The Satir Change Model

by Steven M. Smith · 165 comments

Improvement is always possible. This conviction is the heart of the transformation system developed by family therapist Virginia Satir. Her system helps people improve their lives by transforming the way they see and express themselves.

An element of the Satir System is a five-stage change model (see Figure 1) that describes the effects each stage has on feelings, thinking, performance, and physiology. Using the principles embodied in this model, you can improve how you process change and how you help others process change.

Well Assimilated Change

Firgure 1. The impact on group performance of a well assimilated change during the five stages of the Satir Change Model.

Stage 1: Late Status Quo

The group is at a familiar place. The performance pattern is consistent. Stable relationships give members a sense of belonging and identity. Members know what to expect, how to react, and how to behave.

Implicit and explicit rules underlie behavior. Members attach survival value to the rules, even if they are harmful. For instance, the chief of an engineering group has an explicit rule — all projects must be completed on schedule. When the flu halts the work of several engineers, the chief requires the group to compensate by working ten hours a day, seven days a week. After experiencing too many crises at both work and home, the engineers begin to bicker and the project falls apart.

For this group, the chief’s explicit rule about deadlines is their Late Status Quo. They don’t necessarily enjoy the amount of work they had to do, but they know and understand what is expected of them. The team feels the pressure from the chief’s rule about deadlines and compensates accordingly. The pressure works for small problems. With a major problem, like the flu, the group cannot cope with the chief’s expectations and a pattern of dysfunctional behavior starts.

Poor communication is a symptom of a dysfunctional group. Members use blaming, placating, and other incongruent communication styles to cope with feelings like anger and guilt. Stress may lead to physical symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal pain that create an unexplainable increase in absenteeism.

Caught in a web of dysfunctional concepts, the members whose opinions count the most are unaware of the imbalance between the group and its environment. New information and concepts from outside the group can open members up to the possibility of improvement.

Stage 2: Resistance

The group confronts a foreign element that requires a response. Often imported by a small minority seeking change, this element brings the members whose opinions count the most face to face with a crucial issue.

A foreign element threatens the stability of familiar power structures. Most members resist by denying its validity, avoiding the issue, or blaming someone for causing the problem. These blocking tactics are accompanied by unconscious physical responses, such as shallow breathing and closed posture.

Resistance clogs awareness and conceals the desires highlighted by the foreign element. For example, a powerful minority within the marketing department of a tool manufacturer engages a consultant to do a market survey. She finds a disturbing trend: A growing number of clients believe that a competitor is producing superior quality products at a lower price. Middle and upper management vehemently deny the findings and dispute the validity of the survey methods. But after a series of frank discussions with key clients, upper management accepts the findings. They develop a vision for propelling the company into a position as the industry leader in product quality and support.

Members in this stage need help opening up, becoming aware, and overcoming the reaction to deny, avoid or blame.

Stage 3: Chaos

The group enters the unknown. Relationships shatter: Old expectations may no longer be valid; old reactions may cease to be effective; and old behaviors may not be possible.

The loss of belonging and identity triggers anxiousness and vulnerability. On occasion, these feelings may set off nervous disorders such as shaking, dizziness, tics, and rashes. Members may behave uncharacteristically as they revert to childhood survival rules. For instance, a manufacturing company cancels the development of a major new product, reduces the number of employees, and reorganizes. Many of the surviving employees lose their ability to concentrate for much of the day. Desperately seeking new relationships that offer hope, the employees search for different jobs. Both manufacturing yield and product quality takes a nosedive.

Managers of groups experiencing chaos should plan for group performance to plummet during this stage. Until the members accept the foreign element, members form only halfhearted relationships with each other. Chaos is the period of erratic performance that mirrors the search for a beneficial relationship to the foreign element.

All members in this stage need help focusing on their feelings, acknowledging their fear, and using their support systems. Management needs special help avoiding any attempt to short circuit this stage with magical solutions. The chaos stage is vital to the transformation process.

