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Using The Fisher Change Curve to Build Empathy

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to John Fisher, a constructivist psychologist, about the Fisher Change Curve and its relevance to technologists as bringers of change and in coping with change themselves.

Key Takeaways

  • The Fisher Change Curve is a model that helps individuals navigate the process of change by understanding the impact on their sense of self and guiding them towards successful commitment to change.
  • Technologists should care about the change curve because it emphasizes the importance of understanding the emotional connection people have with the products they use to create more effective and user-friendly products.
  • The change curve can also be applied to team dynamics and organizational change by helping helps leaders understand how individuals may react to change and provides insights on how to effectively implement change within teams.
  • Effective communication is crucial in navigating change. Leaders should adapt their communication styles to meet the needs of their team members and understand individual preferences to find the best ways to engage and communicate with each person.
  • Coaches can play a valuable role in helping individuals and teams navigate change. They provide support, guidance, and challenge individuals to think critically about their own behaviors and approaches.


Shane Hastie: Hey folks, it's Shane Hastie here. Before we start today's podcast, I wanted to tell you about QCon London 2024, our flagship international software development conference that takes place in the heart of London next April 8 to 10. Learn about senior practitioners' experiences and explore their points of view on emerging trends and best practices across topics like software architecture, generative AI, platform engineering, observability and secure software supply chains. Discover what your peers have learned, explore the techniques they are using, and learn about the pitfalls to avoid. Learn more at We hope to see you there.

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today, I'm sitting down almost directly on the other side of the world from my guest, John Fisher. John, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

John Fisher: My pleasure, Shane, and thank you for having me on the podcast.

Shane Hastie: So, my normal starting point with a guest is who's John?

Introductions [01:15]

John Fisher: Yes, thank you. As a psychologist nowadays, that's an interesting question. Who am I? And I'm sure many a morning I've woken up with that same thought in my mind. I started life in a small country village on the edge of an area in the North of England called the Yorkshire Dales. So, it's an area of outstanding natural beauty. Part of it, just six or seven miles north of where I was born, was featured in the later Harry Potter films where they were hiding on the limestone pavements. That wasn't far from my birthplace and born just outside Skipton in North Yorkshire. I joined the Air Force at 16 as a technical apprenticeship working on aircraft radar systems primarily, but also worked on aircraft radio systems both at component level, as well as black box level on the aircraft themselves, and then moved on to aircraft simulators, so working primarily as an installation test and commissioning engineer, but also responsible for designing hardware and software modifications for aircraft simulators.

So, I had the pleasure back in those days of learning something called COREL, which when my sister first did my first CV, she thought I'd said COBOL, and put that on there, and also learned FORTRAN and still think sometimes in if-thens, but around 30 realized that that wasn't the life for me, bit of a poster boy for the imposter syndrome and just never felt comfortable. And I suppose as somebody working in soldiering components onto PCBs, my soldiering skills were a little bit more equivalent to butchering skills, shall we say, with a cleaver or an ax tree fellow.

So, I moved into project management and did that for a while in the 1990s for a multinational manufacturing organization, and then moved into an internal consultancy training partner role. And more recently done a lot of coaching and training and development, interpersonal skills, training development, done a bit of work on change and change management, as well as personality profiling, helping people understand how to become more effective in communicating with other people, how to help teams build and regularly sort of frame that as a diversity type, understanding, recognizing, and applauding differences in people. And if I'm talking to shop floor people sometimes say, "Doing this, you'll understand why you think some people are idiots."

Shane Hastie: You're known for the Fisher Change Curve. What is this and why should our audience as technologists care about it?

The Fisher Change Curve [04:39]

John Fisher: Really good question, Shane. What is it, I suppose is the easier of the two questions. It really came out of my experience when I started counseling and finding that people would make commitments, would leave the counseling session on a high with a commitment to change, and make an appointment for the following week to maintain that dynamic and motivation, and then not come back. And talking to colleagues, I found this was a regular occurrence, so I sort of put the process aside of the brain to work and started thinking about, why was that?

