Change saturation is a common term used by change practitioners to describe a picture where there may be too many changes being implemented at the same time. The analogy is that of a cup with limited capacity, where if too much change is poured into a fixed volume, the rest will not stay in the cup or be ‘embedded’ as adopted changes.
At the end of 2020, Pivot Consulting conducted extensive research where they asked a range of different roles in organisations about implementing change. When questioned about key challenges to executing strategy and driving change, change fatigue or employees being overwhelmed by multiple initiatives is identified as one of the top 2 most critical challenges. It can be seen that change saturation is not just a popular discussion topic but a serious focus area that is posing significant challenges to a range of organisations.
There are many common ways of understanding and approaching change saturation. However, many of these are not always correct with some being quite misleading. In this article, we aim to review the 5 key incorrect assumptions about change saturation that are downright misleading and should be directly challenged. These may be assumptions that are widely held and assumed to be ‘facts’ and are not questioned.
In the following, we outline the key assumptions that should be challenged when approaching change saturation.
1. Change is disruption
The first assumption is that change is always ‘disruption’. Change can be dynamic. There is also a range of different types of changes. Therefore, change does not always need to be negative and cause chaos or impede normal ways of working.
Take, for example, agile teams. A part of the work of an agile team is to drive continuous improvement. The team establishes regular routines to try something new, i.e. a change. They then execute it and examine the data to see the effect of the change on business. For these teams, ‘planned’ changes are just part of normal ways of working, and therefore not necessarily viewed as ‘disruptions’ to their work since this is part of their work.
On the other hand, change is also not always ‘negative’. Some changes may be there to make it easier for the employee or the customer. For example, it may be that the organisation is implementing system-driven automation to save employees time in entering manual information. These changes are typically welcomed by the impacted employees and are not perceived as ‘disruptions’ to their work. Instead, they are typically perceived as positive changes.
As a result, change needs to be understood by its specific impact on the various stakeholders, and not by its ‘disruption’. A more useful way to understand the impact of the changes on end stakeholders may be to understand the various activities required for them to undergo the change and shift their behaviours.
For example, it could be that a customer service rep may need to undergo training sessions, team briefing sessions, review documentation, and receive team leader feedback, in the overall change journey. These activities may be ‘on top’ of existing normal business routines, or they may be a part of existing business routines, and therefore not ‘adding’ to the ‘saturation level’.
2. Change capacity is determined by capability
It is a commonly held belief that change capacity is determined by change capability at individual, team and organisational levels. Yes, factors such as change leadership, individual change capability and skills can improve change capacity. However, change capacity is not only determined by capability.
Indeed, there are other factors that determine change capacity.
Humans are designed to have a limited attention span. When there are too many things happening at the same time, we can only focus on a limited number of things at the same time. There are many studies that show if we keep switching focus between different tasks, we are likely to not have full focus and attention which will leave us to making mistakes.
This also applies to learning. The more we focus on multiple tasks, the more we are not able to tune out and therefore engage in deeper processing and learning.
What about thinking about multiple initiatives? According to University of Oregon researchers, professors Edward Awh and Edward Vogel, the human brain has a built-in limit on the number of discrete thoughts it can entertain at one time. The limit for most individuals is four. It does not matter how much capability development one focuses on, there is a limit to how much capacity can be created. Therefore, there is a cap on to what extent capability may lift change capacity. After all, no matter how skillful someone is, biological tendencies and restrictions remain.
The level of expectation of the extent to which one can change can determine the outcome. Studies have shown the individual negativity or positivity can impact the outcome. The more negative an individual of the outcome, the more negative the outcome becomes. However, if the expectations are unrealistically high, they may lead to disappointment.
Think back to the impacts of Covid, and how what would have seemed almost impossible in terms of virtual working has suddenly become a reality overnight. Often what companies had imagined taking 10 years to achieve, is suddenly achieved overnight out of necessity. The expectation that there is no other way and that there is no choice leads to the acceptance of the change scenario.
3. Basing saturation points purely on opinions
As change practitioners, we often aim to be the ‘people’ representative. Many think of themselves as the ‘social worker’ or ‘welfare worker’ who are there to be the voice of employees. Whilst, it is true that we need to be the voice of people, the definition of ‘people’ should not just include employees, but a range of stakeholders including managers.
Especially when the change environment is complex and challenging, there may be a tendency for people to ‘over-inflate’ the reality of the situation. Sometimes it may be easier to call out that there is too much change in the hope that this feedback will result in less change volume, thereby making work ‘easier’.
Change practitioners need to be aware of political biases or tendencies for people to report on feedback that is not substantiated by data. Interviews with stakeholders may need to be supplemented by surveys or focus groups to test the validity of the results. We should not simply assume that anything stakeholders tell us are ‘truths’ per se, especially since there is political motivation in biased reporting.
4. Focus on capability vs systems and processes to manage saturation
An overt focus on capability, knowledge and skills, may lead to gaps in the overall ability to manage change saturation. This is because skills and competencies are just one of many elements that supports change execution. Beyond this, effective organisations also need to focus on having the right systems and processes established to support ongoing change execution.
Systems and processes include such as:
Learning operations processes whereby there is a clear set of steps for the business to communicate, undertake, and embed training/learning activities. These include the right channel to organise people capacity to attend sessions, communication channels regarding the nature of scheduled training sessions and monitoring the effectiveness of these sessions
Communication processes include having a range of effective channels that promote dynamic communication between employees and managers, as well as across different business units and teams.
Data and reporting mechanisms to visualise change impacts, measurement on change saturation levels, and report on change delivery tracking and change adoption progress
Governance established to examine change indicators including change saturation, risks identified, and make critical decisions on sequencing, prioritisation, and capacity mitigation
Skills and competencies are one element, but without processes and systems established to execute the change and track/report on change saturation, there will be limited business outcomes achieved.
