Satir Change Model

by | Aug 27, 2018

The Satir Change model applies to individuals as well as systems of individuals. It is one of the cornerstones of the family therapist Virginia Satir’s work on how change takes place.

Late Status Quo

A fairly stable system (individual or groups) with predictable familiarity and comfort.

Actors in late status quo system may not be comfortable with “the way things are” but they have familiar solutions to common problems.

Organizations in late status quo is a balancing system (systems thinking archetype), where different parts of the system pay different prices to maintain balance. The organization system has stayed the same for a long time. Actors in organizational system know ‘what to do’, ‘how to do, understand where they fit, and know what they can get away with. These ‘games’ or dysfunctions are part of the routine for actors these are indistinguishable from real work.


  • Individuals working long hours compensate by not exercising or spending less time on family matters. “This is very important TPS report, I will take my evening walk tomorrow”.
  • Teams support low-performing members by everyone else doing a bit extra or tolerating dysfunctional behavior and nobody says anything about it.
  • Organizations ask for thorough cost-benefit analysis or business case to justify change initiative. Instead of assessing where we are at and where we need to be, organizations ask for proven case-studies and success stories before they consider changing.

Foreign Element

Systems favor self-preservation, this survival instinct is necessary condition for systems to continue to exist.

Then something happens that people in the system can no longer deny – this foreign element is generated internal or external or just plain old randomness. Ignoring, or ejecting, or neutralizing impact of alien elements are systems’ defense mechanisms. Actors in the system try to accommodate using delaying tactics, or try to encapsulate foreign element within the “normal” way of handling things, or may find somebody to blame.


  • After reading newspaper article on impact of stress, a workaholic blames their partner for not supporting their career goals.
  • After attending an agile conference, team-members acknowledge importance of cross-functional work and demand full management support before they are willing to try pair programming.
  • Organizational leadership takes note of stealth agile implementations and appreciates their success. As a result, mandates organizational agile transformation by a fixed future date.

Organizations in late status quo are closer to breaking point when actors that are compensating and sustaining late status quo find their situation is no longer tenable.

Systems in late status quo can learn to deny, ignore, or accommodate foreign elements and develop unhealthy coping behaviors that remain in play for a long time. For example, just waiting out organizational change initiative is a veteran tactic to diffuse energy for change in organization systems.

It is not possible to predict, but one of these many foreign elements knocks late status quo systems off balance. This could be increasing attrition rate of customers/employees or difficulty getting new ones, or perhaps a sudden change in technological landscape that threatens organizational survival.


With critical mass around the foreign element (internal or external), late status quo system tips or gets knocked off balance.

This is disorienting. The experience is similar to children’s game of being spun around while blind-folded. Usual ways of getting things done are challenged and there is confusion about ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do’. People react in a number of different ways: by engaging in random behavior, by seeking stability at any cost, or trying to revert to earlier patterns of behavior.

“Familiarity is always more powerful than comfort.” – Virgina Satir

It is common for people to seek silver-bullet solutions, or seek complete description of end state, to pursue order in midst of chaos. The uncertainty inherent in chaos zone is unsettling. Even when people realize that old status quo is not where we need to be, they seek the familiarity of old status quo.

Loss aversion – losses loom larger than gains, tendencies kick-in.


  • Faced with intervention from their child, who is upset at not seeing parents at his favorite school play may tip a family into reevaluating their work life balance priorities or hire a very expensive nanny.
  • Teams attempting scrum, may discard it and switch to kanban or vice-versa. They may continue to chase the next big agile thing like devOps or server-less in endless pursuit of a quick silver bullet. They may end up blaming organizational culture and continue to operate worse than before.
  • At the all hands meet (AMA), CEO’s declaration of Agile transformation initiative to be completed by end of fiscal year was received with muted murmurs and extended break room conversations that impacted overall effectiveness. Many managers reported to executive committee that Agile is not working and we should revert to the way things were before.

