Stop Hitting the Change Fatigue Wall

Apr 14, 2014 in Uncategorized by
Stop Hitting the Change Fatigue Wall

In today’s world there is an unprecedented need for organizations to have a high level of plasticity (adaptability of an organism to change in its environment). With the rate of change within the marketplace accelerating all of the time, change within an organization is not a now and again initiative anymore. For companies to stay competitive, they must continuously adapt. But as many companies attempt to improve, they find that constant adaptation seems unsustainable. Individuals and groups, facing increasing pressure of endless change, begin to break down. Does this mean there is no way to develop the ability to deal with the change that is required now to adapt and remain successful?

No. There is a way and it simply takes changing our perspective and really dealing with the root cause of the issue – we are not actively designing environments to support the changes.

Change as an Initiative
When leaders today realize this need for adaptation to be competitive we often jump to the idea that we can start an improvement initiative and then push forward with constant change and improvement. That we can strive for continuous change and a linear growth of improvement as we progress with the initiative over years. Following this mindset we fund and initiate some flavor of change or improvement initiative within our organization. Individuals are assigned to own and facilitate the improvement and change across the organization consistently over long periods of time.

As this goes on, we start to see some signs that this isn’t going as well as we wanted it to. We aren’t getting the results that we expected, yet we are still investing significantly in the initiative. There is a marked slowdown in improvement after a certain period of time. We start to see people lose focus or interest in the improvement initiative. The original energy and excitement that came with making things better isn’t there anymore.

There are people who were originally champions or strong supporters that have started to withdraw from initiative, not wanting to be associated with it anymore. This can be a very surprising and disconcerting experience. Up to that point we have built up a great track record for making good progress; things had improved in dramatic ways. Yet, even though there are still obvious things that could be tackled that would make things better, people have lost energy.

Change Fatigue

I’m sure that there are many of you out there reading this that immediately see the issue that we are running into here – change fatigue. Change fatigue generally defined as when a group or organization hits a point of exhaustion due to the increasing effort and amount of disruption created by change. The experiences above are typical of change fatigue, people start to show signs of:
– Burnout
– Disengagement
– Apathy
– Sarcasm
– Cynicism
– Disdain

When the wall of change fatigue is hit in an organization, morale goes down conspicuously, people start to have very quick and automatic negative reactions to even the smallest of changes, the changes are viewed as distractions from doing valuable work and in the worst cases you start to see an increase in turnover of people in the organization.

Cyclical Change
Change fatigue is a well known issue with change in an organization and so the response is often to modify the approaches to change so that we start to reduce the fatigue while also setting up an ability to restart change in the near future. When the change plateaus, when the rate of improvement starts to slow, that is used as the trigger to reduce the focus and drive around change. In some cases a “resting” period is introduced to allow the organization to recover from the fatigue that was building up during the change disruption. In the best cases this period is used to try to increase the “change potential” of the organization by focusing on different groups seeing and understanding each other’s new approaches, techniques and learnings that were built up during the the change period. This can have the result of not only fueling new ideas for the different groups but also creating stronger social networks within the organization where ideas can be created and flow across groups for more impact.

Once the resting period is over, a new change initiative is rolled out, branding it as a completely new and different thing. New terms and different approaches and activities are used. The goal is to create a new context within which the people would see possible improvements through a new perspective. The point is to encourage people to be hopeful and excited that the change will be something that provides positive outcomes and seen as having a good chance of making them more successful. Really creating a fresh new start on improvement.

This cyclical approach to change and improvement sounds extremely promising and the first couple iterations often show some good results. After each resting period, the organization is re-energized and focused on new improvements from each new change initiative. Yet, unfortunately it doesn’t take long before this approach runs right into all of the same signs of change fatigue.

Change of the Month Club
With this approach we are hoping, really expecting, to ride that wave of energy and focus that surrounds a new change. People will see new hope in this new change and thus jump on board with the expectations that this one will finally make their lives better and make us, as an organization, more successful. Yet, as this cycle continues, with new changes being introduced, the organizational memory of these experiences starts to consciously and subconsciously see the deception underlying this pattern. People start to lose trust in the changes and thus stop getting excited about the new change. They are very skeptical of the touted advantages and thus wait on the sidelines to see if others realize some form of success before committing themselves.

The focus on these changes that was once widespread becomes difficult to develop since now much of the organization feels that these changes are just a distraction from getting their “real work done”. The changes are not growing momentum across the organization anymore, so leaders often resort to more Tayloristic tactics. People are “incentivized” to get on board in one way or another through carrot/stick approaches. Yet, this is almost immediately ineffective since people recognize that if they do the minimum to simply stay under the radar, they can wait the change out without any significant damage done to them.

Once reaching this point, effective broad reaching improvement through change going forward is basically impossible. Trust in leadership has eroded to the point where people feel that leadership is completely disconnected to the realities of work. Morale and motivation suffer significantly. Instead of fostering improvement and greater success, what has been fostered is a mindset of just doing the minimum to get by. Efficiency and effectiveness go down and the organization as a whole suffers.

Eliminating Change Fatigue
So why does every road lead to disaster? Why does each approach eventually run into change fatigue? Ironically, it is because we are not dealing with the root cause of the issue. The root cause of the problem isn’t building up people’s energy, it is wether or not the environment that they are working within has been molded to encourage and support them being successful in this change. The key that is missing is the act of specifically designing the environment – the policies, procedures, rules, incentives, the day-to-day experiences – such that it makes the new ways of working or acting easy.

It is environment design that is generally missing from most change initiatives. We are creating conditions where people are asked to change the way they act, their mindset, their ways of being successful without explicitly making the changes throughout the organization to support these. This is why we continually hit change fatigue and exactly how we can solve the problem of change fatigue. Instead of slowing down to get a reasonable rate of change with resting or recovery periods, let’s get rid of what is creating the fatigue. It is through explicitly and very visibly changing the policies, procedures, rules, incentives, the day-to-day experiences so that they are in clear alignment with and make the new behaviors easy.

Ensuring that you don’t hit fatigue requires more than just changing the organization, it requires leaders to take a specific view on change within their organization. We work to ensure that the organization is structured to support the change, that other work has been traded off so that people have the needed space for the change, and that the needed education and training is there to ensure people have what they need to be successful. These are all things that we do already, the difference is instead of looking at the change as something done to or by other people in the organization, we as leaders must change ourselves as well. This isn’t about just talking the change up more, this is about truly changing the way that we interact with the people in our organizations. Every interaction that we have as leaders should reinforce the new behaviors. We look for or even create opportunities to reinforce the new mindset and behaviors – especially in situations when the people expect that we will fall back into the old mindset or behaviors ourselves.

It is through an environment that has been designed to provide supporting and reinforcing experiences every day to people that we are able to stop hitting the wall of change fatigue. It is our role as leaders to not only have an active hand in designing the environments to support the change but also changing ourselves that will have the strongest impact on our company’s ability to thrive in today’s storm of uncertainty.

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