Want to Accelerate Change? Slow Down and Observe Team Dynamics

Originally presented at SIM Connect Live 2019 (“Make Winning Normal: Maximizing Agility with High-Performing Teams”), the following concepts offer a new way for IT organizations to implement disruptive technologies and innovations at scale:

The Pace of Change and the Adoption Curve

The pace and complexity of new technologies and innovations have only been increasing over the past years and show no sign of letting up. We consistently hear the following questions from IT leaders:

  • How do I maintain a competitive advantage while keeping up with the pace of change?
  • How do I ensure my organization can effectively adopt new technologies?

One way to address these questions is by examining the Adoption Curve as described by Geoffrey Moore. The Adoption Curve details the distributions and tendencies of a population as it adopts an innovation.

The Innovators and Early Adopters tend to be the least risk-averse and the most likely to quickly adopt new technology. Each subsequent segment—the Early Majority, the Late Majority, and the Laggards—are more resistant to adopting the innovation.

Geoffrey Moore’s Adoption Curve

A New Application for the Familiar Adoption Curve

This familiar graph presents two novel takeaways for IT organizations within an enterprise:

  1. To successfully implement change, we need a different strategy for each adoption segment. In other words, we should take a different approach to engage with Innovators than we do to engage with the Late Majority.
  2. To identify various segments, we can observe behavior. Measurable behaviors exist within each segment. Behaviors include ways in which we interact with one another. Understanding the various behavioral characteristics of each adoption cohort greatly improves our ability to influence the success of teams adopting an innovation.

So, how can IT understand segment-specific behaviors? Unfortunately, IT leaders tend to have a blind spot toward how to gain an unbiased and useful understanding of behaviors and their implications on change initiatives.

In IT, the focus is usually on technical competence, project delivery, and strategic alignment—black and white areas. Human behavior is gray and difficult to manage. The human element is often seen as touchy-feely.

However, to be in command of organizational change, an understanding of behavior is an enormous advantage. As the pace of change intensifies, the way in which teams behave towards such change becomes exponentially important.

Organizations need adaptive teams, staffed with people who exhibit constructive behaviors, to thrive in a highly-disruptive environment. IT can only support this vision by understanding the optimal balance of behaviors.

See Behaviors in Black and White

To help us understand the behaviors surrounding the adoption of change, we can use a framework called Structural Dynamics, developed by systems psychologist David Kantor.

In this framework, there are four ways in which people interact with one another. These interaction styles aren’t innately good or bad. We all have a preference for one of these four ways of interacting and will default to our preference when relating to others.

The four Action Preferences are:

  • Move: the act of initiating action, leading change, or suggesting a direction
  • Oppose: the act of correcting an action, vetting an idea, or poking holes, either constructively or destructively (Constructive Opposers seek to genuinely improve an idea and challenge its validity. Destructive Opposers seek to neutralize or sabotage an idea and are not interested in improvement.)
  • Bystand: the act of creating perspective or seeing both sides of an argument
  • Follow: the act of supporting an action or getting behind an idea

The most effective members of your organization consciously choose the best way to act, given the context of a given situation.

For example, when a team needs to initiate direction, someone makes a Move. When the team needs to make a course correction, someone Opposes. When the team needs to step back and gain perspective, someone Bystands the situation. Lastly, when the team needs to go heads-down and deliver on a promise, the team Follows a direction that has been set.

The best teams interact freely and without struggle around all four of these Action Preferences. Low performing teams often have one or more roles missing, which disables them when a certain behavior is called for.

Map Action Preferences to the Adoption Curve

Now that we understand the way in which we prefer to interact, through the lens of these Action Preferences, how does this help a team succeed? If we overlay the four ways of interacting onto the Adoption Curve, the behavioral preferences of the adoption segments align with the Action Preferences as follows:

Moore’s Adoption Curve + Kantor’s Action Preferences

Innovators and Early Adopters share similar behavioral characteristics to those with a preference to Move—tending to initiate action, set direction, and drive change.

The Early Majority is akin to Bystanders and Followers—tending to see a broad perspective and support the direction of others.

The Late Majority can be compared to the Opposers and Followers—still supporting the direction of others, but also challenging the change.

Laggards tend to be exclusively Opposers—consistently challenging incoming innovations or technologies.

This linkage between the four types of interaction and the adoption segments is directional. Some Opposers may be in the Innovator and Early Majority segments, some Movers in the Laggard segment, and so on.

The Key Is Balance

The best teams fluidly choose the appropriate behavior to use in a given context and work on strengthening their behavioral weaknesses.

The power of this linkage between Action Preferences and the Adoption Curve is that change can be accelerated by designing balanced teams who have the capacity to freely express all four behaviors. As change travels via the adoption segments, a well-balanced team will be able to navigate each phase better than a poorly balanced team.

Many teams have a weakness in one of the four ways of interacting. For instance, a team may be unlikely to actively create perspective (Bystand) in a given situation. Or, members are always initiating direction but no one on the team is supporting (Following) that direction.

As an IT leader, the process is to:

  1. Understand the four ways of interacting and how important it is for teams to effectively express each style.
  2. Assess the composition of teams to find weaknesses, difficulties expressing, or overreliances on any of the four ways of interacting.
  3. Re-balance teams to correct for behavioral weakness or overuse.

How to Rebalance Team Dynamics

Leaders have substantial influence over the success of their teams. Some approaches to achieving balance on a team are more effective than others.

In an ideal world, team leaders will find balanced individuals who are able to express all four Action Preferences. As a fallback, behavioral coaching is an option. Managers can coach individuals to strengthen underused Action Preferences or become aware of overused Action Preferences.

Finally, in the absence of skilled coaching, balance out the team with individuals who demonstrate strong expression of most of the four Action Preferences. Make sure the resultant team has at least one individual with strengths in each Action Preference.


The Structural Dynamics framework applied to change management is a powerful combination that makes a huge difference for IT organizations aiming to prepare the business for continuous innovation and maintain a competitive advantage.

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