September 16, 2020
A “change curve” is a model used to help predict how employees will react during periods of personal transition and organizational change, in order to support them with what they need to move forward. The way we respond to organizational change determines how we journey along the change curve. Everyone’s change pace is individual, and we can expect various levels of challenge for ourselves and for those around us.
UWFT's Change Curve Model
UWFT has identified four stages in the program’s change curve model: Awareness, Understanding, Support and Ownership. How we move through the change curve depends on our personality and how we adapt to change. It’s helpful to understand these differences as we gauge likely responses to new situations and information. Such insight allows us to adjust messaging, provide deeper information or additional training to enable a smoother transition toward the end goal of acceptance and ownership. With the crux of the program currently in the Awareness stage, UWFT’s goal is to support all employees to move from any unknowns within a stage toward ultimate acceptance, and to help minimize disruption caused by any and all UWFT activities, throughout the life of the program.
The UW has seen many transformations and transitions over the years. A recent example is the Burke Museum’s new building and re-opening.
To gain perspective on navigating a big change, we spoke with Julie K. Stein, executive director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. She was given the mandate to redesign and build the new Burke Museum, which meant securing funding, vetting and approving the building design and guiding the plan and changes for its future state. Her change curve experience comes at the organizational level, both as a participant and as someone who manages a large staff. Looking at Stein’s journey illuminates the various stages of a change curve model.
Awareness and Understanding
Building the new Burke Museum took 10 years, and there were plenty of preparations and approvals before they broke ground in 2016. For Stein, the weight of those decisions was revisited again and again as stumbling blocks arose. A particularly large one was having to reject the initial building designs. They were not very compelling or inspirational. As Stein puts it, “Where was the bigger, bolder, more Inspirational design?” She is a firm believer in “Big ideas bring big changes.”
She began her change journey at the awareness level, mixed in with a little surprise. She then found herself moving into understanding mixed in with confusion. She had questions like, “Can we do this?” but didn’t feel she had the option to even think about turning back. She was dedicated to pressing forward despite setbacks. Eventually, she was able to approve a strong and exciting building design.
Stein’s staff were at the same place on the change curve -- Awareness. They were excited at the prospect of a better building. The old Burke museum -- built in the 1960s -- suffered from cramped spaces including outdated restrooms and no air conditioning, among other issues. To add to the excitement, Stein had a bold idea that captivated everyone.
“Turn the museum inside out so that people can see and interact with the 16 million objects in our collections. We want them to know about the research and magic that is happening behind the scenes.” Stein based her idea on the way she had been conducting behind-the-scene tours and the excitement and sense of wonder those tours created. Everybody loved the idea.
As the plan sunk in, however, Stein began to see some reluctance set in when folks realized that they would be working where people could see them all the time. There were plenty of variations on the comment, “working in a fishbowl.” Staff were beginning to think of themselves and what their day-to-day would look like—very different than their previous setting.
To work through this, exhibits staff came up with the idea of creating a prototype lab in the galleries of the old Burke. Workers had to commit to working in the lab for one month so they could get a feel for what work would be like in future state.
As a way of breaking down barriers of the “unknown” and bring her staff along their change curve journey, the visible lab idea was a success. One of the most vocal and reluctant staff members said after being in the lab setting, “Hey, this is pretty cool.” This action led to better understanding for many on the change curve. Work in the labs continued up until the doors of the old Burke closed.
Some other actions worked to provide confidence for her staff. Stein focused on “All Staff Retreats.” She’d invite someone to the retreat who could share their own inside-out experiences, which her staff loved.
What Stein really found helpful was walking around and talking to people, what UWFT calls “active listening.” She learned that listening is hard, especially when you’re trying to press forward. She had a line, “Well it’s gonna’ happen,” as a gentle way of reminding them that they were going forward even with the concerns folks expressed.
Support and Ownership
In January 2019, the old Burke closed to the public. There were still a handful of people who were uncomfortable moving their offices to their fresh, unknown workspaces in the New Burke. They held onto their old desks and other items from their old offices. Even though they would move a few boxes, they still worked in the old building.
Stein recounts, “Funny story. Within a month or two, once settled in and working, these once reluctant staffers started purging their old stuff they had taken over to the New Burke.” She recognized that once these staff members felt secure, they could let go.
One thing not anticipated was how changing the physical location also changed people’s relationships. Folks that had been sitting near each other for years were no longer in the same positions. People were saying, “I don’t know where you are,” and “I don’t feel welcome to go to your office” to various workmates and managers.
Reconciling these new circumstances and feelings becomes part of taking ownership and problem-solving. Stein started creating opportunities to socialize by doing random breakout groups comprised of staff from unrelated areas as well as familiar faces. This camaraderie solution was working well into early 2020 before they had to adjust to working remotely when the museum temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19. Now Stein is preparing staff for the re-opening of the museum and what they will entail. Clearly, there is still transformation happening at the New Burke.
Looking back at the successful opening and bringing her team along the change curve journey, Stein recognizes that it was the transformation and shared experience -– with all its ups and downs -- that bonds them, “We built the Burke. We were part of making something big happen for the UW.”
Editor’s note: If you have questions or need clarity around UWFT, need support along your own change curve journey or if you’d like to suggest a future blog post topic, please reach out to email@example.com.