Two Curves in Change Management

We’ve talked about the Red Flag in Asset Based Consulting as a typical mindset change case in the consulting industry. In this article, we’d like to extend the thinking by talking about two curves, Kubler-Ross Curve and Innovation Diffusion Curve.

First Glance

Both curves have years of research and sound theory behind them. What we’ll discuss below only represent our observation and point of view.

At the first glance, these two curves present more differences than commonalities:


  • different shapes: a “v” shape vs. “n” shape,
  • different Y axis: morale level vs. adoption percentage
  • different stages: we’ll talk more about these stages shortly


  • same trigger point: when a change happens
  • same X axis: time

Having glanced at these two curves, let’s explore them a bit more before we open our loud thinking.


Kubler-Ross Curve

The Kubler-Ross curve, also known as the “five stages of grief,” is a model developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. This model describes the emotional stages that individuals may go through as defence/coping mechanisms to change, loss or shock.

The five stages of the Kubler-Ross curve are:

  1. Denial: In the first stage, individuals may deny that they are experiencing any loss or difficulty. They may refuse to face a change that stands in front of them.
  2. Anger: As reality sets in, individuals may feel angry about their situation. They may express their angry through particular channels.
  3. Bargaining: In the third stage, individuals may try to negotiate their way out of their situation. They may make deals with a higher power or try to find a way to postpone the change.
  4. Depression: As individuals come to terms with their loss, they may experience certain level of sadness or depression.
  5. Acceptance: In the final stage, individuals come to accept their situation and begin to move forward.

Kubler-Ross curve nowadays has been widely adopted and used worldwide to explain the change process. We won’t drill too deep into the theory as it defeats the purpose of this article. More information about this model is available at Wikipedia’s Five Stages of Grief. Now let’s take the same level of exploration to the Innovation Diffusion Curve.

Innovation Diffusion Curve

The diffusion of innovations is a theory that explains how new ideas, products, or technologies spread through society over time. It was first proposed by sociologist Everett Rogers in 1962.

The diffusion of an innovation usually occurs in five stages:

  1. Innovators: The first group to adopt the innovation. They are usually a small group of people who are willing to take risks and are comfortable with new ideas.
  2. Early adopters: The second group who adopt the innovation are often opinion leaders and are well-respected in their communities.
  3. Early majority: The third group are usually more cautious than early adopters and will adopt the innovation only after they see that it has been successful for others.
  4. Late majority: The fourth group are often sceptical and will only adopt the innovation after it has become the norm.
  5. Laggards: The final group are often resistant to change and may never adopt the innovation.

More information about this model is available at Wikipedia’s Diffusion of Innovations.

By exploring the high-level definition and core components of these two curves, we can see that they are two distinct models. One describes emotions experienced by individuals and the other one talks about innovation adoptions by a population. So why we are bringing them together?

The Other Side of the Coin

As we mentioned in the commonalities section earlier, both curves have the same trigger point. That is when a change comes into the picture. When a change happens, usually it involves change receivers and change leaders. Both curves have been standing at the change receivers’ point of view, either being an individual change receiver or a group of change receivers. What about the change leaders?

A change may not always be introduced by human beings, e.g. it can be a natural environment change, illness, etc. We’d like to exclude these scenarios and just look at when a change is introduced by a person or a group of people.

From change leaders’ point of view, they are also going through the change journey with the receivers. Is there any framework or methodology that can help and guide change leaders to capitalize their transformation? The answer is yes, and there are actually quite a few:

  • Kurt Lewin’s Three Stages of Change
  • Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model
  • 7 Stage Nudge Theory
  • ADKAR Change Management Model

There are more theories and models that we haven’t listed here. Change leaders can choose a suitable model to support and guide them through the change journey.

As quoted by Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

We are not saying the change receivers are enemies of change leaders (well, to certain extent, maybe they are). But the point is, we have two curves showing what happens on the receivers’ side and many models guiding the leaders. It seems both sides are covered. Will change leaders always be successful in their change battles?

Now let’s bring in the second common element that we mentioned earlier – Time.


Let’s go back to the Kubler-Ross and Innovation Diffusion curves. Imagining that both curves are made of elastic springs. The change leaders are the ones who pull these springs from left to right, along the x axis, which is the time.

In many cases, we’ve seen that a change leader brought in a change as a one-time event. It’s like giving the spring a pull and let go. The result is obvious. The spring will quickly go back to its original shape. In some cases, the pulling to the spring lasts a bit longer and shows positive results, e.g. the spring is getting longer and longer towards the right direction. But without a sustained effort, this gain is still short-lived.

To pull the spring along the whole X axis, what’s needed is patience and persistent pulling over time.

Both curves are shedding lights on the other side of the tunnel. Over time the shape-memory of the spring will gradually reduce, and eventually the new shape will become the norm. Patience and consistent effort are required to overcome initial obstacles and build acceptance. Change leaders must shoulder the leadership and lead people to march down the X axis, and persistently champion and support the change effort.


Many change initiatives fail or do not have lasting impacts because they are introduced without a comprehensive approach or sustained effort. The change management frameworks provide guidance to change leaders on the comprehensive approach part. However, there is no framework to guide them on the sustained effort part. The Kubler-Ross and Innovation Diffusion curves are like GPS. When we know how the full journey looks, the rest is to keep driving through the journey. Given enough time and persistence, we’ll get there.

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About the Author: Richard Zhao

My name is Richard Zhao. I'm a solution architect and owner of Having built knowledge bases for many companies, I'd like to use this cloud studio to share knowledge and ideas with wider people on the internet.

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