And I realized that it was because of the implications on them and their sense of identity, their sense of who they were, that when they saw the enormity of the change, they got cold feet basically and wouldn't do it. So, the curve itself is really a series of stages that I show as linear, but aren't, and we can move backwards and forwards on them in a little bit more of a spiral way that just takes people down through the size and scope of the impact on their sense of self that then allows them to hopefully come through successfully and commit to the change rather than comply with the change.

And a couple of ways of dropping off the curve around, forcing everybody else to change to you and doing the things that you always used to do in the hopes that they'll see the light, very high energy. Opposite side of that, very low energy, just denial, ignoring the change, the new processes, but doing it in a way that you don't expend any energy. And then one from my personal experience a couple of times where I call it euphemistically sordid time off, and that's where I'm not prepared to compromise who I am just to meet what you want me to be and I'm not prepared to fit into the box you want to put me in, so I'm going either mentally and just stop working, work-to-rule, presenteeism as it is nowadays or physically change jobs and go somewhere else. So, that in a nutshell, Shane, is the curve.

Your second half of the question, why should it matter to your audience? And I suppose at its highest level, this is about people and about people and their emotional connection. So, as your audience is people and depending on the role, if they need to influence, engage with people, they need an awareness of not only who they are and how they come across, but also how the people like to be interacted and engaged with. I'm reminded of a quote by Lao Tzu which is, "Mastery of others is strength, mastery of yourself is true power." That for me really helps get my head around the importance of recognizing the impact we have. And because your guys can be designing, facilitating, cutting edge things that have never been done before, and my experience of engineers, not including me, is they like to be perfect, they like to do the best job, they like the bells and whistles, and they're not quite as bothered about the end user and how it will be used, and it's the thing itself that makes it perfect.

And a phrase I came across years ago when I was doing some work I suppose in what became some of the forerunners of things like agile coaching and Six Sigma is the customer defines the quality and if the customer doesn't want to use it, find it too complicated, then it won't sell. It won't be used unless it's got a cultural phenomenon behind it and then people will use it, but complain, maybe not use all of the elements of it around there. So, by understanding what the customer actually wants and needs, your guys will be able to make sure that it's perfect from every angle, not just from a design capability. Does that make sense, Shane?

Shane Hastie: Yeah, so understanding how the products we're building, the software we're putting out in the world impacts the lives of the people who are using it. But how do we get to gather those insights to understand?

Building empathy and understanding [09:46]

John Fisher: Again, good question, and a difficult one for some technologists, some people who are focused very much on the design and the perfectness of the design, but that's why we have pilot studies, trial runs, focus groups, and it's a little bit about listening to people, so letting them play with it, letting them trial it and see how well it works, and then going back and changing those bits just to make it that little bit better and just to make it more functionally effective.

So some of the things we do, we've got the classic plan: do, check, act. So, part of the check is, is it fit for purpose? Is it fit for form? And then how do we need to modify it? And I suppose this is where continuous improvement of course comes in, those elements of continuous improvement. If we are aware, if we take part in pre-trials and then trials, post-trial design, then we can do that. So, it's knowing the right questions and it's then listening to the answers and in some ways engaging with the people who you are persuading, influencing, observing to come up with some solutions that would help them use it even better. So, it's engaging them as the people to help you make it the best it can be.

Shane Hastie: So, that's when thinking about our products as they're in use in the marketplace or as we are designing and building them and thinking about change there. What about change within teams? A lot of our audience are going to be technical leaders who are often responsible for bringing in new ways of working in amongst their teams. How does something like the change curve help there?

Applying the ideas to change within an organisation [11:49]

John Fisher: I think that's fundamental in lots of ways, and what the change curve does is it gives people an idea of how other people may react and what sort of problems, what barriers, what blockers they may come across and then help them help the people make those changes more effectively by getting them out in the open, helping people discuss them and helping people understand the implications. I think a couple of things for me come out here. One of the things I think we do poorly in the UK or do a disservice rather than poorly is we call agile practitioners, agile coaches. And the thing that they tend not to do in a lot of agile practitioners I know in my experience is coach. They go in, do a business process re-engineering assessment... To use the old jargon, and done one or two of those in my time.