Outlined in this article are just 5 of the common assumptions about change saturation that are misleading. There are many more other assumptions. The key for change practitioners is not to blindly rely on ‘methodologies’ or concepts, but instead to focus on data and facts to make decisions. Managing change saturation needs to be data-driven. Otherwise, stakeholders may easily dismiss any change saturation claims (as is often the case with senior managers). Armed with the right data and insights, the change practitioner has the power to influence a range of change decisions to achieve an optimal outcome for the organisation.
Being more strategic in managing change is about being more focused on those aspects of driving change that will create the most value for the organisation. This is directly comparable to what strategy is about. Strategy is about choosing a particular path to achieve a particular set of goals, versus other paths. There are many paths and many ways to manage change and different paths may yield different results.
What are the advantages of being more strategic? Being more strategic means you are clearer in terms of the specific approach you are taking in leading change and how that translates to a particular set of results. It is not just about following a particular methodology blindly or whatever approach is ‘in vogue’.
Strategic change practitioners create greater value for the organisation. They are more able to connect with senior managers in terms of driving organisational impact and results versus being focused just on individual implementation tactics. They are also able to easily articulate why change activities are carried out and how they contribute to the overall outcomes. Moreover, they’re able to position the value of the change in the overall strategy of the organisation and why the change is important. In approaching the implementation they zoom in on the parts of the change that makes the most difference.
How does a change practitioner be more strategic?
Start with understanding and linking the initiative to the strategy
Every initiative exists to support a particular strategy that the company has created. Change practitioners need to have a good understanding of the organisational strategies, why they were created, and what they aimed to achieve. At a basic level, it should be clearly understood by all stakeholders why the initiative was created and the strategy it aims to support.
A clear grasp of how the initiative supports an organisational strategy helps the change practitioner position the size of the value delivered by the initiative. As a result, it helps with determining the focus and effort that should be devoted to and how to realise the objectives of this initiative.
Organisational strategy can also be understood using the 3 horizons model. Strategies and initiatives can fall within each of the 3 horizons.
Horizon 1 ideas provide continuous innovation to a company’s existing business model and core capabilities in the short-term.
Horizon 2 ideas extend a company’s existing business model and core capabilities to new customers, markets, or targets.
Horizon 3 is the creation of new capabilities and new business to take advantage of or respond to disruptive opportunities or to counter disruption.
Most change practitioners would be involved in horizon 1 initiatives where there are immediate changes required to the business in the shorter term. However, there are also initiatives about transformation in horizon 2 concerned with building core capabilities. Horizon 3 is about building and launching new products or launching into new markets outside of the existing business. There may also be initiatives within this horizon. Understanding which horizon the initiative falls under helps with its positioning.
Improving business acumen:
Having good business acumen is critical to being a strategic change practitioner. If you do not understand how the business works then it is hard to be strategic. This is because without understanding key drivers of how the business works, it is hard to formulate the right positioning to support the change initiative in a way that supports the realisation of the strategy.
Don’t fret. There are a few focus areas that can point you in the right direction.
1. How the company makes money.
At a basic level, understand how the company is structured and how it makes money. Lay out all the various departments of the organisation. Focus on key operations of the business. This can be labelled as a value chain, or how services and products get produced and delivered to the customer. What are the key investments of the organisation? In a financial services setting the focus is on people, financial investment, and technology. In manufacturing, it could be on equipment and supply chain.
Focus on the key drivers for the company. Is the company focused on maximizing profit? Or is the focus on increasing revenue? Is there a focus on decreasing costs to increase revenue? What are the ‘big buckets’ in which cost savings can be achieved? And therefore how is your initiative supporting any of these drivers?
The critical part is to understand ‘why’ the company is focused on particular activities. There are the business-as-usual parts of the organisation focused on maintenance of the business (’keeping the lights on’), and then there are core drivers that can make or break the business and its financials. Seek to understand why particular strategies were chosen and what objectives they will help the company to achieve.
2.Competition and the market landscape.
After understanding how a company operates, the next step is to understand the landscape that it operates. A good model to be familiar with in analysing the competitive landscape of the industry is Porter’s 5 forces model. Seek to understand the interplay between the 5 forces. How do these shape the industry? As a result, how is the company positioned in the market? To be successful which forces is the company focused on managing?
Is your initiative involved in providing a better experience for customers because the landscape has been changing and customers are more demanding and have more choices than before? Is the initiative focused on launching a digital solution so that the company is not overtaken by rivals who offer better options to customers? Is the company’s profit suffering due to increased material/finance costs and therefore the initiatives are focused on containing cost? Is the program focused on improving efficiency through launching a systems solution and therefore improving customer delivery time or saving headcount?
Focus on providing value to the organisation
We know that it is not always easy to prove the value of change management. People benefits are not always tangible and easily measured. However, this does not mean that it is less important or that measurement is not valuable. In the past, there have been efforts to try and measure change management in terms of return on investment (ROI). However, this may not be the most strategic way of demonstrating the value of change management.
Where possible, always focus on creating value for the organisation, as opposed to focusing on saving costs. The ultimate superpower of change management is about creating the right organisational environment so as to fully realize the benefits targeted by initiatives. Initiative benefits may not always be in financial dollar terms but are often in the hundreds of thousands to millions in benefits.
On the other hand, a focus on cost will always be compared against other costs. You can try and argue that the cost for change management is not large, but then there are always ways to reduce the cost. Going down the path of focusing on cost can only get you so far. This is for the same reason that a company that only focuses on reducing cost will not grow. Alternatively, focus on increasing value for the organisation means targeting a much bigger piece of the pie. Here is an example of why focusing on value often means creating a lot more impact than focusing on cost.
To adopt a rigorous logic-based approach in determining your change approach, use the MECE framework. MECE stands for mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. The framework is commonly used by strategy consultants when they analyse the organisation and determine what strategies to formulate.