Stage 4: Integration

The members discover a transforming idea that shows how the foreign element can benefit them. The group becomes excited. New relationships emerge that offer the opportunity for identity and belonging. With practice, performance improves rapidly.

For instance, an experienced accounting group must convert to a new computer system. The group resists the new system fearing it will turn them into novices. But the members eventually discover that skill with this widely used system increases their value in the marketplace. Believing that the change may lead to salary increases or better jobs, the members begin a vigorous conversion to the new system.

Awareness of new possibilities enables authorship of new rules that build functional reactions, expectations, and behaviors. Members may feel euphoric and invincible, as the transforming idea may be so powerful that it becomes a panacea.

Members in this stage need more support than might be first thought. They can become frustrated when things fail to work perfectly the first time. Although members feel good, they are also afraid that any transformation might mysteriously evaporate disconnecting them from their new relationships and plunging them back into chaos. The members need reassurance and help finding new methods for coping with difficulties.

Stage 5: New Status Quo

If the change is well conceived and assimilated, the group and its environment are in better accord and performance stabilizes at a higher level than in the Late Status Quo.

A healthy group is calm and alert. Members are centered with more erect posture and deeper breathing. They feel free to observe and communicate what is really happening. A sense of accomplishment and possibility permeates the atmosphere.

In this stage, the members continue to need to feel safe so they can practice. Everyone, manager and members, needs to encourage each other to continue exploring the imbalances between the group and its environment so that there is less resistance to change.

I’ve observed groups, after many change cycles, become learning organizations?they learn how to cope with change. The members of these organizations are not threatened or anxious about the types of situations that they used to experience as foreign element. Instead, these situations excite and motivate them.

For example, the customer services group of a computer manufacturer learns to adapt their repair policies and techniques to any new product. Supporting a new computer system used to scare the group but not anymore. Management communicates and reinforces the vision of seamless new product support. Some members influence the design of support features for the new products. Other members plan and teach training courses. All members provide feedback to improve the process.

Postscript: Coping With Change

Virginia Satir’s Change Model describes the change patterns she saw during therapy with families. In my experience, the patterns she describes occur with any group of people when confronted by change.

I use this model to select how to help a group make a successful transformation from an Old Status Quo to a New Status Quo. Table 1 summarizes my suggestions on how to help during each stage of the change model:

Stage Description How to Help
1 Late Status Quo Encourage people to seek improvement information and concepts from outside the group.
2 Resistance Help people to open up, become aware, and overcome the reaction to deny, avoid or blame.
3 Chaos Help build a safe environment that enables people to focus on their feelings, acknowledge their fear, and use their support systems. Help management avoid any attempt to short circuit this stage with magical solutions.
4 Integration Offer reassurance and help finding new methods for coping with difficulties.
5 New Status Quo Help people feel safe so they can practice.
Table 1. Actions for each stage that will help a group change more quickly and effectively.

The actions in Table 1 will help people cope. Actions that inhibit coping retards an organization’s ability to make core changes. These organization are resisting the fundamental foreign element of change. But organizations that create a safe environment where people are encouraged to cope increase their capacity for change and are much more able to respond effectively to whatever challenges are thrown their way.

References

Satir, Virginia, et. al., The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, ISBN 0831400781, Science and Behavior Books, 1991.

Weinberg, Gerald M., Quality Software Management: Anticipating Change (Volume 4), ISBN 0932633323, Dorset House, 1997.

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to — Jerry Weinberg and Dani Weinberg for introducing me to the work of Virginia Satir; Jean McLendon for deepening my understanding about Satir’s work; David Kiel for sharing his insight into the Change Model; Naomi Karten for editing and improving this article; and my family and friends for teaching me about change and supporting me during my change efforts.

{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

therese fortier, LCSW January 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Thank you for creating such a nice presentation of a difficult concept for clients!
Therese

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Steven M. Smith January 4, 2010 at 3:07 pm

My pleasure, Therese. Thank you for the feedback.

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Marjie Carmen January 7, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Steve this is excellent to review and I appreciate your format. I’m printing it out and keeping it close at hand!