They tend to come in, do that, and then tell the team what to do, how to do it, when and where to do it, and it's almost like the seagull style of management where they come in from above, tell the team, and then, "I'm here to support at a distance." And I think the agile practitioners, and I've helped train a few as coaches, and I think by giving them more of a coaching to engage, ask questions, they can persuade then far better the teams because what genuine coaching helps them do is to start being able to tap into, for me, two of the most important and powerful influencers, and one is WIIFM, what's in it for the individual? Why should they take on board the change?

Given it's having an impact on who they are because you are telling them they've been doing it wrong all this time, or potentially you are saying here's a new software system, here's a new way of using it, and they're sitting there thinking, "I'm 40, 50, I'm getting close to retirement, I'm too old to change, I can't change now. How will I cope with these new people coming along who can do it?" So, all of that stress and pressure putting on them, and the other one is just a plain simple because give people a reason and need for them to understand the reason they're doing it, what's driving this new change.

And by again, engagement and asking then the agile practitioners will be able to build a better relationship with people because they'll understand the people better, they'll understand their particular ways of liking to work and like to be communicated with because a communication is not what the agile practitioner says, it's what the team and team members hear, and that's the communication and there may be a big disconnect between the two and we're dropping into impact and intent. So, it will help them build a stronger relationship to make them more effective in how they implement change.

Shane Hastie: As a team leader, as a technical leader on a team, or in an organization, you made the point how people want to be communicated with. This means I have to change how I communicate, does it?

Change how you communicate to influence change [15:28]

John Fisher: Very much so. Years ago I was doing some customer focus work on changing a manufacturing company to become more customer focused, both internal customer and external customer, and helping people across the whole board from shop floor, down to senior directors engage with customers more effectively. And I came across a quote by Helmut Kohl from when he was chancellor of Germany and he said, "If I'm selling, then I'll speak your language. But if I'm buying then sie müssen sprechen de deutsch " And I just love that turnaround because if I'm trying to sell to you, I have to speak your language because what persuades me to buy might be very different from what persuades you to buy. And for me, the classic, if I use the Four Box Model or the four colors, red, blue, green, and yellow, as a yellow person, I like stories, I like big picture, I like to go off at tangents.

If I'm talking to somebody who's blue though and blue people tend to be a lot more engineering focused, engineering mindsets, software designer mindsets, very structured, very linear, very logical, then if I start telling stories, they've already written me off as a waste of space, hot air, and just stop listening because I'm just not grounded, I'm not talking sense, I'm not giving them facts, figures, and details as part and parcel of it.

So, it's about understanding their way of listening, making sense of the world to be able to communicate better with them because regardless of what we're doing, it's always people that do the change. So, we might change the procedures, we might change the place where they're doing it, we might change who the stakeholders are, and the reporting lines, but at the end of the day, everybody involved is a person with their unique set of background experiences, their own unique way of seeing the world, and that's what we need to tap into. We can do some generalizations within teams because one definition of a team is around a group of people who understand each other well enough to be able to work together and communicate from their different individual perspectives. So we can summarize up, but it's that engagement to make sure we tick all of the individual boxes in that summary.

Shane Hastie: As a leader, how do I go about finding out how these people I work with want to be communicated with?

Build relationships through communication [18:32]

John Fisher: And for some of your audience, this will be a really scary question because it's ask them, it's talk to them. Sometimes it's making that small talk and Confucius talked about the niceties in building up relationships and just that, how are you going, how's it going? I regularly ask people what they're most proud of, what's been their biggest success since we last saw each other when I'm doing coaching or at the team meetings when I've led teams, what's the thing you're most proud of since we last chatted? And I then go and ask what I think is one of the most effective feedback mechanisms of, "With hindsight, what would you do to make it even better?" Or, "With hindsight, what would you have done differently?" And I always get them to self-appraise and to tell me from their perspective and it's just sort of practice experience, being comfortable with silence, and just listening to what they say and then saying, "So, how could you do that? How could you make that work?"