There are 2 aspects to using this model. The model is based on a scientific hypothesis approach to problem-solving. This means that you must always begin with a hypothesis, followed by branches that test the hypothesis. To goal is to prove or disprove the hypothesis. For example, “by open-sourcing change tactics, we will achieve a better change outcome”. Then you can draw a tree diagram that branches out the various factors that can either support or disprove this. For example, these could be the potential branches:
The culture of the company is hierarchical and employees are not always forthcoming in openly sharing their ideas and expect to be lead
The project has a particularly tight timeline and there may not be sufficient time to properly engage the community for various ideas
Program sponsor and key stakeholders already have a fixed idea of how they want to implement the change, and therefore may not be open to other ideas
The organisation does not have a history of undergoing significant change and therefore employees may not understand the effort required to drive and sustain the change
From each branch, there can be subbranches that call out the evidence or reasoning for each branch. In this case, there seems to be strong logic that this hypothesis is false. Therefore, this is not a good strategy to use for this initiative.
Use the MECE approach to strategize your change approach. A lot of practitioners tend to prefer to follow standard change management models and methodologies. This may be OK as a reference, or a reminder. However, an effective change approach that is strategically focused on what the organisation needs must be developed using a logic-based approach. One that is tailored and designed specifically for the unique situation that the company is in currently.
Your change strategy or approach should always be unique to the requirements of the organisation. It should never be a ‘copy’ of another initiative because no two initiatives are ever completely the same. There will be tactics that are similar across initiatives, such as engagement approaches utilised or impact assessment design. However, the change strategy needs to call out what is unique about this initiative and how the change strategy is specifically designed for this situation.
Build change measurement and tracking
Business strategy can only be successful if it can be measured. Without measurement, there is no way of knowing if the objectives are achieved or when to abandon the strategy and adapt/tweak as required. The same applies to change strategy and execution. The change strategy must come with a set of metrics in order to gauge to what extent the strategy is successful or not.
Be aware of not creating too many metrics that will lead to significant effort required to capture and report the metrics. Balance effort and outcome in the tracking and reporting of change management metrics. Having anywhere from 3-5 metrics is a good number to target. When you start to have more metrics, the effort required may be too overwhelming.
Application of strategic approaches throughout the project lifecycle
Let’s go through an example of how strategic change approaches can be applied throughout the project life cycle.
Scoping – Strategic approach to look widely at the effort involved
Typically during this phase of the project, change practitioners may tend to focus only on the operational aspect of scoping out the resources required to support the project and the level of impact on the organisation. However, it is also important to be clear about the strategic importance and positioning of this initiative.
In scoping out the change management effort required to support an initiative we need to understand the strategic importance of the initiative and where it stands compared to other initiative and organisational focus areas. Key questions to consider include:
What is the priority level of the initiative
What strategy is it supporting? What’s the level of strategic importance?
What’s the right level of focus to support this initiative, balanced against other organisational priorities? For example, what else would impacted stakeholders be focused on during the impact period, and therefore how do we support having the right priorities? (i.e. the right level of ambidexterity)
Are there opportunities to integrate the roll out of this initiative with other initiatives to simplify focus, organisational effort and aid change adoption (e.g. this could be done at a communications or learning roll-out levels)
Impact assessment – Utilise strategic analysis to understand business impact
In analysing the change impact of the initiative, a strategic approach means a depth of understanding of how the business is impacted by the initiative and what benefits will mean to the business. Each part of the business by definition has different focus areas, and the business impact will be different as a result. To conduct a strategic analysis of the impact of change undergoes the following:
What is the business environment including partners, customers and suppliers? How will the change influence the dynamics of this environment?
How will the work and value of the business unit be altered as a result of the change? Conduct this analysis at multiple layers of the business unit to tease out the implications?
Will there be financial, resourcing, time, cost or effort impacts on the business unit or stakeholder group?
Will the business unit’s own focus areas or strategies be altered as a result of the change? Will its metrics, tracking and reporting be altered as well?
Change strategy formulation
In formulating the change strategy for the initiative adopt the MECE approach as described previously. You may need to formulate different hypotheses and test them before arriving at the one that is the most applicable to the organisation. Feel free to share your tree branch with your stakeholders to take them through how the change strategy is formulated. Involve them to ‘test’ the assumptions as required in the formulation.
Systems and portfolio views of the organisation
A key part of strategic change management is approaching change from a holistic and ‘systems-based’ perspective. A change project should not be viewed in its isolation but as a piece of the overall system. This means you need to understand the potential relations of this initiative with other initiatives in supporting the same strategy, and what other initiatives are focused on by the impacted business units. Having a portfolio-level visibility of the various initiatives and their relative impacts on the organisation is a key capability to support planning and decision making. This also helps you to better position or clarify your initiative compared to other focus areas.
Different organisations and business units will have different levels of capabilities in leading, executing, and embedding change. Within the timeline and resource challenges of one initiative, it is not always possible to address all the various aspects of capability gaps. In fact, you may even face multiple capability gaps that may potentially derail the project.
Conduct a strategic capability analysis to assess which capabilities are core and critical to the success of the project. Assign weighting to each capability in terms of importance and any existing gaps. Use this analysis to formulate the top one or two capabilities you may want to focus on supporting the business to ensure the rollout is successful. Strategy is about focus and making bets. By spreading your efforts too thin you might not close any of the capability gaps.
Assessing the change process and conducting effective change impact assessment are critical tasks for the change manager. The reason is that a detailed change impact assessment is a map from which change interventions are pieced together to drive and manage the change process. Most aspects of change management deliverables are tied to the effectiveness of the change impact assessment. This means, if the change impact assessment was not thoroughly conducted, covering key angles and perspectives, then the overall change will likely fail.
Illustrating the effectiveness of change impact assessment is not always easy. However, we currently have a great example. Right now, Russia is attacking Ukraine with the goal of seizing Kyiv the capital. What does this have anything to do with change impact assessment and the change process?
This event is felt globally around the world in many different ways. Firstly, the most important acknowledgement has to be the horrendous human toll for the people of Ukraine. As this article is being written, there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian fleeing to neighbouring countries to find safety and refuge. Lives are lost and buildings destroyed.
It may seem to be that the conflict is only in Ukraine. However, the truth is much more than this. The effects of this war are felt across the world at many different levels. Let’s look into this more thoroughly as this illustrates precisely how change impact assessments should be done.
