Change Fatigue, the Frog and the Elephant

Change fatigue, kissing frogs and eating elephants

You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince (why is it never a princess?).  This is the same with change in a lot of organisations – you have to make a lot of changes to get to your optimal position, some will be successful and others won’t and change fatigue is often the result. Sad really that we continually flog ourselves in our business lives to get to a position of ‘optimality’, but achieving this is often a meandering slog.

And worse – we’re never sure when we’ve kissed enough frogs and found enough princes/princesses to achieve our goal – perhaps you can never have enough, perhaps we don’t know what our goal is, or someone keeps moving the goalposts?

That’s enough about frogs. The real point of this note is to try to write down the reasons why organisations experience perpetual change, and what can be done to minimize the perception of never-ending change. Hopefully readers have their own ideas to add.

Change fatigue is experienced by most of us at points in our professional (and personal) lives. You can see it in other people when they roll their eyes, slump their shoulders, drag their feet, gossip and whinge upon announcement of another change – somewhat unexpectedly the small changes to things like organisational design often get the same reactions as more significant changes (shock, anger, etc.).

People are people – they have egos and personalities and whatever is changing around them they’re looking at the following questions;

  • what’s in it for me?
  • was I asked?
  • when and how?
  • how does it really affect the things I care about?
  • why is it happening yet again?

Let’s look at why perpetual change happens;

  • Because it can. Cynically, it gives managers something to do. I don’t really think this is common in the real world though, it is often about ‘eating the elephant’ – lots of changes (‘bites’) need to be made to enable the ultimate goal (‘eating the whole elephant’) to be achieved.
  • Developing the elephant analogy further, do we really know what the scale of the elephant is? Is there a corporate strategy that elaborates the desired end-state, and what the journey is to get there in terms of underlying operational strategies? If this isn’t clear, then there may be false starts, and false end, leading to the perception of piecemeal change and hence change fatigue.
  • Will the elephant stand still? Clearly a lot of changes are foisted upon organisations by regulators, governments, local authorities, professional bodies etc., and these cannot always be planned for. Some of these changes will be planned, others will not. There are a number of other external factors that cause organisations to have to implement unscheduled change, such as competitive pressures, new products, business opportunities, M&A and the like.
  • How many elephants do we have? Nursing a herd is harder than just looking after a single beast, particularly when they want to move at different rates, go off on diversions, sleep and eat at different times. The elephants will always need a different degree of nursing too – how much management time does each project require, and can they be managed collectively?

I’m sure that we could continue talking about elephants, but the point is that there are good and meaningful reasons often (sometimes there is not!) why there is perpetual change, and here are some of things that can be done to minimise the change fatigue.

  • Ensure that you have a strategy and a lucid desired end-state. Communicate it so that everyone knows where they are going and can learn to deal with it, and have an opportunity to participate! If you tell a group of people that their roles are to be outsourced, then tell them everything (as far as you can), get them to meet their counterparts, understand the implications, get involved in the transaction and transition etc., as there will be a huge number of things that have to happen before the final transfer happens. It is in everyone’s best interest that the change is a success.
  • Have detailed operational plans and strategies that map into corporate level strategy. Make sure that managers responsible stick to agreed plans.
  • Manage all change in one place – you should aim to get one view of all change across your organisation, and manage it as a cohesive whole at a macro-level. If anyone wants to change their plans, make an announcement or accelerate/decelerate, there is then a means of governance and ensuring that the implications of any adjustment are considered. This is typically a programme management or change director function.
  • Ensure that there is clarity of sponsorship – knowing that there is a senior sponsor (or the Board for significant change programmes) overseeing what is happening helps calm nerves. But sponsorship must be earnest and visible, otherwise it will hinder rather than help.
  • Continue to communicate to all stakeholders throughout – once you’ve set along a path, keep coming back and telling stakeholders what is going on, and ensuring that there is two-way communication, websites, announcement plans and so on. This stops a lot of the worry, angst, gossip and wasted effort. If plans change, then communicate to people as soon as you can. If new things need to happen, communicate as soon as you can. You need to ensure that all key relationships are managed explicitly – if relationships fail, then you are more likely to fail.
  • Design your plans such that there are ‘islands of stability’ – periods where nothing new happens, everyone has a rest, focuses on the job. This will pay dividends.

Of course, the list above is just a list of things to do for well-managed change initiatives, but that is what makes them well managed and what helps prevent change fatigue. It is people that stop change, so if you don’t deal with the people aspects of change there is the real risk that your change programme will fail or wander off into a perpetual elephant-eating contest.

David Walker is a Change Maker with significant experience of managing change programmes.  If you’d like to learn more about how to make your projects successful, get your free pass to The Change Maker Summit and pose your questions to David live! CLICK HERE TO REGISTER AND FIND OUT MORE.