I started my change management career in 1991, as the research director for ODR, a company founded by Daryl Conner that trained many of the senior change agents practicing today. The tools and concepts developed by ODR, and the ideas proposed in Daryl’s first book Managing at the Speed of Change, have influenced a number of the major change methodologies in the market today, including ProSci’s popular ADKAR model.
In going through my old files, I’ve continued to rediscover models, concepts, and tools that still have value today. In this blog series, I plan to focus each post on one of these elements, with the goal of helping the current generation of change agents continue to build their knowledge.
Some of the material shared here was originally copyrighted by ODR, and I am using it with permission, augmented by my own perspectives and experience.
Today’s Focus: Strategic Risk Areas
One of the models that has continued to stick with me articulates four strategic and four tactical areas of change risk. Here’s how the four strategic risk areas were originally articulated:
Critical Areas of Risk When Implementing Strategic Change
- Resilience—not having enough individual, team, or organizational resilience to sustain the change.
- Knowledge—not having managers and employees who understand how change unfolds in organizations.
- Decisions—not having managers who are able or willing to make the tough decisions about how many change projects will be pursued at a given time.
- Architecture—not having managers and employees who can apply the skills, tools, and techniques that permit change to be executed in a disciplined, structured manner.
Quadrant I: Developing Strong Resilience
A person’s baseline level of resilience can be raised by learning concepts and applying techniques that reinforce the five key characteristics of resilient people: being positive, focused, flexible, organized, and proactive. These same attributes are critical to understanding the resilience of teams and organizations.
Quadrant II: Increasing Change Knowledge
Key indicators of general readiness for change are the knowledge and skills people possess regarding the fundamental dynamics of organizational transitions. This kind of change knowledge can be measured by determining the degree to which people have a practical understanding of the structure of change [note: I will address the structure of change model in a future post] and can apply this information to maximizing resilience for themselves and those they manage.
Quadrant III: Managing Assimilation Resources
The capacity an organization has to assimilate change should be treated as any other strategic resource (e.g., capital, technology). In this regard, resources must not be wasted or misused. Instead, it is imperative that the capacity to absorb change be skillfully acquired and carefully protected.
Key decisions involving major change should, therefore, be considered in light of the available assimilation capacity of the organization. When the demands brought on by transitions exceed an organization’s capacity to adequately assimilate them, the changes may occur, but they will be accompanied by costly dysfunctional behavior that reduces the actual value of the final results.
Quadrant IV: Building Implementation Architecture
For each change initiative, there are certain elements from the structure of change that must be managed well for the project to succeed. These unique combinations of elements are called landscapes and can be identified by determining which of the patterns and principles will have the greatest impact on the effort.
Once these key leverage points for a particular change are identified, a specific architecture can be developed that encourages people to:
- Disengage from the present state
- Navigate through the ambiguity of the transition state
- Be motivated and prepared to successfully assimilate the desired state
So often in the world of change management, we focus our attention on one initiative at a time. What I like about this model is that it reminds us that there is work we can do to prepare the organization for whatever changes might come. One of the things you will find if you continue to read my posts is that I have moved away from purely “risk-focused” language to emphasize a balanced perspective on risks and assets/opportunities. With that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on each of the quadrants in this model:
- Developing Strong Resilience When we hire and develop resilient people, and build the resilience of key teams as well as the resilience of the organizational system as a whole, we create a significant competitive advantage by enabling the organization to move more efficiently, effectively, and confidently through every transition. We have continued to refine our understanding of resilience, and our ability to measure and teach it, over the past 25+ years. We’ve incorporated emerging understanding of the brain, advances in positive psychology, and experience in helping people learn to build their change muscles to increase our ability to influence this strategic risk factor.
- Increasing Change Knowledge The more that people throughout the organization know about the predictable patterns in change—how humans typically respond to change, what leaders need to do as they manage change, the natural discomfort that accompanies the unknown and what to do about it, etc., the better prepared they are to succeed when they go through transition. They are able to share a common language, recognize normal emotional responses, identify and perform key change roles effectively, and collaborate to achieve results. I have observed that many organizations include change leadership training at executive and middle-management levels. There is somewhat less focus on building change knowledge at supervisory and front-line levels. When a large change is underway, it presents a great opportunity to provide education that will both help people navigate that transition and prepare them for additional changes.