The above diagram is only a brief surface indication of a few of the impacts of the war. You can see that it is not just economic impacts, but political, social, humanistic and technological impacts. This complex web of different impacts evolve and form the overall change and disruption.
The same can also be said for organisational systems during change. Different change impacts compound and affects one another. What may be deemed as a simple process change, could impact operational factors, leadership factors, employee capacity, reporting process, system impacts, etc.
It is also worth calling out that when conducting change impact assessments different factors often converge and make it difficult to separate an impact from one category to another category. Since we are talking about a whole global system, different impacts affect one another.
Looking at this table and looking at what is unfolding in the attack on Ukraine there are some key call-outs that change managers should learn about when conducting effective change impact assessments:
1. Transitional states may be just as important as end state changes
During the change process, many things will evolve. The change impacts that happen during transitional phases need to be fleshed out and defined. Typically, what a lot of change managers do is to follow a change impact assessment template that focuses more on current state versus end-state gaps and focus on these as impacts.
However, without clearly understanding the impacts during transitions the change process will be not successfully managed and the outcome will not be reached. For example, if you had to do an impact assessment for the Russian attack on Ukraine, and you didn’t forecast the interim events that other countries will step in to support Ukraine or that Russian people will protest then the overall tactics used could be very different.
2. The change process may not be linear
A key observation of the change that is happening around the world resulting from the attack on Ukraine is that the direction, pace and volume of change is not linear. It is systemic and even organic/viral.
Within a war, setting change may be counted on a daily basis in terms of progress. In an organisational change setting, and particularly for complex changes, the same comparison can also be drawn. Complex changes are often not one-directional in terms of A affects B, or because of process change A, process B is changed as a result. There could be a complex web of changes with multiple processes impacting each other. There could also be impacted processes that as a result impact other processes.
When we look at the evolvement of this conflict, the human impacts are just as complex. First is the civilian tolls with mothers and children fleeing to neighbouring countries. Ukrainian men from neighbouring countries return to Ukraine, crossing the same borders in the reverse direction, to help the country fight. More and more civilians enlist as volunteer fighters. There are records that many residents dare to directly confront Russian military personnel. There are families across both Russia and Ukrainian borders that are caught in this conflict. There are even reports of discrimination against black refugees fleeing from Ukraine at border controls. The diverse nature of impacts is huge.
With complex organisational changes, similar comparisons can be made in that the change evolution can be systemic and organic/viral. Leaders, influencers and networkers can have a strong influence over the organisation. Formal and informal organisational networks such as internal communication channels, functional groups and centres of excellence all exert influences on shaping the change. The trick is to understand the key drivers of influence, change, communication and engagement within the impacted stakeholder groups and use these to design the change process.
3. Every perspective should be assessed to ensure potential gaps are covered
In implementing change often there are perspectives that are not considered and these usually show up during the implementation and can potentially derail the project. This often happens when the change seems simple and so stakeholders usually resort to what has occurred in the past. However, no company is operating in a vacuum and organisational situations evolve constantly.
The key is to thoroughly consider each perspective, whether it is the perceptions of each group of stakeholders, downstream impacts of process on operations and planning, or potential role changes resulting from workload changes or oversight required. Understanding the interplay between each of these is key.
4. Anticipate tactics in altering the change process
In a war situation, both sides constantly assess the situation in a super agile environment to constantly pivot from a tactical perspective to influence the outcome. For example, Russia resorted to strict censorship and mass arrest of domestic protesters to control any opposition to the attack. Russia also exerted significant influence over US social media channels in Russia to adhere to its censorship objectives.
On the other hand, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Zelensky resorted to grassroots support at a national level and an international rallying approach to appeal for support. He is constantly on social media to appeal to the people of Ukraine to take up arms and fight for Ukraine, and this is one of the key tactics in slowing down Russia’s advances. He also proactively appealed to international leaders for financial and military support.
In a change impact assessment setting, anticipate key tactics of key stakeholder groups to support or resist the change. Document and list down previous or likely tactics used by these stakeholder groups to drive the change further, to slow down the change, or to resist the change. Leverage these perspectives and build these into the change approach to derive a much more systemic approach to achieving the change outcomes.
In Summary, whilst our first response to what is happening in Ukraine is strongly on the suffering of the Ukrainian people and the wish for the suffering to end. As the conflict unfolds it teaches us some very important lessons about change and disruption and how complex, organic and dynamic they can be. There are some important lessons on effective approaches in conducting change impact assessments and assessing the overall change process.
Acknowledgement: Featured photograph from The Independent
It is 2022 and at the beginning of the year, we reflect on the previous year that has been. A year ago most of us were praying for the end of Covid so that we can move back to ‘normal’. One year on, here we are again. Covid disruptions are even more severe and widespread. Not only are we still amidst continuous business disruptions compared to a year ago, but probably even more severe.
We see lots of memes around social media of people wanting to forget the past year with the difficulty of life caused by Covid. And a year ago it was the same. What we are learning is that change and disruption will not be going away any time soon. The only thing we can do to support our organisations is to continue to build change agility. With better change agility, organizations are better able to respond to constant and continuous change.
The big positive for change managers is more than ever, change is now the centre of attention for businesses. In the past, many would struggle to position management conversations about the importance of managing and leading change. That is no longer the case. Even the most backward and change immature businesses are thrust in the midst of constant change. We no longer need to raise this as a topic of focus.
This means now is the opportune time to utilise the focus on change to gear up the organisation’s readiness and capability to respond to the constant change in the longer term. More than ever now is the time to pitch to your organisation about the importance of building the right ‘change agility muscles’ so that the organisations can remain competitive and in business.
What are some of the benefits of agile organisations?
We can see quite stark examples of organisations that are agile versus those that are not. Businesses that jumped on web offerings have benefited versus those that have relied purely on brick-and-mortar channels. Other businesses have diversified their offering whilst others have reduced their store footprint.