So again, some of the agile practitioner skills, really this is where we want to go, how can we get there? These are the areas we need to change, what are those changes? And then if we think it might not work, if we disagree as the practitioner, it's then, so let's think that through. If we did this, what would happen? How would that happen? And just burrow down deeper and go deeper down into... I suppose for many of your listeners will be well familiar with the five why's as a process that helps you in root cause analysis. So, it's using effectively a variation of the five why's to start getting down to the nitty-gritty and the detail that potentially the blue person needs while not quite turning off the yellows like me or the reds who just want somebody to do it.

Shane Hastie: You spoke about coaches and the practitioner who's often not a coach, but comes in wanting to be one and you are a psychologist, so you bring that psychological perspective. I know for myself there's a lot of value in having a coach and having a mentor. What would you suggest to members of the audience who are thinking about, should I bother?

The value of having a coach [21:11]

John Fisher: Good question that I get asked a lot in slightly different ways and guises, that one, Shane, because a lot of people don't see the value of a coach. And I was at a network meeting recently talking with two other people and one of them who is effectively in sales for their organization and the other one was an engineer, a designer who's now working as a consultant, and the salesperson said, "What's a coach do? Why do I need a coach?" And the designer jumped in and said, "I've had one for years, decades have been really fundamental and helped me get where I am now running my own consultancy business." And I don't know who was more surprised, my prejudiced opinion, or the salesperson because it was really refreshing to hear. And I think what a coach can do is a couple of things. They can help you understand your impact.

They can help you through things like personality profiling, the four colors that I mentioned earlier, that can help you understand how you like to be communicated to, and how you like to communicate. And one of the ones I tend to use most of the time is a lovely model that looks at three different aspects of you, you when everything's working okay, you as you'd like it to be, so the ideal you, and you if you're under a bit of stress and pressure and looks at the differences in those three elements with your behavior and how sometimes we entrench and go back to basics or become even more outgoing, extreme than we already were. So, sometimes if I'm trying to persuade somebody and it's not going well, I know I'll go over the top, I'll become even more exaggerated, I'll become even more sort of hyper about persuading and I'll just be a hurricane type force in there.

Friends of mine who are engineers retreat back into the basics of the data and just go back to the sort of real ground level core concept. And if they're trying to persuade me and failing, they'll come up with more facts and figures, they'll come with more data that just turns me off totally. So, a coach can help you see who you are and then help you explore ways of getting the best out of other people while still playing to your strengths, and looking sometimes at who's the best person rather than me to go and fight for me and to persuade for me. Am I the best person to influence? So, a coach can be a listening ear, they're supportive ear, they're also a challenging ear to help you think and make sense of yourself. So, it will give you confidence that you're on the right path, you're doing the right things in the right way to get the right results. Did that make sense, Shane?

Shane Hastie: It does, and I will confess to a personal bias that I've certainly experienced the benefit of having an individual coach, and this is very different to the consultant holding themselves as a coach.

John Fisher: Very much so. I'm a constructivist psychologist. So, for me it's all about the other person, their language, how they see things. And I think one of the strengths of a constructivist psychologist is with lots of other psychologies and talking therapies, it's the therapist or the psychologist that tells you the answer, so we're back to agile again. The consultant comes in, tells you the answer, you go away and do it. As a constructivist, I'm more interested in what's your answer because you're doing it, not me. So, you know the detail at the co-face rather than me. I just come in, get a superficial view, you have to live it. So, I'm interested in what's your answer and how can we then integrate it into what the organizational need is, what your need is, and how can we make that best fit work?

Shane Hastie: John, some really interesting and powerful points, a whole lot of deep advice in here. If people want to continue the conversation, where can they find you?

John Fisher: Right, yes, thank you, and love anybody who does want to continue the conversation to find me. My business is C2D. That stands for Coaching, Counseling and Development, so two C's and a D,, and then there's my email on there, the contact link is on there. I think on John M. Fisher on LinkedIn as part of that and C2D, the business page on LinkedIn as well. So, they're the easiest and best ways to contact me given your listeners are spread all over the world.

Shane Hastie: They are indeed. Thank you very much.

John Fisher: Thank you very much Shane for having me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's been an interesting conversation, taking me back to places I left a year or two ago.


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