It’s no secret that the amount of change in organizations is increasing.
Change is all around us. From economy wide impacts that hit us all, like the coronavirus pandemic… through industry specific changes such as those caused by new regulations… to the specific changes you’re making in your own business to deliver your strategy, like restructures or IT implementations.
At Cross 8 we’ve been instrumental in reducing the cycle time of projects and programmes to help companies respond to this increased change. You know more change is coming and you want to realise the benefits as quickly as possible, so the goal becomes to deliver each one as quickly as possible.
Well done us, right? Well yes, but it’s not the whole story.
If it isn’t handled carefully then the increased volume and frequency of change can have an impact on the people at the receiving end: your staff and sometimes even your customers.
In this article we’ll focus on the internal impacts and suggest some concrete things that you can do about it.
According to a Gallup poll, 76% of employees say they experience burnout at work. And two of the top three factors that were seen alongside burnout relate directly to change:
And it’s not just that it’s unpleasant to think your team might be struggling. This burnout translates into direct impacts on your ability to implement change.
Staff reporting burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and more than two and half times more likely to be looking for another job.
Change fatigue is something you can’t afford to ignore.
Do you know how each of your changes fits together? Which departments and business units are getting hit by multiple changes at the same time or in quick succession?
The chances are that you’ve already organised your projects into programmes of work (and if not, then we can very quickly help you do that, it’s an easy step that will instantly increase your control and make life easier for your people).
If you’ve got good programme managers, they’ll be taking into account the combined impact of the projects under them on any department.
But what about the wider impact across programmes? For example, perhaps you have a programme looking at supply chain, another implementing a new CRM, and a third looking to introduce changes to hiring practices due to IR35. They all feel like separate things, they’d no doubt have different teams working on them and there’s a high probability that they’d even have different sponsors, but they could all hit your Finance department.
And it’s worth bearing in mind that change tends to accumulate as it flows through your organization. So whatever changes you’re implementing the odds of multiple changes landing on you increase the closer you are to the front line, meaning that the very people who deal with your customers are likely to be the ones bearing the brunt of the changes.
So step one is to look across your organization at the whole change landscape and develop a heatmap with a departmental lens. That’ll let you see whether you have any potential problems looming, giving you the chance to solve them before they break out.
We all know that communication is a perennial complaint within every organization. In fact, 74% of workers say they feel like they’re missing out on company news feel and, according to IBM, 72% say they don’t completely understand their company’s strategy.
But just telling people what your change is about won’t work. The key is to talk “with them” not “at them”. Engage the people affected by your change early and don’t just tell them what it’s going to look like when it’s delivered, share with them what the process to get there looks like.
And… now take a breath, here’s where it might get a bit uncomfortable…, as far as you can, be open about some of the uncertainties. For every cynic rolling their eyes (and you will get some!) there’ll be many more of your people who will appreciate the fact that you’re human occasionally and that you can admit to not knowing everything, and even, heaven forbid, being slightly nervous about it.
As a recent McKinsey report on reenergizing organizations says:
“…senior leaders can unintentionally make the situation worse when they are unaware of the disconnect between where they are emotionally and where their employees are, prolonging the disillusionment and exhaustion.”
By meeting them where they are and being up front about it, most of your people will feel a lot more part of the process. Clearly you need to balance this with the right level of encouragement (it will help nobody if you choose to announce your complete lack of faith in the project on a stage launching your new product!), something that McKinsey call “bounded optimism”.
It’s a useful habit to cultivate. Inspire your people while keeping them grounded in the likely reality and they’ll trust you more, your current change is likely to land more successfully, and ultimately their capacity for change will be increased.
A recent Gartner survey found that workers who report high trust in their leaders had a capacity for change that was 2.6 times higher than people who had low trust.
We need to acknowledge a point:
When it comes to change, both the finance available and the human capacity in your organization have a limit and need to be budgeted for.
This might seem obvious, but the truth is that change fatigue wouldn’t be a thing if we were doing it. When we come to decide what we’re doing at the start of each planning cycle where do we put our attention? The budget, then the capacity of the people delivering the change, and seldom if ever the capacity of the people receiving it.
So, what do you do differently?
You probably already have a series of internal negotiations when it comes to which projects and programmes are going to get the go ahead.
Why not use the organizational heatmap we mentioned earlier as a tool to facilitate a discussion about the “human change budget” in the same sessions?
If it’s informed by an open conversation in advance with the impacted people about the level of change they feel they can manage then so much the better, but even an uninformed discussion in the first instance will help move your culture towards taking it into account.
And, as paradoxical as it sounds, as we saw above being transparent about this process will ultimately mean more engaged staff and an increased capacity for change.
Even once you’ve prioritized effectively, the truth is you probably can’t reduce the amount of change in your organization to a level that all of your staff would find comfortable. And you probably wouldn’t want to.
Change is an essential part of running an effective business today.
But you can make it easier for your people, and at the same time increase your organisation’s ability to respond to the need for change, whether that’s external or internal.