- Managing Assimilation Resources The idea that people have a limited supply of energy and that too many changes can overwhelm them and lead to stress and burnout is not new. Many good practices have been developed to evaluate the impact of changes and gather data to help leaders make informed decisions about how much change the organization can absorb. What I have not seen, however, is much increase in the willingness of leaders to make the tough decisions to actually reduce the change load they are placing on the organization. I have recently written several blog series on related topics, including change overload, energy sustainability, and evaluating energy demands.
- Building Implementation Architecture This is probably the area that has come the farthest over the past few decades. Many organizations have built or adopted some form of change management methodology to standardize their approach to implementing major initiatives. Training in change management tools and models is readily available.
There is still work to be done in this area. Even the best implementation approach will fail if leaders delegate to implementation teams the things they should be doing themselves, such as high-stakes communication, modeling new ways of operating, and holding people accountable for shifting their mindsets and behaviors. Many change agents are doing significant work on initiatives without much relief from a full-time “day job.” And the experience and wisdom that allows change teams to tailor their approach to the specific landscape of the situation at hand takes time to develop.
In the second post of this series, I offered a checklist to help organizations support high levels of physical energy among their employees. This third post is focused on how organizations can help people protect, sustain, and build their mental energy.
Mental energy is important for concentrating, thinking, and solving problems. When people are low on mental energy, they may feel overwhelmed, have trouble concentrating or staying alert, and make mistakes or poor decisions. Because the world of work is where many people encounter a large part of the mental stimulation they experience, and because mental acuity is critical to job performance, organizations have a particularly important role in creating an environment that supports mental energy.
Here are some things to consider as you evaluate your organization’s effectiveness in this area:
Human attention is a finite resource. Each thing that engages a person’s mind drains a bit of this capacity. Organizations support strong mental energy when they help people use their attention in focused, intentional ways. Here are some questions for leaders and change agents to consider about the organization’s support for attention.
- Multitasking Do the organization’s practices and norms encourage and enable people to focus on one thing at a time where possible? Do people understand that multitasking involves switching attention back and forth between different activities, and that extra energy is used to do this? Do leaders set realistic expectations about how many things can get done at once?
- Distractions Does the organization’s physical environment provide places where people can work without high levels of noise? Is it acceptable for people to set aside times when they turn off phone and email? Do people have ways of signaling to others that they should not be disturbed?
- Systems Does the organization create processes and procedures that enable people to reduce unnecessary effort on routine tasks? Are people clear enough about their roles and responsibilities that they don’t need to spend extra mental energy figuring out what to do or how to do it? Are materials and information stored in organized ways so people can easily find what they need?
The human brain is capable of a wide variety of operations; each of them needs exercise to function at its highest potential. When people have a chance to regularly engage in different kinds of thinking activities, and to move back and forth between different kinds of mental work, they are better prepared to deal efficiently and effectively with new mental challenges. Here are some of the types of exercise the brain needs:
- Creativity Do people have regular opportunities to explore new ideas and possibilities? Does the work environment include time for spontaneity and fun?
- Problem-solving Do people regularly have the opportunity to solve challenging problems or address tough issues? Is analytical thinking valued in the organization? Do people come together periodically to combine their knowledge and expertise on dealing with important concerns?
- FocusDo people have the opportunity for concentrated thinking about important topics related to their work? Are people encouraged to think deeply about things?
- Reflection Do the organization’s practices and norms encourage individuals to take time for self-reflection? Do people and teams take time after major events to pause and evaluate their effectiveness?
- Down Time Does the organization’s pace of work allow time for people to periodically step away from work demands? Do the organization’s practices and norms encourage individuals to replenish their energy with breaks, time off, and vacations?