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Steven M. Smith January 7, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Thank you, Marjie. I appreciate you for sharing that feedback with me.

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Lisa Sligh January 25, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Really great model and description of stages. May I use this page, please, in my dissertation? I use Satir’s system in treating African-American inner-city kids who are assigned to special education.

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Steven M. Smith January 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Thank you for the feedback, Lisa. You have my permission to use the material in this article for your dissertation. Wishing you success with your work with students with special needs and your dissertation. -Steve

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Jim Regehr February 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Steven, your illustration of the change model captures the essence of Bridge’s work in transition. I am doing a dissertation on helping organizations, churches particularly, navigate through transition to new vision for ministry. I would like to use your illustration in my dissertation as well. Thank you for your thoughtful application of this model.

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Steven M. Smith February 25, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Jim, Thank you for the kind feedback. I’m happy I could help. Wishing you a speedy dissertation process, -Steve

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Roxio May 27, 2010 at 3:43 am

Thank you very much for this information. Good post thanks for sharing.

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Steven M. Smith May 27, 2010 at 6:49 am

Thank you for the feedback.

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Ming Chou June 14, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I’m learning “The Satir Change Model” now.Thank you very much for sharing this information.May I use it?

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Steven M. Smith June 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

Hi Ming, Thank you for your feedback.

I’m not sure what you mean by “May I use it?” I would be honored if you referred people to this copy of the article. If you wanted to share printed copies of the article, that’s different. I am tracking the articles usage. Once we agree on a print limit, I would welcome your use of the article. Contact me at steve@stevenMsmith.com for further discussion.

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Holger Nauheimer June 29, 2010 at 4:34 am

Are you sure this is a Satir model? It reminds me a lot of the Grief Cycle of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (http://www.change-management-blog.com/2009/07/change-model-2-grief-cycle.html). Who was first? Has Virina Satir called it a change model?

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Steven M. Smith June 29, 2010 at 6:57 am

Hi Holger, Yes, I’m sure it’s a Satir model. Please see the references at the end of the article. I don’t know who published their model first.

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nathan July 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

Can I use this model to describe changes in Government Reform in my thesis write up.

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Steven M. Smith July 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Yes, you may use the article as long as you credit me as the source for the material. I hope the model makes your thesis even more useful. Wishing you a speedy process.

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Joe Roberts, psychologist July 21, 2010 at 10:36 am

This is a very cogent presentation. I’m a student of medical informatics, and this model makes it easier to conceptualize the change process for medical information storage and
transfer to occur.

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Steven M. Smith July 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

Hi Joe, Thank you for the kind feedback.

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Chris Jackson October 27, 2010 at 7:05 am

please may I use some of this in an essay on Family systems for my degree in counselling and psychotherapy? Will fully credit, of course. Many thanks.

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Steven M. Smith October 27, 2010 at 10:08 am

Yes, Chris. Wishing you a successful and satisfying writing experience.

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Kelli January 26, 2011 at 8:54 am

Mr. Smith, you did a fantastic job of breaking down the Change Model in a way that makes a seemingly complicated system so simple. Thank you.

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Steven M. Smith January 27, 2011 at 11:56 am

You are welcome, Kelli. Thank you for the encouraging feedback.

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Stan Sorensen January 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm

My students have found your article and are discussing it enthusiastically! I am always happy to see Virginia’s work promoted, especially for marriage and family therapy. She was a fabulous person and therapist.

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Steven M. Smith January 29, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Thank you for the feedback, Stan. It’s music to my ears.

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Gregory Hegykozi March 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I plan on using information of this page in my class assignment related to communication and organizational change. I am in the University of Phoenix and I shall reference your material based on the University’s standards of APA format referencing. Thank you for the information and I really think this change model works better than Kurt Lewin’s change model of unfreezing, change, and refreezing.

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Steven M. Smith March 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Thank you for the feedback, Gregory. I appreciate you for notifying me about your plans to use the article. Wishing you success with your studies, Steve.

