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Change models can serve as a wayfinding tool for understanding the life design journey.

Life Design is fundamentally about change. And, life design is a journey more than a destination. Along the journey, consciously or not, we pass through some predictable stages of being and doing.

By providing a map of the territory, change models can reduce fear and anxiety of the unknown. Instead of feeling adrift, the models can provide a “you are here” and “this is what to expect, or strive, for next.”

The models motivate our forward progress by defining a progression of steps to work through. They also provide a structure for monitoring our progress along those steps.

By understanding change models and successfully navigating through the stages of change, individuals can experience a sense of empowerment and increased self-efficacy. They develop a belief in their ability to create positive change in their lives and they become more comfortable with change.

Change Models

Several of the models described below come from organizational change management; however, not all organizational change models usefully map to individual life design. Organization-level models reviewed for this article; however, in the end, are not recommended for life design are AIM Change Management Methodology, John Fisher Personal Transition Curve, Kotter’s 8 Steps for Leading Change, LaMarsh Change Management Model, Maurer 3 Levels of Resistance and Change, Mckinsey 7-S Model, Nudge Theory, and Satir Change Model.

For change models relevant to life design, we’ll start with two models from life design books. These two are what set me off to explore change models as I wondered what other models might inform a life design journey.

Martha Beck

Martha Beck in Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live and this article (2014) outlines four phases of human metamorphosis:

  • Dissolving (death and rebirth). This is where we lose our current identity. It can feel like everything is falling apart. It is the nature of this stage to feel as though it will never end. However, we will find ourselves being inexorably drawn through to the next phase.
  • Imagining (dreaming and scheming). This is where we start to imagine new directions and daydream about new possibilities. We try out imaginary scenarios, gather information, and set new goals.
  • Re-forming (the hero’s saga). This is where we go beyond imagining and into implementing our new plans. We will fail. Repeatedly. And that’s ok.
  • Flying (the promised land). This is the payoff for all that pain and hard work.

These phases map to the following 2×2 matrix from the article:

A 2x2 matrix. X-axis small-big moves. Y-axis action - ideas. Cells the phases in Martha Beck change model.

Joanne Lipman in Next!: The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work (2023) outlines a similar four-stage change model with the following steps:

  • Search: Gather information. Sometimes people may start to gravitate to a new field during this step.
  • Struggle: An uncomfortable, sometimes miserable, middle period. The struggle isn’t just necessary; in virtually every arena of transformation, it’s the key to finding a solution.
  • Stop: Taking a break—whether when you choose to stop or a break is forced on you—allows ideas to coalesce.
  • Solution: Come out the other side with the solution, completing the transition.

In some cases, the struggle is the catalyst rather than the search, such as with a health crisis or an unexpected job loss.

This is the only model that explicitly prescribes a Stop in the middle of the change process. Sometimes, amid the struggle, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to do nothing. Go for a walk in nature. Take a weekend off from whatever we are wrestling with. Allow our subconscious mind the time and space to work its magic.  

Next, we will look at the first two of three organizational change models that do map well to individual life design.

William Bridges and Kurt Lewin

William Bridges in Transitions (1980) offers a simple three-stage. The stages are Ending, the Neutral Zone, and New Beginning.

Ending

In this stage, individuals come to terms with the fact that the current situation or the “old way” of doing things is ending. It involves letting go of the familiar, which can lead to feelings of loss, uncertainty, and even resistance.

Neutral Zone

During this stage, people may feel anxious, confused, and unsettled as they move away from the old ways but haven’t fully embraced the new ones yet. One of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.

New Beginning

In this final stage, individuals start to embrace the new situation or change. They develop a new identity, find their place in the new structure, and gain a sense of direction and purpose.

All the way back in the 1940s, Kurt Lewin offered a similar three-stage organizational change model with the stages named Unfreeze, Change, and Refreeze.

ACE Cycle of Change

A third simple three-stage change model is the ‘ACE Cycle of Change’ from Dianne Stober and Anthony Grant in the Evidence Based Coaching Handbook (2006). In this case, the model is from the self-improvement tradition, in contrast to organization-level change.

A circle of blocks labeled Awareness, Choice, and Execution

Awareness

  • The first stage occurs as an individual begins to recognize and explore a gap between their current behavior and results and their desired behavior and results.
  • This is a time for gathering and reflecting on information regarding history, context, facts, and emotions.
  • The individual recognizes the need for change and has the motivation to proceed to the next stages in the change process.