In addition to making sure that attention is not drained unnecessarily and that people have a chance to exercise their brains, organizations can help people increase their mental energy by enabling them to expand their thinking and learn new things. Here are some things that contribute to building mental energy:
- Expertise Does the organization provide training and other learning opportunities to help people deepen their knowledge? Are people encouraged to develop their expertise by teaching and mentoring others? Is learning seen as an important investment of time and resources?
- Stretch Are people encouraged to take on new assignments and responsibilities that require them to push beyond their current patterns of thinking and behavior? Are goals set at a level that encourages people to continually improve their effectiveness? Do leaders support people in taking the risks that come with moving outside of their comfort zones?
I encourage you to take a few minutes to evaluate your organization and identify some simple changes that can help you, and those around you, create and sustain higher levels of mental energy.
In the next entry in this series, we will look at the organization’s role in supporting emotional energy.
The previous post in this series focused on the impact to individuals of change-related overload. This post will focus on the organizational implications.
Almost every organization I’ve worked with in the past few years has a problem with change overload. A combination of rapid change in the environment, leadership’s inability to say “no” to things that sound appealing, and a failure to accurately estimate the level of demand being placed on the organization lead to certain groups (middle managers in most systems; nurses and physicians in health care; teachers and principals in school systems; etc.) being swamped with change demand. Here are some of the things that I’ve seen happening as a result:
Change implementation is poor. When too much change is going on, there are not enough implementation resources to go around. As a result, communication is often last-minute and incomplete, training needs are overlooked, and leaders don’t invest enough time and energy in making sure the results are achieved.
People feel victimized and cynical. When change implementation is poor, those on the receiving end of it are confused and overwhelmed. They get into a zone where all they see is one thing after another coming their way with little rhyme or reason, and they take the attitude of “here it comes again.” They begin to see themselves as victims of “them” (typically the head office, administration, or other central function) and become passive participants in the change process.
Nothing gets finished. When too many things are going on, people pay attention to whatever is right in front of them. Usually this is the latest thing the organization is focusing on. Project team resources are typically assigned to multiple initiatives and have to prioritize their time, and often there is little incentive to follow through on earlier projects.
Accountability diminishes. When people are used to having more to do than they can possibly get done, an unspoken agreement emerges between managers and employees. Employees work as hard as they can to get everything done that they possibly can, and managers don’t give them a hard time about what they don’t get finished. As a result, people are judged more on effort than on results, and being very busy is a badge of honor. People rarely step back to ask about the business results that are achieved–they focus instead on getting things checked off the list.
Reflective thinking time disappears. When people are up to their ears, they don’t have any spare capacity to serve as a buffer. The impact of unexpected events and surges in work demand cause front-line employees to scramble constantly, and this affects health and morale, leading to higher levels of absenteeism, poor teamwork, and increased turnover. It can also potentially affect customer service, quality, and safety. To make sure that customers are not affected, managers often jump in to cover things. This constant fire-fighting means that they rarely have time for one of the most important things they need to be doing–stepping back and thinking about how to create and improve work processes to deliver more effective results. It also means that there is little or no time for anyone to replenish their energy to better address future demands.
As you can see, change overload results in significant problems for both individuals and organizations. In the next part of this series, I will talk about ways that organizations can reduce overload and get things under control.
This is the first in a series of posts on managing change overload. This initial post focuses on change demand.
When we say change is demanding, we may mean one or more of several things.
Change activities are often additive to daily work. Most members of an organization have specific responsibilities and duties that are important to the smooth operation of the business–producing products, talking to customers, keeping financial records, etc. When we ask people to change something about what they are doing, they often need to participate in planning sessions, attend training, meet with leaders, respond to communications, and experiment with new ways of doing things. In many cases, there is a clear but typically unstated expectation that this will be done without impact to daily productivity.
Change consumes mental energy. When we are doing familiar work, our brains operate in “automatic” mode much of the time. Automatic processing of information is described as “unintentional, involuntary, effortless (not consumptive of limited processing capacity), and occurring outside awareness” by cognitive scientists such as John Bargh. In contrast, when we are engaging in unfamiliar activities, our brains need to [Read more…]