Mckinsey studies have shown that with successful agile transformations, organisations can achieve significant business improvements. Not just surviving, successful companies have achieved 30% better customer satisfaction, 30% improvement in operational performance, 5-10 times speed in driving change and decision making and ranking higher in innovation compared to peers. These organisations are also 30% better at engaging employees and 30% more efficient in their operations through fewer handovers, reduced overhead with clear focus areas.
However, as a change manager, how can I move the dial on improving my organisation’s agility for change? As a solitary individual how does one person influence an organisation? This is especially when you may not have the decision making authority nor the power? As a change manager you have your project work defined. How can you do this without boiling the ocean which may not be part of your bread-and-butter role?
These are 5 ways to improve your organisation’s agility as a change manager:
1. Influence your project sponsor and business owner to lead agility.
A part of the change manager’s role is to help influence and to equip stakeholders with the right skills to drive the change. This starts with your own project. As a project, assess the skills of your project sponsor and business owner. Do they have the experience and skills to lead agility practices as a part of overall change leadership?
These may include:
Ability to spot changing and emerging trends that may impact the organisation’s business
Balance the oversight of immediate daily operational trends and insights, against longer-term and more strategic patterns and trends that may emerge
Ability to work across disciplines in influencing change
Promotion and advocacy of constant experimentation and testing of new ideas and concepts, supporting experimental failures as they arise
Lead behaviours that support organisational learning, whether its learning from within the industry outside the industry, using historical data, or through innovation incubation teams
Savviness with shifting technological trends and use cases that could implicate the business
Work with your sponsor and business owner and help to identify key required agility leadership behaviours. Partner with them and coach as necessary to support these behaviours. Collaborate and come up with a skills development plan if necessary.
2. Embed agility practices within the implementation design of your project.
To support business agility the first step from a project perspective is to ask how the project benefits can be protected and sustained even in times of constant disruption and uncertainty. Asking this question is the first step to take. Simply asking this may help you re-shape the project’s approach in its implementation and the work involved.
Some of the ways in which you can design agility into your project include:
Designing flexible role and team structures where appropriate to ensure that any workload or role changes can be easily flexed and catered for in case of future changes
Designing the right skills and competency requirements into business roles as a part of role requirements, including agile leadership, experimentation, work approach flexibility, and reporting/data fluency
Building agile business rhythms and routines into business readiness and future end-state designs. These may include stand-ups, business scanning and review practices, and agile iteration practices
Work closely with your business representatives and subject matter experts within your project and leverage them as anchors for agility practices into the business
Leverage your pilots as agility experiments in designing agility components into your change implementation. For example, use the pilot as a test from which to build agility components so as to further change agility in the rest of the project roll out
3. Proactively participate in change centre of excellence, or if this does not exist, built a change network with other change managers and interested business representatives
Leverage the power of other change practitioners in other projects and across the business to collaborate and build a common approach to further change agility in the business. Work with others to come up with ways to influence the business and build practices that will help the business strive in times of disruption and change. Don’t underestimate the power of like-minded representatives across the business. Each representative acts as an influencing node from which powerful tactics and practices can be driven into the business.
Work across projects to build one view of change impacts. By building this integrated view of change impacts across multiple projects, you are also helping the business connect the dots and build an integrated way of getting ready for all changes, not just yours. An integrated view of change can help you:
See a holistic picture of what is going to change
Prepare the business for what is going to change across the board, and this is made easier by knowing what will be changing
Utilise the changes in the roadmap to design a series of agility tests to prepare the business for challenges further down the track in the roadmap
4. Liberalising data and support swift decision making
Historically, in hierarchical companies data is usually restricted to select managers. With digitisation there is an opportunity to give power to a much larger number of employees to access data and through this be more aware of the changing needs of the company. Liberalising data to make faster and better decisions is one of the key trends of digitisation. This is also a key enabler for change agility. With easier data access for a greater number of employees, decisions can be made by those who are most familiar with the work context, on a timely fashion. This ease of data access means that someone does not need to wait for rounds of approvals to make decisions.
This also applies to change data. Rather than restricting the access of change impact data to a select few managers, liberalising this across a larger number of managers and team leaders can help to paint a clearer picture of change and help equip the business’ readiness for change.
The ease of acess to data does not just mean the raw data itself, but ease also implies the ease of understanding the format of the data. Pre-configured data visualisation and charts are valuable since the user will not need to go through long training sessions in order to use the data. By making the data easily understood and make sense, the business can then balance forecasted change against impending change disruptions that may not be forecasted.
5. Change scenario planning
Scenario planning is an exercise where a facilitated team reviews the existing operations and the external business environment to try and forecast differing business scenarios. Scenarios are then used to build the right tracking signals. The business may have already built safeguards toward this scenario, or a clear set of next steps in which to deal with the progress toward this scenario.
Not a lot of projects conduct scenario planning, as scenario planning is typically conducted by strategy and planning functions. However, undertaking scenario planning can help build in the right rail guards to safeguard against different scenarios before they emerge.
Work with your project team and business stakeholders to undergo an annual scenario planning exercise in which to prepare the business for various environmental disruptions and challenges. Scenario planning does not need to be a long, formal, drawn-out process. It could be as simple as spending a day exploring what the future holds, having done the homework to prepare for what the data could be telling us. After identifying various scenarios, ensure you name each scenario, with a meaningful analogy if needed so that it’s more meaningful and easier to remember for the team.
You can also put in practice scenario planning on a smaller scale. Within certain junctures of the project you can build in mini-scenarios of the various change outcomes that may occur, and build in the right tracking metrics and reporting to see which scenario is emerging.
You can also use scenario planning to work through multiple changes across the projects and change landscape. Use similar concepts to work-through options in sequencing and prioritisation and what this means to change implementation timelines and tactics. For example, are there ways in which implementation may be combined across projects? Or can releases be broken down into smaller change bites to aid adoption and cater for limited business capacity?
There are many ways in which you as a singular change manager can influence and drive significant agility changes within your organisation. Here we outline 5 major ways in which you can do this. Since disruption and ongoing change is not going away, this is the opportune time for change practitioners to grab this window of opportunity and work with the business to develop and design change agile organisations. Not only will your project have a significant better chance of realising its targeted benefits, so will other projects in the pipeline.