Choice

  • The Choice stage involves developing and evaluating multiple options to address the gap(s) defined in the Awareness stage.
  • Options are evaluated against criteria such as knowledge and skills needed, perceived difficulty, relative motivation, readiness, risk, consequences, and the expected timeline.
  • The Choice stage can be a time of ambivalence as the individual weighs the pros and cons of changing.
  • Once an option is selected, a detailed plan with clear and achievable goals is created.
  • Assuming sufficient motivation, the individual moves into the Execution stage.

Execution

  • In this final stage, the individual implements the changes that they have committed to.
  • This can be the most challenging stage, as the individual must overcome any obstacles and setbacks. The stage requires dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to adapt as necessary.
  • Regular feedback and self-assessment to monitor progress is important in this stage.

ADKAR

A third well-known model from organizational change management is Prosci’s ADKAR change model. The model maps nicely to life design because it is based on the understanding that organizational change can only happen when individuals change. The ADKAR model focuses on individual change—guiding individuals through a particular change and addressing any roadblocks or barrier points along the way.

Unlike the other models described in this article, ADKAR isn’t so much a process to traverse through, but a list of five elements that need to be present for successful change. The five elements are:

  • Awareness – of the need for change
  • Desire – to participate and support the change
  • Knowledge – on how to change
  • Ability – to implement desired skills and behaviors
  • Reinforcement – to sustain the change

Transtheoretical Model

Another model from the self-improvement tradition is Prochaska and DiClemente’s six-stage Transtheoretical Model (TTM) from the late 1970s. This model comes from addiction recovery; however, it is applicable more broadly to life design. The six stages are:

  1. Precontemplation: In this stage, people do not intend to act in the foreseeable future (defined as within the next 6 months). People are often unaware that their behavior is problematic or produces negative consequences. People in this stage often underestimate the pros of changing behavior and place too much emphasis on the cons of changing behavior.
  2. Contemplation: In this stage, people are intending to start the healthy behavior in the foreseeable future (defined as within the next 6 months). People recognize that their behavior may be problematic, and a more thoughtful and practical consideration of the pros and cons of changing the behavior takes place, with equal emphasis placed on both. Even with this recognition, people may still feel ambivalent toward changing their behavior.
  3. Preparation (Determination): In this stage, people are ready to act within the next 30 days. People start to take small steps toward the behavior change, and they believe changing their behavior can lead to a healthier life.
  4. Action: In this stage, people have recently changed their behavior (defined as within the last 6 months) and intend to keep moving forward with that behavior change. People may exhibit this by modifying their problem behavior or acquiring new healthy behaviors.
  5. Maintenance: In this stage, people have sustained their behavior change for a while (defined as more than 6 months) and intend to maintain the behavior change going forward. People in this stage work to prevent relapse to earlier stages.
  6. Termination: In this stage, people have no desire to return to their unhealthy behaviors and are sure they will not relapse. Since this is rarely reached, and people tend to stay in the maintenance stage, this stage is often not considered in health promotion programs.

Kübler-Ross

It is not uncommon to experience grief as part of a life design journey. Grief may arise with leaving a past behind. This is especially true if a change is thrust on us as in an unexpected job loss. Even if we initiated our change, as frustrated as we may have become with our prior life, it was still a known identity that likely had some positives. Parting with the past is still a loss, even if we know for certain we are moving toward a brighter future.

The most well-known grief model is from Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying (1969). The five stages are:

  • Denial and Isolation
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Although many, including myself, have benefited from knowing the model, there is criticism. See; for example, Ada McVean (2019). One of the criticisms is that the model was conceived from observing emotions in terminally ill patients in contrast to the bereaved. This criticism actually supports using the model in life design with a figurative, not literal, death.

There is also an extended seven-stage version of the model that adds ‘Shock’ as a new first stage and ‘Processing Grief’ as the seventh stage.

PDCA Cycle

Lastly, manufacturing continuous improvement (Kaizen) is another discipline that can inform a life design self-improvement journey. The PDCA cycle is a core tenet within Kaizen. At its simplest:

  • Plan: develop a hypothesis
  • Do: run an experiment
  • Check: evaluate results
  • Act: refine your experiment; then start a new cycle

How might this look in life design? Imagine adopting a particular meditation routine. First, in the Plan phase, research various meditation practices and pick one to try. Do an experiment of (say) one week of daily practice. Check results. Does the meditation method provide the desired benefits? Is it something that you can imagine incorporating into your life long-term? If yes, Act to embed the new practice into your daily routine via more repetitions to the point that it becomes habitual. Then move on to Plan another lifestyle improvement experiment.  

Over to You

Have you ever consciously followed a change model in your self-improvement or life design journey? Which model or models did you use and did the model provide value? How so?
Regardless of any prior use, which model or models do find most appealing for use in a life design journey?

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