Is the change curve a myth?

Is the change curve a myth?

Change curve

A recent discussion on LinkedIn asked if the change curve was a myth or not. This was based on this blog post suggesting or rather stating it is a myth. So I decided to look into it from a research point of view:


The original change curve was not actually meant to be about organisational change at all. It was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in papers published in 1969 and 1970 in the The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine in which she described the five stages of grief in what was originally called the Kubler-Ross model for death and bereavement counselling, personal change and trauma.

Between 1963 and 1971 Dr. Walter Menninger a senior psychiatric consultant for the Peace Corps conducted a study (published in 1975) looking at how Peace Corps volunteers reacted to deployment abroad. He concluded with a model that almost mirrored Kubler-Ross’s.

In 1976 three British researchers; Adams, Hayes and Hobson published a book called ‘Transition: Understanding and Managing Personal Change’ in which they analysed the effects of many different types of change on humans in a wide range of situations. This work also showed a similar profile of reactions to change which conformed closely to the work of Kubler-Ross and Menninger. In 1990 a paper published by the researchers Dottie Perlman and George Takacs in the journal Nursing Management noted that there were striking similarities between Kubler-Ross and Menninger’s models of personal reactions to change and what actually happens during organisational change in health organisations. This work was finally transformed into what is now seen as the classic change curve by Schneider & Goldwasser in 1998.


But is there any evidence?


But what about the evidence that this actually happens in organisations?

Well there are a few papers that looks at this. In 1999 researchers from The University of Alabama conducted a series of studies which validated the initial performance decline and subsequent improvement in performance during team change events in a couple of organisations. Then in 2002, a paper published by researchers from the US entitled “The Death Valley of Change” reviewed much of the previous research evidence for the performance curve and also conducted their own study. They found that 13 of 15 previous studies had also found valid evidence for the existence of all of the elements of change curve.

In 2010 a paper published by researchers from universities in Finland and the US entitled ‘Empirical validation of the Classic Change Curve on a software technology change project’ found that change in IT change projects closely fits the change curve.


So there you have it.


The myth of the change curve is itself a myth. The change curve, on the basis of the research evidence, does exist and is a real phenomenon.


Now does this mean that there will always be a dip in performance during organisational change?


In a book published in 2015, German authors Klaus Leopold and Siegfried Kaltenecker note that the dip in performance in the change curve occurs when the change necessitates that the people in the organisation have to unlearn old behaviours, processes and systems and learn new ways of doing things. Also new systems and processes need to be embedded in the organisation and made to fit with existing structures and processes. They argue “During the process of change, it is almost always the case that something new must be learned and, as is all too frequently forgotten, something old must be unlearned. Structures must be brought to life; processes practised; competences acquired; patterns of behavior cultivated.” (p110)


If the organisational change does not require learning and unlearning it is entirely possible that the people and organisation will not go through the change curve. However I am not sure what kind of change does not necessitate learning and unlearning at some level.

There is a followup to this post Is there always a performance dip during change –


Another myth or is it true? Do 70% of change projects really fail?



Adams, J.D.,Hayes, J. and Hobson, B. (1976), Transition: Understanding and Managing Personal Change, Martin Robertson, London.

Elrod, P. D., & Tippett, D. D. (1999). An empirical study of the relationship between team performance and team maturity. Engineering Management Journal, 11(1), 7-14.

Hopson, B. (1981). Transition: understanding and managing personal change. In Psychology and Medicine (pp. 323-348). Macmillan Education UK.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). Five stages of grief: kubler-ross model for death and bereavement counselling, personal change and trauma.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1970). The Care of the Dying—Whose Job is it?. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1(2), 103-107.

Leopold, K., & Kaltenecker, S. (2015). Organizational and Personal Change. Kanban Change Leadership: Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement, 110-121.

Menninger, W. W. (1975). The meaning of morale: a Peace Corps model. Business and society in change. New York, NY: American Telephone and Telegraph Co.

Nikula, U., Jurvanen, C., Gotel, O., & Gause, D. C. (2010). Empirical validation of the Classic Change Curve on a software technology change project. Information and Software Technology, 52(6), 680-696.

Perlman, D. and Takacs, G.J. (1990), The ten stages of change, Nursing Management, Vol. 21 No. 4, April, p. 33

Schneider, D. M., & Goldwasser, C. (1998). Be a model leader of change. Management Review, 87(3), 41.

Be impressively well informed

Get the very latest research intelligence briefings, video research briefings, infographics and more sent direct to you as they are published

Be the most impressively well-informed and up-to-date person around...

Powered by ConvertKit
Like what you see? Help us spread the word

David Wilkinson

  • Vanessa Brooks says:

    Hi David
    I am referencing your blog post in my dissertation on leadership. I hope that is ok with you. So I can cite you correctly, could you tell me when this was published? Regards Vanessa

  • A useful article, thank you. The simpler the model the easier it is for it to fit most circumstances, and for more people to relate to it. I fear that this is the case with the Kubler-Ross one. While you’ve cited one bit of research that validates it, there’s more that doesn’t – both in the specific field of grieving and elsewhere. However, perhaps the final word ought to go to EK-R herself, who said that she regretted writing about the different responses to grief in a way that implied a predictable linear progression, and that in practice most people merely experience two or more episodes out of the repertoire of five.

  • Michelle Saykally says:

    Hello David. Excellent work. I have used the change curve (always crediting the original work of Kubler-Ross) for years in my organization change management work. Recognizing that change really happens a person at a time, the change curve realities enable change practitioners the opportunity to integrate kindness and compassion into their work. Thank you, again, for this validating research. Michelle Saykally, Consulting Excellence Inc. US.

  • Jullian Barker says:

    Brilliant. It’s nice to see some proper research on the internet at last. Thank you. Jullian

  • David Wilkinson says:

    Hi Gail,
    Thank you for the feedback. Yes please do share. There is plenty more where this comes from in The Oxford Review. Why not subscribe its 1/2 price over Easter. 😉
    Take care

  • David Wilkinson says:

    Hi Barry,
    Thanks for this. I have sent you an email. I look forward to talking. I hope you enjoy the Oxford Review. All of our members rave about it.
    Take care

  • Gail Bottomley says:

    Great post. Thank you. In fact they are all interesting posts. I will share some of them with my people if that’s alright.


  • Barry Wilson says:

    Hi David,
    This is a really useful post. It amazes me just how much unsubstantiated rubbish people put on the internet. It’s nice to know that someone (you) can actually talk facts. I was looking at your journal. I have just signed up. Can you contact me as I think we could do something together to offer this resource to members of a community I run.

  • >