can all have the kind of eye-opening effect which results in some members of the organisation questioning the status quo and thus triggering change.



“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes – it should be postponed as long as possible…” (Peter Drucker)

There is no change without resistance. We all know this in theory. Yet managers often take it very personally when the organisation reacts to their change initiatives with resistance. “How come they don’t understand that if we don’t change we will lose our market share? How can they be so irrational?” they ask.

It must be accepted that resistance to change doesn’t necessarily come from lack of understanding. Often it is not a rational answer to the change initiative but a very natural instinctive reaction to change.

We all know how hard it is to change habits. Take the example of a diet. Rationally, we might know that change is necessary if we want to stay healthy, but we still find ourselves throwing the rational argument aside and eat that piece of chocolate, just like we have done in the past. Because the resistance to changing the old habit is stronger than us.

Resistance to change in organisations can take many forms.

  • Underestimating the importance of the issue (“We have got more important things than dealing with this.”)
  • Questioning the authority of the instigator, the person trying to introduce the “foreign element” (“He is a nice guy, but he has no idea about the business. I have been working here for 20 years so I know what I am talking about.”
  • Avoiding the topic (“Let’s deal with this at the next meeting, shall we?”)

These are only a few examples of the many faces of resistance.

If you are a manager trying to facilitate the change process, it is important to remember at all times that the root cause of resistance is typically the fear of the unknown. Don’t just try to win the logical argument and convince people to change. This often creates antagonism, a “you against them” experience.

If you manage to address the underlying feelings by helping your colleagues to open up and talk honestly about their worries, hopes and confusion, chances are that common ground will unfold naturally instead an endless bitter argument.



Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.” (Alexis Carrel)

So here we are. This is the phase in the change process every change manager is afraid of. The old system is not working anymore. The new system is not working yet. Nobody seems to know what they are doing. It is CHAOS.

So what does the chaos phase of the organisational change actually look like? The picture is not rosy. Processes are slow because nobody understands them yet. Many mistakes are made; there can be serious quality problems. Senior people feel they have turned into novices again, and they resent it. Some people leave the company – among them many valuable colleagues. They need to be replaced.

“Has it been worth it?” employees keep asking. “Why the hell did we need to change the old system? This is much worse, this is not working.”

This is a tough time for employees. Coping with the new system and having to learn to work in new ways is hard.

This is a tough time for managers too. If things look worse than before, how can you convince anybody, including yourself that it will be worth it in the end? There is no evidence of that yet.

During the chaos phase the role of the vision is greater than ever. Everybody must know clearly what they are fighting for. No one can keep walking in the desert unless they can picture the oasis very clearly. Without that there is no point in struggling, we might as well turn back.

So what can leaders do to manage the chaos phase?

  • Have a very clear vision and communicate it early – start it well before the chaos phase reaches its peak. Make sure that employees know and understand why change is necessary and what positive results they can expect in the end.
  • Anticipate chaos and plan for it. Be aware that at some point during the transition, performance will certainly drop. Plan additional resources, make extra time for practice, prepare for training – whatever it takes to make the chaos stage as short as possible.
  • Provide forums for sharing information. The chaos phase will be considerably shorter if the employees concerned have a network of colleagues they can turn to with their questions and doubts. An environment in which people can admit to difficulties and ask questions instead pretending that they know it all.
  • Keep going. Don’t turn back at the signs of the first difficulties. Remember: there is no change without pain.



Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” (John F. Kennedy)

How can the chaos gradually give way to integration? It usually takes a so called “transforming idea”, a point when people involved in the change process discover that the transition has considerable benefits.

“Well, I have to admit this new IT module really helps to keep track of our clients’ complaints.” “I wouldn’t have thought that with this new organisational structure our team would be so much more visible. This is definitely and advantage.” When you hear more and more remarks like these, the organisation must be on the right track.

“But I kept telling you this right from the start!” the frustrated leader feels like saying. However, no matter how much the management team talk about the future benefits of the new system, people have to discover the advantages for themselves to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Following these first discoveries employees will start noticing more and more benefits. As they keep practicing, gain more experience with the new system, chaos gives way to integration and the level of performance starts increasing.

What can the leader of change do to facilitate this process?

  • Sub-goals and quick wins. Make sure that people have the opportunity to experience the benefits early on. Quick wins are essential. Don’t just focus on the ultimate goal, have some sub-goals set for people to reach.
  • Use the early adopters. In every organisation there are colleagues who embrace the new ways more quickly, people who will discover the advantages of the given change earlier than others. If you identify the most influential ones of them and make their voices heard, you will find that the transforming idea spreads in the organisation and the process of integration accelerates.


New status quo

We have a normal. As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.” (Robin Sharma )

Following the chaos and the integration the system finally reaches the new status quo. People are used to the new rules; they have practiced enough to be comfortable. This is a relatively stable state again, with the additional bonus of the performance being higher than in the late status quo.

Is there anything else to do as a change leader? Of course there is, even though it is easy to forget about it.

  • Celebrate success. The organisation has gone through a lot of hardship before reaching this final stage, so people involved must be acknowledged and praised.
  • Don’t get too comfortable. After all, what makes an organisation successful in the long run is not a successful transition, but the ability to go through the change cycle again and again.



There is no easy, chaos-free change process. What’s more, if a particular transition is suspiciously chaos-free, it might be a sign of the real changes not really happening…

The system needs the chaos to reach the new status quo. The manager’s role is not to eliminate chaos but to guide the organisation through it. Just like the captain of the ship in the middle of the storm: don’t try to stop the storm. Instead, prepare your men for it, be present and in charge during the storm and praise the team afterwards. And be ready for the next storm, as there will be another big change sooner or later.