When considering organizational changes, it may be helpful to look to a theory of change from the world of psychology Prochaska and DiClemente’s (1984) Transtheoretical Model. This model, which was originally based on changing health related behaviors, such as helping people quit smoking, proposes a semi-linear path towards change from not contemplating change at all, to actively making and maintaining a change. In the five stages of change, the change itself doesn’t occur until the fourth stage, highlighting a great deal of prior preparation and planning that is necessary in order for the change to be successful and lasting.
The first of the five stages is the Precontemplation Stage. In this stage, an individual is not actively seeking to make a change at all, and is perfectly happy remaining static with the behavior they are currently exhibiting. Here, individuals usually deny the need to change, or may not be consciously aware at all, of an overriding need to do things differently. Using a behavior such as smoking as an example, a smoker might make statements such as “I enjoy smoking, why would I quit?” Or deny overriding research related to the deleterious health effects of smoking, or make statements such as “I’m going to die anyway, so why not smoke?” There is evidence to suggest that we tend to stick to our own ways of thinking or dig in further when presented with refuting evidence to the contrary, what is called a confirmation bias. In therapy in the precontemplation stage, we spend a majority of our time just convincing people of the need to change. This at times is an arduous task, which is a task of education and presentation of evidence. Arguably, of the five stages of change, moving people (or organizations) off of stage 1 may be the most important step in the stage process, due to the intractable nature of people or organizations related to the confirmation bias. If someone is successful getting someone to the next stage, a great leap in therapy (or organizational change) has been made.
The second stage in the process is the Contemplation Stage. This is a stage where an individual tends to start to get ready for a change, but is not quite there yet. They have heard the arguments, and are beginning to think about behaving differently. They are still in a stage of stasis however, caught between the dissonance of pros and cons of changing. Being stuck here prevents movement to actually take productive action. A good way of convincing people (and organizations here) is to continue to highlight the pros of changing, offering several examples and models, as well as highlighting the cons of not changing. If successful, the individual will make a cognitive leap into the change process, convinced of its benefit.
The Third stage is called the Preparation stage, where individuals are actively taking the necessary steps to change. In the smoking world it could be developing a plan to reduce the amount of cigarettes smoked, or developing a timeline to begin, or actively talking with others about it. In this stage, we can actively develop a partnership with people (or organizations) to help them with their plans, and to develop a plan for the future.
The fourth stage is the actual behavior change stage Action . Individuals have acted on their plans, and are moving ahead. We can help individuals in this stage by encouraging the implementation and fighting the temptation to move backwards.
Finally, the fifth stage is Maintenance, where individuals work on continuing the change into the future and are flexible with developing plans around roadblocks that develop related to the change. In this stage, particularly in the beginning, individuals may need the most support from others who are on board with them.
These stages can easily apply to organizational change the same way. Take an initiative such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) for example. If an organization were considering moving to such a philosophy, in the beginning it would take the convincing of key stakeholders to make the change. This may entail talking to key leaders in the school district or a school board about the need to make a change. If an organization moved to a contemplation stage, it would begin to see the benefits, but not be ready for action. Here we can provide research studies to key stakeholders, and visit model schools where they conduct it well. In a preparation stage, we can form organizational committees, and talk with faculty at faculty meetings about the positives of change. We can begin to fill out a team and convince staff to collaborate and get on board with planning. The next stage would be the change itself, which would entail the intervention moving forward. Finally, with maintenance, we would need good leadership to anticipate roadblocks, and to help team members feel fresh and excited about the program, and the staff as well.
The Transtheoretical model has mainly been used in an individual therapy model; however, the processes of change in an organization are exactly parallel in nature. To effectively make a change, we need to spend most of our time and energy in the stages prior to the actual action stage itself, in planning and preparation. If appropriate time is spent here, getting investment in change, much of the rest of the process tends to fall in line. Let’s hope that we spend the time and energy planning and getting investment from key stakeholders in order for our changes to having meaningful and lasting benefits.
Prochaska, JO; DiClemente, CC. The transtheoretical approach: crossing traditional boundaries of therapy. Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin; 1984. ISBN 0-87094-438-X.