Change saturation can occur when too many changes, of varying complexity, are happening at the same time. People can become overwhelmed and fatigued by all of the change, leading to stress, exhaustion and burnout (for more information on this phenomenon, see Change fatigue in nurses: A qualitative study – while this study was done with nurses, the article highlights issues with change fatigue more generally).
It is important, therefore, to understand the number and complexity of the changes currently happening in our organization. We can begin by thinking back to our exercise to map our forces and better understand our interdependencies.
We can consider change saturation to be mostly at the organizational level, while change fatigue concerns the individual level. The idea is to recognize how much change is happening at the same time, the overall impact (or level of disruption), and our capacity to adapt to change.
By analyzing the level of change saturation and change fatigue in our organization, we can better understand where we may need to make adjustments to our change approach, timelines and sequencing, or even the goals/outcomes of the change itself.
How can we recognize and help deal with change saturation and fatigue?
We can better understand our change saturation and fatigue by going back to our system map and some of our earlier discussions with the broader leadership team and stakeholders on interdependencies. Through these discussions we should be able to get a sense of the number of changes, the level of disruption they pose, and our capacity to deal with them.
There are a range of indicators/symptoms we can look out for to help us understand the level of change saturation, including:
- Poor project delivery including failure to produce expected results
- Missed deadlines
- Lack of focus on operations
- Automatic resistance
- Attrition and turnover
- Low morale throughout the organization
- Changes viewed as distractions
There are a range of indicators/symptoms we can look out for to help us understand the level of change fatigue, including:
- Disengagement, apathy and indifference
- Anxiety, stress and weariness
- Less organized consideration of alternatives when making decisions
- Reduced consideration of consequences
- More complaints and “noise”
- Cynicism (“Flavour of month” mentality)
If we need further information
If we do not yet have a full enough picture and/or wish to go a little further, we can pose questions to members of the broader leadership team and key stakeholders geared specifically for saturation and fatigue. This can be done by rating perceptions for the following themes on a scale from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree (this scale was adapted from Change Fatigue: Development and Initial Validation of a New Measure by Stanley G. Harris):
- Too many change initiatives are introduced at (organization/branch/unit)
- I am tired of all the changes in (organization/branch/unit).
- The amount of change that takes place at (organization/branch/unit) is overwhelming.
- We are asked to change too many things at (organization/branch/unit).
- It feels like we are always being asked to change something around here.
- I would like to see a period of stability before we change anything else at this (organization/branch/unit).
Strategies to mitigate change saturation and fatigue
Dealing with the number of changes
- Stop/pause/delay some of the initiatives under way
- Explore potential synergies between other changes and see how they can be integrated into, or complement, our overall change strategy
- Stagger, re-sequence, or re-prioritize
Strategies to decrease the level of disruption
- Ensure ongoing dialogue to increase clarity around the change and promote engagement
- Involve people early in the change process (this way they won’t be surprised down the road)
- Invest in developing change leadership capacity at all levels
- Create a safe conversation space and make time for people
These strategies above are mostly from an organizational perspective. What is helpful to keep in mind is that, at the individual level, there will also be a whole other layer of changes happening in people’s personal lives.
While it’s not possible (and likely overly intrusive) to know all the changes happening in people’s personal lives, we can at least be mindful of the fact that some people will be going through a lot of personal change (for more on this see Holmes and Rahe’s stress scale) and that this will impact their ability/capacity to deal with any new change.
Ultimately what we are trying to do is get a sense of how difficult the change will be to implement and where we may need to consider making adjustments to our change approach, timelines and sequencing, or even the goals/outcomes of the change itself.
Using any combination of the strategies above to make adjustments to the course of a change initiative takes courage as leaders. In many organizational cultures we tend to reward concrete, short-term results rather than long-term capacity-building. This can make it even more difficult as a leader to make tough decisions that will alleviate pressure on our workforce rather than adding to the variety of changes already happening.
Now that we have a better appreciation of how much the organization is able to absorb a change, we can better determine how much we need to invest in helping get it ready for implementation. This is what we’ll work on next.