Often we hear change practitioners call out the challenges of working with organisations that are not change mature. Yes it is easier for change practitioners to work within organisations that are more mature in managing change. This means that the change concepts and approaches are easily understood and adopted. This also means that you don’t need to spend a lot of time covering the foundational approaches of change before driving project results.
When organisations are less change mature, change practitioners need to do a lot more level setting work to explain their role, and foundational change management concepts. For example, the importance of engagement and authenticity, and getting feedback from stakeholder groups prior to change implementation.
Structured communication and learning channels may need to be setup. Without these being established, messages may not be flowing between the targeted stakeholder groups.
However, every organisation is in a different continuum in their development of their change maturity. How do we work with organisations that simply do not have in place a lot of the foundational capabilities of managing change?
Frame everything as a part of general business management
15 years ago when I was at Intel there was no change management function per se. There were also no dedicated change management professionals. What we know now as change management was covered under the work of Project Managers and the Human Resources Organizational Development function. Most managers were not familiar with change management concepts or applications.
However, from a learning and development perspective what Intel did well was to integrate managing change concepts within general management skills. All levels of management development included a component of managing change. After all, this is an organisation in a fast-changing hi-tech environment where change is a normal part of how the industry evolves.
In particular, first-line manager, second-line manager as well as senior manager development programs all had general management components. Everything ranging from setting clear goals and expectations, communicating clearly, asking for and receiving feedback, driving for results, supporting and developing the team, were all foundational parts of managerial development. As a result, the organisation is quite used to ongoing changes either operational, structural or strategic ones.
The point here is that in order to drive successful change, it may not be necessary to have a dedicated change function nor formalised change management development programs. Change management is a part of general management, just like human resources or operations management.
The challenge for the change practitioner is to diagnose which parts of the fabric of the organisation is not change mature, and therefore could become potential obstacles for successful change process implementation. These may include:
The ability of targeted leaders in leading change successfully (judging by previous change history)
The ability of impacted stakeholder groups including employees in trusting leaders in undergoing the change process
The existence of various learning and engagement platforms and processes from which change implementation may leverage throughout the initiative
Experience in undergoing change initiatives that follow a structured rigour where stakeholder consultation, ongoing tracking of results, and discipline in execution are adhered to
Planning capability in engaging stakeholders using clear fact-based visualisation of impact activities and using this to balance and sequence overall business capacity
After identifying those elements that could potentially impede the successful execution and adoption of change, the next task is to ‘frame’ your work around improving business processes and capabilities to support initiative success. And the trick of doing this well in change immature organisations is to frame it without using change concepts or jargon.
As hard as it may seem, some of the terms you may want to avoid include:
change leadership capability
I know! This sounds like an impossible feat not to use standard change jargon and concepts. However, this is the key to engaging with organisations that are less change mature. Instead of change-specific language, try using general business terms instead. These are some examples:
Instead of change leadership capability, leader behaviours required
Instead of burning platform, articulating the clear reasons for the change
Instead of change champions, business unit initiative reps
Instead of change vision, initiative end-state
Instead of change approach/strategy, leading our people through the initiative
Instead of change readiness, implementation or initiative readiness
In framing your change approach and plan and ‘translating’ this into business-speak. There are 2 key levels to focus on.
This is about cutting through to the core of why we are changing and how the change helps to meet a particular strategic goal. For low change mature stakeholders, this needs to be as basic as possible. So, none of the lofty elevator pitches that your corporate communications person has carefully crafted. But, a lay-man wording of why the change is needed and how this helps the organisation.
This is one of the most critical parts of dissecting the change. It is about breaking down your change approach into the various elements that impact the operations of the business. It is laying out the operational activities that are being planned to drive stakeholders through the change process. For example,
What process changes will mean for the frontline consultant, in terms of work steps, bandwidth, reporting, collaboration, work focus areas, etc.
What technology changes will team for team work in terms of who does work, the frequency of exchanges, the speed and process of decision making, audit tracing,
Frame change activities as a part of project steps
Another challenge in working with less change mature organisations is positioning project change implementation activities in a way that resonates and make sense. To make things simple for the business, try and use as least jargon as possible and explain the ‘why’ and purpose of each activity.
Here are some examples.
Change impact assessment -> Why is this needed?
The assessment defines in detail what is changing and how this affects different parts of the organisation, whether is people, process, customer, technology, etc.
How to use it? After understanding in detail what is changing, this then helps us plan out how to engage the impacted groups of people, and it also helps us to determine how to give them the right skills and support
Stakeholder matrix -> Why is this needed?
This breaks down which groups of people by business unit, function, team, role, in terms of how we plan to engage with them, using what engagement channels, and how critical or influential they are to the success of the project.
How to use it? The information on the groups of people impacted by this project determines those we engage with and how we engage with them. It also determines those we need to support with the right skills and know-how. Having the right information of those impacted means that we don’t miss groups of people that we should be engaging with.
It starts with one – finding the first sponsor/champion
Even if less mature organisations there will be managers who ‘get’ what you are trying to do in driving change. They may not know the terminology, the concepts nor the ways to measure change effectiveness. However, experienced managers should intuitively understand the importance of engagement, measurement, setting clear goals and expectations, skills, and capabilities.
When you start to work your way around the organisations you should come across them. They can help to either ‘sponsor’ your project if they are in the right position and their role has the influencing power over your project. He/She may not be the ‘project sponsor’, instead, a political sponsor who is influential enough to create clout to drive movement in the change process.
You may also come across various potential ‘champions’ who are passionate, positive about the change, and diligent enough that you can work with to channel change energy into the various stakeholder groups. These champions may be frontline level, first-line manager, or senior managers.
Remember, any change starts with one person. One by one, the change takes shape and the influence takes place through each interaction and each engagement. Even if you can only have a small number of champions, you will be amazed at the results you can achieve through the dedication of the few.
