September 14, 2020

Using the Satir Change Management Model On A Rapidly-Growing Software Team

By Wes Winham

Editor’s Note: This blog is a takeaway from our podcast, Scaling Software Teams. In our interview with Jacob Kaplan-Moss, we chatted about how he has helped fast-growth startups navigate “adolescence” and become more process-driven. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’re on a fast-growth software team, you know that change is inevitable. But when you’re a team leader within your organization, people will look to you to weather this change, and to help them determine what their future looks like.

That’s a lot of pressure, and so it’s vital that you find the right process to set reasonable expectations for your team – no matter what comes their way.

In our recent conversation with Jacob Kaplan-Moss, we discussed one such process – the Satir Change Model – and how it’s helped several fast-growth software teams navigate change without going off the deep end.

Listen to the full episode here.

Why Smooth, Gradual Improvements Are So Hard

When big pivots happen on a software team, every change can feel like life-and-death.

That’s in no small part due to the fact that, for many organizations, they are.

According to Small Business Administration data from 2014, only half of all new US businesses survive the first five years. More worryingly, a separate study of over 150,000 early-stage companies uncovered that startups struggle even more with sustainable growth. Only 7.5% of the startups were able to add jobs for three consecutive years, and even among the startups who were able to add jobs for three consecutive years, many saw job cuts in years four and five.

No two startups will face the exact same obstacles as they go to market or build their product, but almost every growing business will face the same internal challenges as their team grows – including internal communications, process development, and effectively adapting and pivoting as you grow.

So if your startup is going to defy the odds and attain sustainable year-over-year growth, you’ll need to develop a change-management framework that can help keep you afloat.

How The Satir Change Management Model Can Help Your Growing Software Team Navigate Change

The Satir Change Model has its roots in behavioral psychology, and is more people-centric than many management frameworks.

It theorizes that when unexpected or significant change happens, we go through a series of predictable stages:

  • Late Status Quo
  • Resistance
  • Chaos
  • Practice and Integration
  • New Status Quo

The purpose of this model is to focus on understanding the thoughts and feelings behind behavioral change than on the tactics of behavior change itself.

After all, employees who have to navigate this change are humans, and humans have emotions. Their ability to cope with a large organizational pivot is likely dependent on how their emotions are managed throughout the transitional period.

Unfortunately, change rarely goes smoothly. The way that you, as a leader, manage your team emotionally throughout this process could define your ability to navigate the change.

Identifying When You’re In Late Status Quo

In the Satir Change Model, the first step is understanding that you need to make a change. This manifests itself in “Late Status Quo.”

Late Status Quo is characterized by a feeling of stagnation in the organization. Every day feels the same as your team is locked into the same routine and is getting the same results.

Furthermore, the results you’re getting aren’t meeting expectations. Maybe you’re falling short with your clients, or not hitting the growth numbers your board is expecting. Maybe your team was high-performing, but expectations shifted faster than their ability to adapt.

Regardless of the reason, if your team’s results just aren’t measuring up, you’ve hit Late Status Quo.

Navigating Resistance By Setting Appropriate Expectations

If you’re in Late Status Quo, you’re likely to encounter something that will force your team to dramatically alter the way they approach their work. This could be as small as learning a new piece of information about your market, or as large as an event that leads to a tectonic shift in your industry. This is known as a “foreign object” in the Satir Change Model.

Your team will view the foreign object as an invader, and they’ll likely meet it with resistance and performance drop-off.

“You’ve got this system that’s moving along at some status quo. Everyone is pretty happy. They know how it works, but for whatever reason, you need to improve,” Jacob explains. “You introduce this change, which is immediately followed by resistance…  and performance drops.”

How you navigate this resistance, however, will dictate your ability to manage the rest of the Satir Change Model.

Begin by setting appropriate expectations, and establishing a few things:

  1. This change is real, and it’s permanent.
  2. We will be able to navigate this change and come out the other end in one piece.
  3. Your team can trust you to lead them through this without getting left behind.