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Richmond Heath May 5, 2011 at 8:25 am

Dear Steven,
Thanks for your clear and consise outline of the change process. Given the turning point comes with a transformational idea – thought you would appreciate this one!!….. the shaking you describe as a symptom of resistance is called ‘neurogenic tremors’ – they are the bodies innate mechanism to unwind and come back out of defence physiology. Rather than being seen as a symptom, they can be deliberately initiated to assist people to move through their defence physiology more effectively in order to generate that transformational idea that shifts them to a higher level of reorganisation and move more gracefully through change. An efficient summary article on this is available at http://www.trauma-release-exercises.com.au/neurogenic-tremors . I would welcome to the opportunity to discuss this with you further. I can be contacted via treaustralia@hotmail.com If you consent I would also like to provide a link to this article of yours on my website to provide people with this clear consise overview of change. Much love, Richmond

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Steven M. Smith May 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Thank you making contact with me, Richmond. I hadn’t heard of “neuronic tremors.” I appreciate you for sharing background information about them. I consent to you linking to this article from your website. Best regards, Steve

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evonne July 10, 2011 at 3:09 am

can this model be used in a single person rather than a group?

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Steven M. Smith July 10, 2011 at 7:51 am

Yes, Evonne, the same principles apply.

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Roberto July 28, 2011 at 12:13 am

on the time axis, what is a correct rate between the duration of two “status”? If, after a resistance of 2 week, we can see a “chaos”, we must suppose to wait 6 weeks to get better (integration) ? and other to get the new Status Quo? and if we can see any better performances and chaos continues for a long time?

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Steven M. Smith July 31, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Hi Roberto, There isn’t a correct rate: The graph depicts a well assimilated change. Although I wish I could provide you with estimated durations, it would be silly of me to do so. Each change is different: The people are different and the desires are different. Formulaic answers are of little use except for trivial change. My experience is that well assimilated change happens when its agents know the system; create context that is meaningful to the members of the group; enable people inside the system to work things out themselves; and remove obstacles to change. Wishing you success with your change efforts.

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Juana Velez August 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm

This information on the Satir Chance Model, has come across to me in perfect timing in my health and compassion journey. Thank you for your cooperation.

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Steven M. Smith August 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Thank you, Juana, for the kind words. Wishing you a journey filled with happiness.

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erin August 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Hi Steven,
As many others have said, I really appreciate the effort you have put into making a useful and interesting diagram/explanation of Satir’s change model. Shortly, I will be speaking with parents of first year university students and I think this model can be easily adapted to address the process of change as students start in university (both for parents and students). Would it be ok to use your diagram?
Thanks a bunch,
Erin

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Steven M. Smith August 18, 2011 at 9:30 pm

My pleasure, Erin. You have my permission to use the diagram if you include the copyright and a reference to the article.

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Antony Marcano January 23, 2012 at 2:32 am

Hi Steven,

Does this generally apply or do you need to know how it’s going to be used?

I want to use it (with attribution) alongside slides for presenting the ideas in this article:

http://antonymarcano.com/blog/2010/11/my-tack-on-effective-change/

Many thanks,

Antony

Sandra Smith August 31, 2011 at 9:24 am

Hi Steven,

Thanks for sharing this concise, clear and well-written summary. Much appreciated!

I’m also looking at Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model as a communication tool/strategy for major change within a not-for-profit organization (as it has been used in the past and I don’t want to continue to introduce ‘new’ tools). I am considering using Kotter’s model as an overlay on Satir’s Change Model as I think the latter would resonate more effectively with staff.

What are your thoughts on combining change management models (such as Kotter and Satir) in staff workshops and communication strategies?

Best,

Sandra

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Steven M. Smith September 1, 2011 at 6:59 am

Thank you for the warm feedback, Sandra.

I believe your clients would benefit from hearing about both models. Each emphasizes different ideas about change management. I can visualize how you could leverage the models to generate a fruitful workshop discussion about how to approach the change the organization faces.

Go for it. Wishing you success, Steve

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Aaron Scott Donovan October 20, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Hi,
Is this model also known as Satir’s Humanistic-Experimental Model? I’m doing a project on this model but i cant seem to find it anywhere. Thanks

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Steven M. Smith October 22, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Hi Aaron, I’ve never heard of the Satir Change Model referred to as Satir’s Humanistic-Experimental Model.