Use data to tell stories
Even in less change mature organisations, managers use manage to manage the business. This means, if you can gather the right change data to tell the story of how the initiative may pan out across the business, you can easily communicate and influence the business. Especially in less change mature businesses, data is absolutely key.
What are some of the ways in which change data can help to crystalise the importance of change tactics and approaches?
Change impact data can tell a visual and influential story of what is going to happen to the organisation. For example:
Which parts of the organisation are more impacted? What roles? What are the relative sizes of impact?
How much time is required for particular roles as part of change implementation activities throughout the implementation phase?
What’s the timing of implementation activities and how do these overlap with other project activities or operational priorities?
Scenarios of implementation roadmap including potential risks and benefits of alternative scenarios
Other data can be used to tell stories of the progress of the project include, change readiness assessment results, training completion rates, training session satisfaction feedback, stakeholder readership of knowledge article pages, and attendance and engagement level at briefing or town hall sessions.
Most change practitioners follow a standard change approach. For the past 20 years popular change management content have focused mainly on one part of the discipline – change methodology. As a new-ish discipline there has been a big demand for the ‘how to’ in change management. These include how to follow a sequence of steps in executing a project, and step-by-step path to becoming a better change leader. Clear easy-to-follow steps with associated acronyms have dominated our discipline. A data-driven change approach has not been on the horizon for most organisations.
Is following a methodology bad? Well, not necessarily. A methodology helps to instil critical steps that may ensure that a minimum set of outcomes be achieved in implementing a change initiative. The assumption is that by following these steps, a set of basic work is done that it would be harder to fail. Especially for less experienced change practitioners, following a methodology is highly beneficial.
After while, many also tend to rely on their ‘experience’ and tend to apply similar approaches for most change initiatives. This may be OK if the stakeholders and change initiatives are all similar. However, as stakeholders evolve with changes and new changes take place that are more ‘transformational’ or require different attitudes and skills, then what has worked in the past may not work in the future.
We know that the most popular Google keyword searches in Change Management are mostly related to methodology. For example, some of the most popular keywords include change management process, prosci change management, adkar, etc.
However, the bigger question is should we continue to follow a methodology-driven approach in designing our change approach? In a nutshell, for more experienced change practitioners …. No. For the rest of the article let’s explore why this is the case.
What are the benefits of a data-driven change approach?
The design of the change approach is supported by data and therefore less biased by personal preferences and unsupported opinions, and as a result when you present the change approach you are less likely to face objections and disagreements
With the right data, you’re able to articulate the risk of not using a particular change approach
Ability to take a ‘whole picture’ view of the change landscape in making the right change implementation decisions
Match the right change approach to the sponsor and executive leadership styles so that the initiative is leveraging those leadership facets, with any supplemented tactics as needed
What is a data-driven change approach?
A data-driven change approach is a change approach that is informed by data. What does this look like?
With a data driven change approach, historical data of change and business performance informs the business case. Possible data that could be used for business case may include:
Historical data on business improvement performance results, especially targets vs actual results
Current operational indicator performance and any previous change and business improvement interventions
Change maturity of impacted business units including operational maturity in supporting change implementation
During initial scoping of the initiative, the following critical data elements may be taken into account:
Use historical change initiative outcomes to rate potential sizes of impact on business units
Use easily available data in the areas of people, business operations, and process/systems to assess spread of the impact
This is traditionally one of the most important parts of change approach design and the phase where all facets of the determined change approach is documented and agreed by stakeholders. Taking a data-driven approach means:
Using only demonstrable data and evidence to derive an fact-driven change approach
If there are elements of the change where there has not been previous data available, then early experiments may be designed to test the selected change approach
Stakeholder engagement approaches are determined based on what has worked in the past, e.g. survey responses from town hall sessions, leader feedback,
Communications channel and content design are designed based on previous demonstrable methods, e.g. communications hit rate, ‘like’ rate, article viewership, etc.
Project priority ratings across initiatives to ensure clear alignment for stakeholders
Portfolio level change impact information from other projects to assist in change release sequencing and capacity planning
BCG has come up with a simple 2 by 2 grid for determining change strategies. The 2 axes are ‘clarity of ends and ‘clarity of means’. Clarity of ends refers to what the end state looks like, and clarity of means refer to how clear the path is to getting to the end state.
Using this grid there are 5 major different types of change strategies:
Escaping the swamp
Souting and wandering
It is important to note that whilst this may be a good general reference in determining the change approach, leveraging evidence and data in other aspects of change can greatly determine the right change strategy to be adopted.
In fact if you’re driving a large multi-year transformation, it is likely that you may need to adopt different change approaches during different phases of the program. It also depends how your stakeholders are responding and what approach best suit the situation.
For example, a ‘hill climbing’ approach could be appropriate if it is clear from your stakeholder feedback that upcoming milestones are not super clear. On the other hand, the change is complex and requires persistence and unwielding push from the senior management to continue. Whereas, in the beginning of the transformation journey it maybe that a lot of exploration and discover is required to figure out what the change looks like. In this earlier phase, a ‘escape the swamp’ may be the change approach.
This is one of the most critical parts of initiative roll out as this is when the rubber hits the road and change starts to take place. Some of the data-driven aspects of the change approach involves:
Continuous pulsing and checking of stakeholder readiness
Regular surveys and dip-stick checks on adoption behaviours and change sentiments from impacted stakeholders
Monitor business operations performance related indicators that track movements in change adoption
Social media sentiment analysis of impacted stakeholder groups, and types and amount of questions asked at appointed communication channels, and other potential indicators on people capability in adopting the change
Training attendance rates, and participant test scores
Ascertaining what the change environment looks like for impacted stakeholders is a key linchpin for a data-driven change approach during the implementation phase. When the ‘rubber hits the road’ as execution starts to take place, you may find that things are not going exactly as planned. It could be that stakeholders completely did not understand the positioning or that change tactics in imparting the value of the initiative did not resonate.
On the other hand, it could be that there is a myriad of other initiatives that the impacted business units are experiencing. Therefore, it is difficult for employees to focus on one set of changes, when there are several types of changes happening concurrently. With lack of focus, coordination and clear priority set by leaders, it often happens that none of the changes land successfully due to saturation and lack of focus.
