The Satir Change Curve

How much change can your organization or group take on with ease and grace?

That’s one of the fundamental questions to ask on your agile journey. On the one hand, big changes can produce big results but they are risky. On the other hand, small changes are low risk but they are slow. In the 1960s, family therapist Virginia Satir introduced a mental model that helps navigate this issue. The “J Curve” or “Change Curve” as it is often called looks like the image below. The width of the curve is the ‘time to value’ and the depth of the curve is the ‘cost of value.’ The Y axis is a metric (such as time to market) and the X axis is time.



The curve suggests asking two questions:

  • The Patience Question: How quickly does the change need to show benefits?

  • The Money Question: How much is the organization willing to invest in the change?

Let’s do an example. You listen to your organization and learn that the next change needs to show a benefit within one month and cost no more than $100K. You are considering moving from manual builds to CI/CD. A quick survey of the literature shows that this change will take many months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hence, this exceeds the ability of the organization to change and will probably be unsuccessful if attempted. Not respecting the change curve can lead to trouble. If a change takes too much time or costs too much money, then the change will fail. Respecting the change curve will help you guide your organization on its agile journey by choosing appropriately sized changes.

Michael de la Maza

I am an agile coach and an angel investor. As an agile coach, I have consulted and trained at dozens of companies. Major agile coaching engagements have been with Paypal, State Street, edX, Carbonite, and Symantec. I typically begin with culture first and then proceed to process improvement and business results. I believe in a non-confrontational, non-coercive approach to change in which people are invited to be and act in a new way. This takes the pain out of agile transformations.

With Rob Rubin, an online education pioneer and the Founding VP of Engineering at edX, I recently created, an online agile education portal that we plan to grow until it has the best agile content and the best learning platform.