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T. S. Jeou November 9, 2011 at 9:46 am

Hi Steven, I’m not a professional counsellor but have gained meaningful knowledge and skills while doing volunteer with not-for-profit organizations. I believe in helping people as I always said, “people need people, and people help people”. I really appreciate that people like your goodself are willing to share. Your article is very well written and I really enjoy reading it. I can agree with Gregory, and I thought your Change model could be more effective the one of Kurt Lewin’s. I would like to ask for your permission to using your Change model in training. Of course, full credit will definitely by given to your good name. Many thanks!

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Steven M. Smith November 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Hi T.S., If you are using the online version of the article, you have my permission. Otherwise, if you intend to distribute copies, you have my permission to use up to 500 copies.

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Nicolas Mereaux November 12, 2011 at 9:45 am

Dear Mr Smith, I’ve found your article so useful that I translated in French.
I was so excited by the translation that I forgot to ask permission, please forgive me.
You could find the translated article at the following url http://agilarium.wikispaces.com/Le+modèle+du+changement+de+Satir
Thank you for this article.

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Steven M. Smith November 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Hi Nicolas, That news is indeed a surprise. Until now, I don’t believe any of my articles have been translated. I take it as a compliment. Thank you for letting me know.

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Dominica DeGrandis December 5, 2011 at 11:05 am

Hi Steven, May I have permission to use your J curve image in my Seattle Ignite talk? Attribution will be provided.
Thank you,
Dominica DeGrandis

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Steven M. Smith December 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Hi Dominica, You have my permission to use the graph in your Seattle ignite talk. Wishing for you an energizing experience before, during and after the talk.

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Marvin Malvar March 14, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Hello Mr. Smith, I have a presentation to make for a cap stone class in school pertaining to anything economic related. May I please have permission to use the material you have outlined here on the Satir Change Model for my presentation. The information is so intuitive that I think spreading such wisdom would be very beneficial, especially amongst university students. Thank you for your time.

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Steven M. Smith March 15, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Hi Marvin, You have my permission to use the material in your presentation. The only thing that I ask of you is to provide the audience with the link to this article. My best wishes for an engaging presentation for your audience and you.

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myunghee December 27, 2012 at 4:07 am

I love satir very much.

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Rachel February 15, 2014 at 12:30 am

Dear Steve

I am preparing an assignment for organisation change, can I use your article on the Satir change model as reference for my assignment?

Thanks & best regards
Rachel

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Steven M. Smith March 6, 2014 at 10:03 am

Yes, you can, Rachel.

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Jason Kluttz May 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Hello Steve, Thanks for such an insightful article. I am completing my senior research project at Brandman University on understanding and helping followers overcome primal fear of change within an organizational context. Because of your article, I was introduced to the work of Virginia Satir, and am including her work in my research project. This has proven to be a rewarding and enlightening experience.

May I please reference your article and cite you in my research project?

Thanks in advance, Jason

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Steven M. Smith July 5, 2014 at 7:35 am

Yes, you may. Thank you for asking.

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Sukumar Daniel July 25, 2014 at 1:18 am

Hi Steve,

My work over the past 10 years has been in the field of transforming the way IT organisations inside large corporate function.

While I have been applying Kotter’s method for practically working for change, I recently came across the Satir Curve and with further googling came across your valuable article that outlines the concepts very clearly.

I would like to provide use your illustration when I talk to senior executives and use it to explain what can be expected during the change and how they can impact beneficially.

Request your permission.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

With warm regards,

Sukumar

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Steven M. Smith July 25, 2014 at 8:37 am

Thank you for the feedback, Sukumar. You have my permission to share the illustration with your executives. Wishing you a productive conversation.

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Steven M. Smith February 23, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Hi Antony, I like your article. You are doing excellent work. My apology for the slow response. You have my permission to use the ideas from the article, with attribution, in your presentation.

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