Are You Ready to Enter the Freeway of Change?

Jeff Cole

Driver in heavy traffic

Back in great-grandma’s day, change was slower.  A big change would occur, your grandparents would sit down on a bench and go 'Wow! That was a doozy!' Then they would take a good long breather. 'You ready for the next one Ma?' 'I think so Pa.' And eventually the next change would mosey on down the lane.

Today, you open your front door only to be greeted with a shotgun blast of change in the face. Three-point-two nanoseconds after that comes the next blast of change. In the time it takes you to go to lunch, 154 emails stack up in your inbox. Email number 34 announces a process change and email number 72 institutes a change to that change!

The thing about change is it has a pace. A tempo. A cadence. It seems the faster change gets, the more changes come our way. Speed and volume: two potent forces to keep in mind as we launch our process changes. It may be beneficial to think of your next process change as a car on a highway.


Change is like a busy highway

As you pull your car onto a busy highway, you have become adept over time at judging the speed and distance of traffic such that you can safely merge. Your brain is doing some pretty advanced calculations and communicating with your nervous system to help you accelerate at the right speed at the right time so you fit perfectly into the flow of traffic when your open spot appears. When somebody misjudges that, they tap another vehicle, shut down the lane and then nobody on the highway goes anywhere for a while!   

Your mind-body connection has developed this merging into traffic skill through much practice, licensing (hopefully…) and hundreds/thousands of successfully executed merges. It has become second nature – muscle memory – an automatic 'thing' you just do without really thinking about it.

Herein lies the problem for many organizational process changes. Some people create a change and then launch it into the organization the moment they are ready. That’s akin to you pulling your car onto the road when you are ready – not when the flow allows it.  

If you stand in the middle of your organization and look around, you’re likely to see a lot of other drivers – albeit they are driving their own changes into the organization. And many organizations have zero 'rules of the road' or even traffic cops to regulate what goes on. It’s like an invisible highway full of speeding changes – some changes are big semis lumbering along cross-country and others small sports cars zipping about.  Changes are merging onto the road, exiting, and in general trying to get to their desired destination. In some organizations, the bandwidth to absorb that amount of change traffic is like an eight-lane freeway, and in others, it’s a clogged one-way road with potholes and broken-down burning wreckage of failed changes littering the shoulders.  

To drive a car you have to practice, pass a written test, pass a driving test, and only then you are allowed to drive. In business, anybody can drive a change – there is no licensing, testing, or practice required. No competency requirements at all really. Feel free to hop onto that change highway and best of luck to you  – be sure to watch out for those wrong-way drivers…

So what can we do that will help? Here are two quick tips:

  • Try to visualize your highway - Unless you have a project management office of some form through which every change launched must be approved, you are kind of in the dark. Take a whiteboard, flipchart, bar napkin, etc. and jot down all ongoing and anticipated upcoming changes you are aware of – both local to your organization and those driven by your larger corporate entity that would impact your audience. Have others review and add to the list. For each change listed, think about its timeline, and how resource-impactive it is (who is impacted, when and where they are impacted, and how much impact it is).
  • Time your entry and exit - Now you can see the highway, but it’s foggy and you have limited visibility – you may not have captured everything above in a perfectly correct manner. You can, however, use that information to reduce the risk of 'crashing' your change. Estimate how fast your change is, who is impacted, when and where and by how much. That can then inform your decision on when and where to merge onto the change highway and at what speed. Or, maybe you can find an alternate route that is a safer and faster path to your destination. Alternatively, you call in the Highway Patrol to escort some of the other changes off the road and give yours a police escort.

Overall, driving change can be trickier than driving a car. Why? You have limited visibility and no rules of the road.  And, unlike tarmac, the road to change tends to shift faster. The changes traveling down that road sometimes morph – that Ferrari in front of you traveling at 70 mph changes, without warning, into a circus wagon full of elephant dung traveling five mph. It pays to be alert.

I hope these tips make sense and help. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go scrub some elephant dung off my latest change… Happy motoring!