Caution. Future.

How do people cope with change? In Virginia Satir's Change Model, the phase of chaos and uncertainty is crucial. This is where the seed for the new and better status quo lies, provided that it is possible to experiment with the new and integrate it profitably on the basis of a feeling of psychological safety. This can be well observed at the moment with the topic of the home office.

Then came Coro­na. From one day to the next, dis­trib­uted work from the home office became the New Nor­mal. Overnight, dig­i­tal­iza­tion was no longer just a dec­o­ra­tive acces­so­ry, but crit­i­cal to the sys­tem. COVID-19 has dri­ven dig­i­tal­iza­tion faster than CIO, CTO and CDO com­bined in the last few years. At least where orga­ni­za­tions have embraced this change to cre­ate a bet­ter future after Corona.

The Satir Change Model

How do peo­ple cope with change? To this end, fam­i­ly ther­a­pist Vir­ginia Satir has pro­posed a mod­el that can be eas­i­ly trans­ferred to change process­es in organizations.

A sta­ble sta­tus quo is chal­lenged by a for­eign ele­ment. This can be a new tech­nol­o­gy that threat­ens the exist­ing busi­ness mod­el (e.g. MP3 in com­bi­na­tion with broad­band Inter­net), a new com­peti­tor with a dif­fer­ent way of work­ing and high­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty (e.g. lean pro­duc­tion at Toy­ota) or per­haps a pan­dem­ic that shows us what VUCA means and how impor­tant respon­sive­ness and agili­ty are.

Prob­lems are not the prob­lem; cop­ing is the problem.

Vir­ginia Satir

After ini­tial resis­tance to the new, the inevitable con­fronta­tion with it leads at first to uncer­tain­ty and chaos and inevitably to a decline in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Depend­ing on the strength of this impulse and the will­ing­ness to deal con­struc­tive­ly with the for­eign ele­ment, this phase lasts more or less long until it is final­ly pos­si­ble to under­stand and use the oppor­tu­ni­ties of change. Lit­tle by lit­tle, the orga­ni­za­tion then suc­ceeds in inte­grat­ing the new and using it to its advantage.

Das Change Modell von Virginia Satir
Source: Steven M. Smith

This dia­gram from Steven M. Smith’s worth­while arti­cle illus­trates well the mod­el of Vir­ginia Satir, which con­sists of the fol­low­ing five stages

  • Stage 1: Late Sta­tus Quo
    We have sta­bil­i­ty. Rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es are sta­ble and well-estab­lished. Busi­ness as usual.
  • Stage 2: Resis­tance
    The proven sta­tus quo is chal­lenged by a for­eign ele­ment. The first reac­tions are denial, rejec­tion and resis­tance. The sta­tus quo is there­by to be pre­served as long as possible.
  • Stage 3: Chaos
    If the for­eign ele­ment can no longer be ignored or com­bat­ed, the sta­bil­i­ty of the sta­tus quo begins to become frag­ile. Rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es are sud­den­ly called into ques­tion. This leads to uncer­tain­ty, fear and chaos.
  • Stage 4: Inte­gra­tion
    In this stage the group rec­og­nizes how the once for­eign ele­ment can be prof­itably inte­grat­ed and used. Peo­ple change their per­spec­tive on the new, begin to exper­i­ment and gain expe­ri­ence. Lit­tle by lit­tle, despite set­backs and mis­takes in these exper­i­ments, new reli­able rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es emerge.
  • Stage 5: New Sta­tus Quo
    The for­eign ele­ment is now ful­ly inte­grat­ed. As in the pre­vi­ous sta­tus quo, rela­tion­ships, struc­tures and process­es are sta­ble and steady again. But hope­ful­ly on a high­er level.

Crisis as an Opportunity

Neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion. Even if it may not feel that way for every­one at first and cer­tain­ly not always, Max Frisch is essen­tial­ly right: “A cri­sis is a pro­duc­tive state. You sim­ply have to get rid of its after­taste of catastrophe.”

A crisis is a productive state. You simply have to get rid of its aftertaste of catastrophe.
Foto: ETH Library / CC BY-SA

This is espe­cial­ly true of the chaot­ic stage 3 in Vir­ginia Satir’s Change Mod­el. It is impor­tant to endure it and to get through it as fear­less­ly as pos­si­ble. In it lies the seed for the new and bet­ter sta­tus quo. And this seed thrives best when peo­ple are able to enjoy exper­i­ment­ing with the new and for­eign and ide­al­ly learn from each other.

How­ev­er, the deci­sive fac­tor is that lead­er­ship, espe­cial­ly now, on the one hand pro­vides psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty on the inside and, on the oth­er hand, ensures relent­less clar­i­ty about the sit­u­a­tion, the threat on the out­side and the joint strat­e­gy to fight it. If this suc­ceeds, one can hope for the cre­ativ­i­ty and moti­va­tion of the peo­ple con­cerned and thus for solu­tions and ways that no sin­gle cap­tain, how­ev­er bril­liant, could ever imagine.

The Thing About Home Office

Overnight, the Coro­na pan­dem­ic made dis­trib­uted col­lab­o­ra­tion the stan­dard for many knowl­edge work­ers. Even though mobile work­ing was already pos­si­ble in prin­ci­ple in many com­pa­nies, it remained the excep­tion. Work­ing from home always was sec­ond-rate, always a bit sus­pi­cious and there­fore had to be jus­ti­fied specif­i­cal­ly. Let’s not kid our­selves, in many places before Coro­na there was a dis­tinct cult of pres­ence and its cre­do was: Real work only takes place in the office and only under supervision.

This cre­do has now begun to fal­ter even in tra­di­tion­al Ger­man com­pa­nies such as Siemens and Allianz. In those com­pa­nies, the impulse of the coro­na pan­dem­ic after the phase of uncer­tain­ty was con­struc­tive­ly tak­en up and the for­eign ele­ment of a stan­dard dis­trib­uted coop­er­a­tion based on pur­pose and trust was suc­cess­ful­ly inte­grat­ed into a new sta­tus quo.

The prob­lem is not the prob­lem. The prob­lem is your atti­tude about the problem.

Cap­tain Jack Sparrow

The cri­sis was not used as an oppor­tu­ni­ty every­where. In many cas­es, how­ev­er, peo­ple have clung and con­tin­ue to cling des­per­ate­ly to the old sta­tus quo. The rather mod­er­ate­ly pro­duc­tive meet­ings sim­ply became even less pro­duc­tive video con­fer­ences. With a great deal of effort and dis­ci­pline, it was pos­si­ble to avoid being immersed in the chaos of Stage 3 in Vir­ginia Satir’s change mod­el for a few months. A con­fronta­tion with the new, how­ev­er, does not take place because the orga­ni­za­tion, led by a cap­tain who nev­er leaves the bridge and nev­er works in the home office under any cir­cum­stances, always remains in Stage 2 of resis­tance and denial.

Of course, from this per­spec­tive it is con­sis­tent to restore the old sta­tus quo as quick­ly as pos­si­ble under mas­sive safe­ty pre­cau­tions. But the ret­ri­bu­tion for this missed oppor­tu­ni­ty will come in a few years. On the one hand, com­pa­nies with­out mobile work­ing based on equal rights and self-deter­mi­na­tion will no longer be suf­fi­cient­ly attrac­tive as employ­ers. On the oth­er hand, the par­a­digm shift towards dis­trib­uted work as a stan­dard will also bring unprece­dent­ed momen­tum to dig­i­tal­iza­tion and, in the long run, this will sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty com­pared to the cur­rent sta­tus quo of the cult of presence.

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