Transforming Idea

People change, people change all the time. People buy houses, get married, have children, relocate and can cope with the changes all the time. They resist being changed or coerced into it. Everyone cannot be skilled at coping with chaos in all realms of their life.

Organizations often attempt to direct change in behavior and expect that results will follow. This almost never works, because the experience of people trying new approaches is negative they do not alter their core belief systems. At its best, leaders get compliance or in worse cases rebellion. Leaders skilled at surfing chaos set clear guardrails and focus on developing compelling experiences that lead to transforming ideas.

Leaders recognize that transformation must first start from within. So they create an environment where good ideas can get recognized and implemented. They focus their energies of creating a context for learning and recognize that many good ideas will have to be discarded before a transformational idea is recognized and tried.


  • Parents decide to set clear boundaries at their work place so their colleagues are respectful of their family time. This helps them to find time for physical exercise, and taking care of their family.
  • Team members recognize that they have been too insular and decide to get help from ‘coaches’ (internal or external).
  • After six months into Agile initiative, executive committee convenes an off-site where under guidance from expert facilitator they are able to discuss real issues, build upon each other’s ideas and agree to run focused controlled change ‘experiments’ instead of asking people to fall into line with the ‘big-picture’ Agile scaling framework.

Integration and Practice

During integration stage, there is excitement, energy and things seem to be improving. The feeling is so good that people mistake that this is the change.

But the journey has only now began. This is a phase where leadership has most influence and gets tested all the time.

There is strong temptation to declare “mission accomplished”, collect laurels and march on to the next big thing. This rush of excitement energizes people to try out other new ideas, many of which do not work out. So the system, is thrown back into chaos.

Many organizational systems are stuck oscillating between chaos and integration, never fully realizing full benefits. Desire for quick fixes and leaders aspiration to make their mark, forces regime changes that desensitize employees to management.

It is fairly common for veteran’s to list all the management thinking changes from Lean and TQM movement, to Agile and DevOps that have come and gone while never delivering on promised benefits.


  • With new found family time, they impulsively adopt a puppy. Excitement around new member in the family is mixed with feeling of anxiety around lack of attention to work and growing needs of family dog.
  • Team members identify many new ideas in initial sprint retrospectives and after a few sprints find that most of the actions items from previous retrospectives are repeating themselves. They are struggling to find time to implement most of their action items in light of higher delivery expectations (now that they are agile). They think retrospectives are a waste of time.
  • While the energy and excitement within organization is palpable, the executive committee is not seeing improvement in its traditional productivity measures. So they decide to intervene by asking for company wide rollout of Agile life cycle management tool. This will help them to get accurate data, because clearly this much fun (and engagement) is not justifiable if we are not able to quantify.

During integration and practice, people are learning to use new practices and tools. Appropriate training, coaching, support, and most importantly space to integrate new practices into people’s way of working is needed.

Do not rush to quantify benefits, metrics have their own tendencies to look good even when the actual performance may be nose-diving.

New Status Quo

Integration of new ways of working results from many tiny changes to the system at work. These cannot be rushed. With sufficient information, support, and structure the actors within a system arrive at new status quo.

There is now familiarity with new way of working, people are at ease and relaxed. A new vocabulary, mental models and belief systems emerge. “How we do things around here” – the culture that emerges from the dip, through chaos and integration, stabilizes to become the new norm. The organization is no longer viewed as the obstacle. And the cycle continues.

Change is inevitable, it is happening whether we like it or not. Organizational anti-bodies that attack all foreign elements, need to be developed to pick out beneficial foreign elements from the harmful. A leaders role in learning organization is not ordained, it is earned.

From their organizational position and from resources they posses a leader adapts themselves and influences the climate around them so that people become empowered to change themselves and the environment around them. The only business of being a leader is to create other leaders.

Do you want to go beyond the basics?

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1 Comment

  1. Aldi Coetzee

    Short and effective explanation of Satir model. Highly appreciated.



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