Is your company experiencing "change overload"? Three dials you need to know

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Jeff Cole

Ever hear complaints from people that "their plate is full" or "there’s too much going on"? How can you possibly hope to roll out any form of process change in such conditions and hope to succeed? This month, columnist Jeff Cole shares three techniques available to you right now to address such a situation.

We all know that if you try to change too much at once it can be a disaster. When met with too much change, people go into "change overload" and start behaving in a dysfunctional manner beginning with a loss of focus, minor frustration outbursts and it builds from there.

The phenomenon is called Change Saturation.

Each of us only has a finite amount of change we can absorb until we’ve met our limit. It’s like a sponge full of water. Once fully saturated, a sponge can no longer absorb any moisture.

It gets worse though… Your change "sponge" is not the same size as the person’s next to you. Based on our upbringing, life experiences, etc. we all have different capacities to absorb change. Plus, you don’t get one sponge for home and another for the office. For all you know the fellow in the office next to you just had his identity stolen, his dog ran away, and his mother-in-law announced she’s moving in! And the boss wonders why this guy is not focused.

If you and I are driving process change in an organization, it’s wise to understand and keep an eye on the level of change saturation your audience is undertaking. How saturated are they now and how much will the emotional, mental, and resource burden of your proposed change add to this toxic cocktail?

If you are met with an audience whom you suspect may have a high level of change saturation, don’t fret. There happen to be three magical dials you get to control in your management system that allow you to navigate around such roadblocks.

Dial #1: Location

Think of all the changes in your organization as blips on a radar screen. You have a few jumbo jets out there, a bunch of regional jets, and a handful of smaller private jets darting back and forth. Any change you launch needs a clean landing strip. Know what’s in your airspace and what’s on the tarmac. Sometimes jets get re-routed to alternate airports because runways aren’t free. Are you operating out of five offices? Three regional zones? Twelve different departments?

In choosing where to pilot your change, or how to roll-out a change, keep the saturation concept in mind. Simply changing the location sequence can be a great way to maintain momentum in a rollout without breaching people’s assimilation capacity for change.

Dial #2: Timing

As simple as this is, it’s sometimes overlooked and sometimes flat out ignored. There may be no perfect time for you to intervene with your change, but there are likely some better times than others. Coordinating the timing of the changes in your airspace so as to not overload your audience is sound advice. Sometimes a one or two day/week delay to allow the "jet wash" from the preceding change to settle down can greatly increase the chances of meeting your change goals on time and on budget.

Dial #3: Content

If an audience has a very full plate and not much capacity, consider altering the content of your process change. Can you implement a phased approach, providing the change in smaller bite-size pieces? Can parts of the change be done in a non-invasive fashion? Can training be done in a "Just in Time" fashion or in a self-paced manner? Can any of the process changes be transparent to the user? Can you make use of simple poka-yoke or error-proofing mechanisms at appropriate points?

All three of these dials are at your disposal immediately. Over the longer-term you can also work to increase your audience’s resilience levels so they can take on more change – in essence increase the size of each person’s change sponge.

Until then though, feel free to man your radar screen and bring your next change in for a perfect three-point landing!