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The J-Curve of Change

Updated: Jun 11

20 years ago, I published my first book; 'The Intranet Portal Guide'. It was a popular - if somewhat niche - title; drawn from my earlier 'Dig For Victory' web site. It was all about 'how to make the business case for a corporate portal, then successfully deliver' the project. Of course, portal technology has since moved on significantly, and the book itself is long-since out-of-print. However, one small component has more than stood the test of time; escaping the confines of its original context and taking on a life of its own, across the web: The "J-Curve" of Change.


At the time, I was exploring the Changefirst method for People-Centred Implementation (PCI®). Put simply, what is the difference between system installation and (true) change implementation? From my own experience, it struck me that when we say "change", most of our people hear "loss". In fact, they handle change (in process and technology) in much the same way as they might handle grief; first denial, then anger, bargaining, and depression, before finally (often reluctant) acceptance (i.e the Kübler-Ross model, first posited in 1969). I was also inspired by the Four Stages of Competence theory (developed around the same time), to explain the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill (often illustrated, by trainers, through the example of learning to drive a car).

The Transition State

I developed the J-Curve to summarise what happens during the transition from the current state (i.e. before the change was introduced) to the desired (end) state (i.e. when the benefits are fully realised). My contention was that most project stakeholders expect an almost immediate improvement in performance - the red line in the chart below. However, you have introduced instability and change into a system that (albeit sub-optimally) operated on comfortable and well-established habits. People take time to learn and adapt! So the reality will be that performance falls initially, even when the change is well-planned and executed:

After all, even if you buy a new and much better car, it takes a while to get used to the new controls, features, size and handling. It is inevitable that even the best trained driver would experience a period of reduced performance; perhaps struggling to park or handle curves.

Good Business Change Management

Without any change management whatsoever, the initial dip in performance is likely to be substantial; for example, if the new business process or system functions were very different, but those expected to operate them were given no training at all. This is reflected by the blue curve on the chart.

The job of the change champion is to minimise the initial period of disruption, through awareness-building, training, interventions and reward mechanisms. This is reflected by the green curve on the chart. However, it is also vital to manage stakeholder expectations; so they do not expect immediate, unrealistic performance improvement, bur rather hold their nerve - and support - until the desired state is reached and the benefits realised.

Final Thoughts

It's been a genuine pleasure to see this model picked up by others, over the years, as a simple but useful tool in the change management canon. For example, Richard Badham - Professor of Management at Macquarie Business School in Sydney - recently published a comprehensive new book on change - "Ironies of Organizational Change", featuring the 'J-Curve' model as one of the tools. I look forward to reading it - and seeing, no doubt, how he has improved upon it! In the meantime, I wish you all well with your own change efforts. It's never easy, but always rewarding.

Note: You can still read the Intranet Portal Guide on the Internet Archive, borrow it from the Open Library, or read excerpts on Google Books

© David Viney 2003-2023. Licensed for re-use with attribution under CC BY 4.0

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The <a href="">J-Curve of Change</a>, by <a href="">David Viney</a>, licensed under <a href="">CC BY 4.0</a>


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