“If you take a sample a couple weeks after that change, everyone’s going to think: ‘What the heck? We screwed up.’ That’s when, as a leader, you have to guide people,” Jacob said. “You have to be very deliberate about the changes you introduce because you know they will lead to this temporary disruption.”

If you set clear expectations at the onset of this process, however, you will provide psychological safety for your engineering team and make the next phase of change a bit more tolerable.

Weathering The Storm Of Chaos Through Trust And Credibility

Once your team overcomes their natural resistance and leaves “business as usual” behind, you will descend into Chaos. Your entire team will be in unfamiliar territory. Suddenly, the old ways old doing things won’t generate the same results as before. Performance will drop and your team will start to get nervous about their place in the organization.

In chaos mode, your team is likely to feel uncertainty about what they should be doing. Should they do more of what they were doing before, or less? Their behavior will likely become unpredictable, often driven more by emotion than logic.

Your temptation as a leader will be to find a way to shortcut or sidestep the Chaos stage, and it’s essential that you resist this urge. In behavioral psychology and organizational leadership alike, there is often a “transformative idea” that guides you from chaos to integration. This transformative idea is usually born of chaos, making chaos integral to the change management process.

Much like the foreign element that got us into this mess, the transforming idea is largely out of your control.

Instead, your role during the chaos phase of change management is to help the team by providing them with the support structures they need to navigate Chaos unscathed.

As Jacob told us, “There is going to be that moment where things are worse than they were before and people will say ‘why don’t we just give up?’ You have to be able to get people past that moment.” Focus on cultivating an environment where great ideas are recognized and implemented. This creates a context for learning and experimentation, which will ultimately lead your team to finding a method for implementing these organizational changes in a way that make sense within their context.

Integrating Change Without Fear Of Regressing Back Into Chaos

Once you’ve identified a potential transforming idea and your team is starting to get on board with organizational change, you may feel pressure as a leader to ensure that this change sticks, lest you regress back into chaos.

Management experts who use the Satir Model advise that you resist this urge.

Instead, encourage iteration and learning – the worst thing you can do is make this feel like the “new normal” before all the kinks are worked out. If your team starts to adapt to the New Status Quo before it’s fully baked, they’re more likely to descend back into chaos when necessary changes happen.

Instead, keep your focus on iteration here. Once you have created a culture where ideas are welcome and experimentation is expected, integrating change into your department will be easier.

If you’re in the Integration stage of the Satir Change Model, here are a few things you can do to keep your team in the right headspace for changes to stick:

  • Tell them it’s okay to fail.
  • Remind them that you’re still working out the kinks to the “new normal.”
  • Use words like “test” and “experiment” often to remind them that these systems are a work in progress.

Embracing The New Status Quo

You did it! Your team reached the New Status Quo phase! This occurs once your team has found the changes to the system necessary to hit their required goals and overcome the foreign object.

Productivity is back up, morale is high, and your team is falling back into a rhythm. Any feelings of animosity that your team may have felt towards the organization or larger industry forces have been quelled.

This is the new normal. When you onboard a new team member, they will be able to confidently say “this is how we do things around here.”

What’s next?

You may feel tempted to hold your breath and pray that this new, shiny status quo lasts forever… but it won’t.

Someday, this new, perfect solution will be considered the Late Status Quo, and you’ll likely have to lead your team through another round of the Satir model.

That’s okay! Change is inevitable. You can either choose to confront foreign objects and chart the course to a new, better status quo, or you can watch your company fade to irrelevance.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a system not just for dealing with change, but embracing it and using it as an asset.

More with Jacob Kaplan-Moss:

Managing Change in the Face of Rapid Growth, Part 1

Treating Engineering Teams Like Adults, Part 2


Do you need to make changes to how you hire software engineers?

Woven has helped fast-growth software companies navigate changes to their hiring process and could be a great solution to help you hire better developers. Request a demo of our software to learn more, and subscribe to the Scaling Software Teams podcast to receive discussions with high-growth software leaders every Monday.