Change: How Much is Too Much? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Dr. Laurence T. Spring has served as an educator for 30 years, including 15 as a superintendent. He is a consultant to organizations and schools, specializing in change management and equity issues. He writes about the obstacles that prevent effective change management and how organizations can overcome them.
All leaders understand the importance of being able to affect change in their organizations. Your business environment shifts quickly and if you are unable to adjust, your organization can get left behind.
The necessity of change has also created a mindset that if a little change is good, more must be better, and a lot must be great. Most of the literature on change management is about how to make more change happen and very little is on whether to implement change. This is even though we intuitively know too much change can be detrimental to our organizations. In fact, more initiatives fail than are successful, with some researchers finding that less than 30% of organizational change efforts are successful.
The problem has always been in knowing how much change is too much. As leaders, we are prone to errors in thought leading us to overestimate how much change the organization can produce at any one time. We are prone to thinking that past initiatives are already part of the culture before they are solidified, we underestimate how much people will dislike an initiative, and we overestimate our leadership ability to manage initiatives. All of these factors lead us to plan more change than an organization can produce and highlight a need for an objective measure to monitor levels of change.
Organizations that consistently exceed their change production capacity create a condition of change-fatigue in their employees, which not only reduces effectiveness, but also produces resistance to further changes. When organization members reach a state of change fatigue, they become cynical and begin to provide only measured efforts for initiatives and routine work alike. The trick for leaders is to push the organization to produce as much change as it can, without consistently exceeding those limits.
But how are leaders to know how much change is too much? Measuring the magnitude of change efforts is an emerging concept with only a few commercial tools available. Despite the limited resources, there are a set of concepts that can be very helpful to leaders and managers of change efforts.
The magnitude of effort an initiative takes can be thought of as a function of the percentage of the organization that will have to change its behavior with that initiative, those people’s affinity for that initiative, and the depth of that initiative. The first variable, membership, is a simple measurement of the number of people affected by the initiative divided by the total number of employees in the organization. If more than 40% of the members are affected, the variable gets a maximum score of five.
The second variable, affinity, represents the degree to which the initiative conflicts with members beliefs and how much trust members have in the leader of the change effort. When the conflict with beliefs is high, or the trust is low, a maximum score is called for. The last variable, depth, is the intersection of interdependence and complexity related to the initiative. Initiatives that require high degrees of interdependence or are highly complex will require more energy.
Each of these variables is rated on a five point scale and the values multiplied. Initiatives with maximum values in all three categories would require 125 Change Value Units, or CVUs. Organizations can generally successfully implement initiatives that require less than 80 CVUs as long as they are not demanding more than 225 CVUs, collectively.
Initiatives are also implemented with change management strategies and therefore do not use the same amount of energy throughout the rollout. During a typical five-phase rollout, consisting of planning, ramping up, implementation, acclimatization and normalization, maximum energy would be used during implementation and far less during normalization and very little during planning.
By calculating the amount of energy associated with each initiative and mapping the phases of each roll out, leaders can more effectively monitor when their organization is nearing or exceeding capacity producing change and make adjustments if there is unused capacity or if they are on a path toward change fatigue.
Each initiative can be mapped across the rollout, allowing leaders to look at the cumulative totals of change effort for all initiatives. This view helps leaders to be more objective in their estimates of how much change they are demanding of their organization by both quantifying change effort as well as keeping initiatives in the equation until normalization is complete.
Planning change well is important for an effective organization, but so is planning for stability. Don’t forget to ask yourself how much change you have happening before you implement the next initiative.