Sustainable change: Catching overload signals

How much change can your organization absorb? It’s probably less than what you would expect or hope for. Let’s stop overloading organizations with change, instead allow sustainable change to happen, and foster change instead of imposing it.

Organizations can only handle change to a limited extent. Some of the organizations that I have worked with turned out to flexible; they are able to exploit opportunities and adapt to new circumstances. In other organizations, change appeared to be a difficult and challenging thing.

Seeing these differences made me wonder what causes change overload, what factors influence change saturation, and how we can find out how much change an organization can absorb. I also started thinking about what we can do to get change done and prevent overloading organizations.

This is the first article in the series on sustainable change. It explains why change is needed, how to start it, and how to recognize that the organization is getting overwhelmed by change.

In the series I’ll explore how do dose change in a sustainable way to increase change adoption and improve the organizational capacity for absorbing change.

Why change

You change with a reason to achieve a goal. The goal of most change initiatives is to improve on one or more aspects or solving problems. For example, it can be changing the way of working that leads to delivering faster and more frequently. Or solving an impediment that blocks teams from delivering. It could also be doing changes to make work go better, or cheaper. Or getting change done that improves the quality of products or services.

It may also be the case that you have to meet certain requirements or conform to regulations, or that you have to use a certain method or tool. If you don’t make such a change then the company could go out of business; you don’t want that to happen

When does the change start

Change doesn’t happen automatically, sometimes it doesn’t even happen at all. It needs something or somebody to pull it off and get it going.

Often change is initiated when people recognize a problem and see the need to do something about it. Then commitment arises, change gets supported, and time and money are made available to do the change.

But it is also possible to start change when there’s no problem. For example, by looking at the strengths of an organization, or of teams or individual employees. You can use those strengths to become better at what you do, improving your performance with continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement often leads to smaller changes, but over time when added together they can have a major effect and business impact. It can make your organization stand out and outperform competitors, gain market share, and increase your revenue.

If you only tackle problems, you will reach an average level. By focusing on strengths you will become above average!

What causes change overload

Once a decision has been taken that change is needed and an initiative to change has started, then you should be monitoring the change and it’s impact.

It can be difficult to find out if you’re overloading the organization with change. My advice is to prepare yourself by making sure that you can pick up signals of overload.

Examples of such signals are:

  • Increased resistance against change, people complaining about or rejecting change
  • Change fatigue, people are getting tired of all the changes that are being rolled out
  • Delivery dates are missed, people complain that they can’t get work done being distracted by change initiatives
  • Quality of the products is degrading, people say that they can’t do their work properly due to things changing all the time
  • Change seems to be slowing down as the organization can’t cope with it
  • People are using workarounds to avoid the changes
  • The overall performance of the organization is taking a hit
  • People feel and act stressed by what’s requested by change initiatives, which leads to organizational stress

Note that when you see one or more of the above signals, there might be other problems than change overload. It can be that the organization is overloaded due to ineffective management or high external pressure. It can be suffering from a toxic culture or ineffective structures. So double check to be sure if it’s change overload.

Once you suspect that the organization might be overload with change, the first thing can be to put upcoming change initiatives on hold. Adding more change will only make things worse.

Next, it can be good to explore ongoing change initiatives and think about which ones could be suspended. Change overload usually leads to organizational ineffectiveness. The pressure to change needs to be reduced.

In a next article, we’ll dive into finding out how much change organizations can handle. Stay tuned.

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Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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