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Riding the change curve to a historic championship

If you’re Canadian – or a basketball fan – you are well aware of the storybook season the Toronto Raptors enjoyed in earning their first NBA championship last month.

Chances are though, you aren’t familiar with the change curve the company rode in earning the title.

What is a change curve and why does it matter? In simple terms, it’s the process organizations travel through to create sustainable support for change over time. It involves four distinct phases:

  • Awareness

  • Understanding

  • Acceptance

  • Ownership

As change practitioners, we’ve led many organizations successfully through the change curve. And just like the Raptors’ past season, it doesn’t happen overnight as people process change differently.

In the Raptors’ case, it took time for the team to adjust to a pair of bold off-season moves – and one late in the season – by General Manager Masai Ujiri to get the team over a long-standing hump: advancing to the Eastern Conference championship and an opportunity to win the league title.

First, on May 11, 2018, Ujiri fired long-time coach Dwane Casey despite winning the league’s coach of the year award for the team’s strong regular-season record. Replacing him was assistant Nick Nurse.

Next – in a move that not only hit a nerve with veteran players on the team but also its fan base – he traded all-star forward DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs on July 18, 2018 in exchange for two players, including Kawhi Leonard, who had only played nine games the season before due to injury.

At the trade deadline this past February, Ujiri fortified the team’s defence by acquiring veteran center Marc Gasol.

Communication the key

In reflecting on the Raptors year and the different phases of the change curve, one could argue the team only entered the final three stages near the end of the season following a critical huddle between the team’s general manager and one of the influential members of the team – veteran guard Kyle Lowry.

A May 30, 2019, CTV news article recounted how the two had a very frank conversation about the two pre-season moves and why they were engineered.

"It wasn't anything negative," Lowry was quoted in the article. “It was just 'Let's get on the same page so we can make this run.' Because he (Ujiri) believed in what we could do as a team."

That type of conversation – where the why and how of a plan is clearly articulated – is something that we stress the importance of to leaders when we discuss the change curve.In the Raptors’ case, it definitely sharpened their focus and commitment heading into the playoffs – a juncture that had featured disappointing results in the past.

Anyone who watched the team's progress over the post-season this year observed ownership in action -- the final and most important stage of the curve. The team had several players make key plays over the course of the run and even their rookie head coach earned praise for some bold calls that were missing in the past.

Raptors magic can be replicated

Such a magical ride through the change curve isn't restricted to sports. It can be replicated by organizations seeking to capture new opportunities or which are challenged by competition, disruption or upheaval within their ranks.

For example, we assisted a financial services client with an ambitious national expansion program. It included hosting a workshop with about 50 branch managers throughout the province to help them assess where their respective branches were in the curve and how to successfully move through each stage, so they were all on the same page.

Was it easy? Not at all but what great things in life are? Fortunately, there were some great leaders who were able to bring back their learnings and engage their frontline staff into supporting the expansion.

The end result: it was successful in getting federal regulatory approval for their expansion and they have continued to thrive in part to the collective efforts of employees at all levels of the organization.

So, whether you are competing for a championship – or focused on driving meaningful change in your organization – it’s crucial that you are mindful of the change curve. While you won’t receive a parade in your honour when you succeed like the Raptors, driving a successful outcome can be just as sweet and worth celebrating.

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