With the right portfolio level data, it is possible to identify these risks and avoid them altogether. Even if you don’t have easy access to portfolio level change impact data, at least have the conversation with your business stakeholders to understand what else is happening and how are things landing from an employee perspective.
Even after go-live it is important to keep tracking the change adoption to ensure that there is sufficient continual focus to reach full benefits. In fact this is one of the key reasons why a lot of projects fail. It is because the whole project has been wrapped up too quickly post release and there is not enough accountability and focus placed on continually achieving the benefits targeted.
What are some of the data points to focus on? This depends on the nature of the change. Typical metrics to focus on include:
What does a data-driven change environment look like?
In the previous section we focused on all the various data points that can be leveraged throughout a project to make data-driven change decisions to move the initiative forward toward the right trajectory.
In an organisation where data drives how change is designed, orchestrated and implemented … what would this look like?
Let’s approach this in 5 different themes in order to describe core practices that should take place to support an environment that thrives on data-driven change.
1. Democratisation of data/Openness to share data
Data democratisation has been an emerging them in the IT and analytics world. What it means is basically that everyone has access to a range of data and that there aren’t unnecessary gatekeepers that control the data and stopping the data being shared. The data can be used to run the business, understand what is happening, conduct rootcause analysis and overall make better business decisions.
The overall goal is to have as many people as possible access data with little barriers in accessing the data and knowing how to read and understand the data.
Imagine an organisation where employees and managers have access to change data and have the ability to understand what is happening, how each other are responding to change, their concerns and how this is supporting or impeding change. There is significant power in harnessing the greater understanding for the change that is being driven, to garner involvement, engagement and connection.
2. Investing in capturing and publishing data
An assumption in the previous theme is that the organisation has the focus on collecting and harvesting the data. This includes change data. Without the investment in gathering change data there will be nothing to work with.
There is no doubt that most progressive organisations understand the importance of investing in data collection and analysis. There are many ways to determine the value of the data. These include opportunity cost, regulatory fines or settlement value. In terms of the value of change data, the best way to understand it is in terms of opportunity cost, where without the right data there could be significant cost in making the wrong change tactic decisions.
Further more, there is significant benefit in monitizing the company’s historical change data. Some examples of this include the ability to use historical change data to determine seasonal workloads on particular stakeholder groups and roles. Change data may also be linked to other business performance data to track overall change adoption and benefit realisation. Let’s say one project is aiming for $2 million in benefits, and across the project portfolio the total benefits targeted is $15 million. Even if change data supports just 20% of the achievement of full benefits, this equates to $3 million just in terms of tangible financial benefits. There are also non-tangible benefits that can be tracked as well.
3. Incorporating data governance
Data governance is about defining who within the company has control over data assets and how these data assets might be used. This includes people, process, and technology required to manage and protect the data assets.
For IT, Marketing and HR departments the concept of data governance is part of the expected parts of managing the function. There are often dedicated roles, teams and committees in undertaking data governance processes and systems.
For change data, there is also a need to ensure that there is some level of data governance. This does not necessary mean building a complex function if there is no need for such. What it does mean is to have concerted focus and effort to ensure that the change data is managed in a way to ensure that the data is achieving the value that the organisation is looking for.
Some elements of data governance here may include:
Data storage and operations: Ensuring that the data is stored in a safe, and easily accessible location
Data security: Ensuring that the right privacy and access level is provided, however without so much control that user access is inhibited
Data integration and interoperability: The change data should be easily extracted, shared, replicated and utilised across systems if required
Documents and content: There are different types of change data, and the trick is to ensure all these different types of files and data are easily accessible
Data quality: Ensuring that the data is updated sufficiently and can be trusted is key. “Rubbish in, rubbish out” is a common phrase that is true nonetheless. Data that is not constantly refreshed is also one that will not deliver value to the organisation.
4. Leadership support
Like everything with managing change, leadership support is critical. Some go as far as saying that without leadership support no change will fly. This may not be true since there are lots of examples of grassroots-driven changes that are not initially driven by leaders. The same goes with driving a data-driven change environment.
Getting the blessings from your senior leaders will go a long way to driving a ‘data is king’ change environment. However, even if your leaders do not start out being your champions, there are ways to nourish and develop their support.
In business, leaders naturally look to data to make various decisions. Traditionally in change management tangible and visual data has not always been plentiful to support decision making. As a result, leaders may not know how to read, interpret and utilise change data. You will need to educate and support leaders to understand how to utilise change data and guide them through examples and scenarios.
5. Collaboration across initiatives
Teams are effective for various reasons. When you’re in a team you are able to form strong personal relationships and receive that support that you need. Through ongoing work with your team you can focus on a set of outcomes that you can contribute together with the team.
However, the nature of teams is that you will by design see other teams as ‘outsiders’ and have less intimate relationship with them. Those you are less familiar with you also develop less trust.
And as a result, project teams tend to stick within their own teams and focus on working with their particular set of stakeholders. However, to design a better employee or customer experience in planning for change, initiatives need to work together. There will be plenty of situations where changes in releases, planned activities will be better shifted to achieve a better employee outcome.
In situations where there is multiple releases impacting the same stakeholder group, most will leave it to the project management office to make the priority call. However, the process of escalating the issue for decisions to be made takes time and may sometimes create unnecessary anxiety across concerned project teams. A better way to approach this with the right change data is that project teams can proactively work together as a part of release and stakeholder readiness planning.
What is the overall opportunity in taking a data-driven vs. methodology driven change approach? Hopefully this article has convinced you some of the advantages and how to go about applying it. “Data is the new oil for the digital economy”. With Covid the reliance of business on data has been a wakeup call. This will continue to intensity in the years to come. For change practitioners we also need to adopt a data-centric approach in our work with the organisation. The alternative could be that we lose our influence, trust and relevance for the business in this digital world where data is embedded within all facets of our lives.
What will your next step be in taking a more data-driven change approach?