Why heatmaps are not the best way to make change decisions

Why heatmaps are not the best way to make change decisions

Change heatmaps are one of the most commonly used charts when making business decisions on whether there is too much change or not.  Yes there are some advantages of using heatmap.  However, there are also lots of strong reasons why you should not use change heatmaps, at least solely.  Let’s examine some of these reasons and tear apart some of the strong risks of relying on heatmaps to make change planning decisions.

What are some of the common ways of using heatmaps?  A lot of organisations use change heatmaps to represent how much change there is impacting different parts of the business.  There are various versions of this.  However, the most common way to depict this is either to list each project against different parts of the business and show the heat levels.  This is the less popular format because each project has varying levels of heat and to aggregate the heat level into one singular cell is not a good representation of the stakeholder impact experience.  

The more popular way is to plot out the heat levels of different business units across time, with each cell showing heat levels.  This is better able to depict how different business units will be experiencing different levels of change across time across the delivery of all projects.  The below is one example of a heatmap.

Table, treemap chart

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What are some of the advantages of using change heatmaps?

Easy to understand

A lot of stakeholders like this format because it is easier to understand.  The deeper the colour is the more ‘change heat level’ there is.  Simple!  Most stakeholders can intuitively interpret the data without needing explanation.

Visually appealing

People like looking at colourful charts and the heatmap is colourful.  Let’s face it … no one likes looking at a series of boring, stale charts that are monotone in colour.  Right?


Most stakeholders are used to the traffic light view of change heatmaps.  In most project setting, the red, amber, green indication of different heat levels are well understood to depict varying levels of heat within a change setting.  

However, there is a long list of strong reasons why you should not rely on change heatmaps … or at least not purely. 

Why should we not use the change heatmap?

The traffic light method of depicting different volumes of change is misleading.  

Firstly, having only 3 categories of different categories of change volume is not adequate within organisations that have lots of change.  In practice, if we only use red, amber and green to depicts all varying levels of change then a lot of the time the colours will remain the same, even when there is significant varying levels.  So, clearly the variation depicted within 3 colours is much too limiting.

The traffic light method of depicting change is subject to psychological bias

Yes stakeholders are familiar with interpreting traffic light indications.  However, within the project context stakeholders interpret green as good, red as alert/bad, and amber as be careful or keep watching.  This is absolutely not the right message when interpreting the heatmap.  

Each colour should show purely the level of change impact, and not if the change is good or bad.  Therefore, at The Change Compass we have stopped using the traffic light system of indicating change heatmap.  Instead, we use different shade of the same colour so that the user purely focuses on the colour levels, and not additional psychological biases.  Here is an example.


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The heatmap is very categorical

Whether using 3 levels of 5 levels of colours is categorical by definition.  We are categorising the varying levels of change into one of these categories.  So, by definition the heatmap cannot be granular.  It is only designed to provide a high level and broad-sweeping view of change volume.  To get a more granular view other charts should be used instead that depict exact volume of the impact within a point in time.  For example, a bar chart.  Here is one example.

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Some of the best reasons not to use heatmaps are due to significant risk

What are these risks?

Risk of personal judgment in deriving heatmaps

A common way to put together change heatmaps is to use ‘personal judgment’ to rate the change impact of projects across time and across business units.  This is an easier and faster way to generate heatmaps.  However, because the rating is highly subjective, you will easily get challenged by your stakeholders.  It may be a rabbit-hole within a stakeholder meeting that you would not want to go down.

Comparing across business units

When stakeholders read a change heatmap the natural tendency is to compare the heat levels across different business units.  Department A has more change than department B.  It is human nature.  However, what the heatmap does not communicate is the varying levels of perceived change saturation across different business units.  

Change saturation is affected by varying factors such as leadership quality and change maturity.  Therefore, different business units will have different levels of susceptibility for change saturation.  The same change volume can be perceived as having exceeded saturation in one business unit.  However, for another business unit the same change level can be easily handled and consumed.

So, comparing change volumes across business units needs to be done carefully with the premise that this cannot necessarily be an apple-to-apple comparison.  

Isolating the hotspots

Most companies present heatmaps at business unit levels.  However, this may not be sufficient because in some cases this may be too broad of a view.  It could be that on the surface one business unit has the most volume of change.  But maybe its not the whole business unit.  It could be just one team that is going to shoulder the bulk of the change volume, versus the whole business unit.  Therefore, the ability to drill down and examine which section and which layer of the organisation is most impacted is critical.

Drilling down to find out where the hostpots are is not just a factor of which part of the business unit.  It could also be the stakeholder group or type of roles impacted.  It could be that only the frontlines are impacted versus the whole business unit. Or that only team managers are impacted, and not so much the frontline teams.

The other factors to examine also include the location of the teams impacted.  Are certain locations more impacted than others?  Are certain project activities impacting employees more than others?  For example, are most employees needing to take time away from their day jobs because of the amount of training required?

Different types of people impacts

Employee heatmaps are mostly what change practioners spend their time on producing.  However, there could also be impacts on customers.  A lot of organisations are very forth-coming to call out that ‘customer is their number one focus’.  However, is there a clear picture of what are all the various customer impacts resulting from change initiatives?  There could also be impacts on partners and suppliers that work with the organisation to produce the products and services.  Their impacts could also be critical in managing and planning for change.

Does not take into account change velocity

Change heatmaps typically focus on volumes of change.  However, this is not the only perspective that needs to be considered.  What about the speed in which change is going to be implemented?  Will the change feel fast or slow?  Is there a lot of change to be implemented within a short period of time?  Clearly, having a way to depict the velocity of change can also be a very insightful lense in addition to just the focus on volume.

Teams that may be less change mature could struggle with a fast pace of change if they have not had the previous experience nor the change capability in place.  Does the team have the capacity to undergo rapid and fast moving change?  Do they have the operating rhythms in place to support this velocity?  Having a view to the velocity of change may provide guidance in terms of what business readiness needs to be in place to prepare for change.  The below is an example of measuring the comparative speed of change from The Change Compass.


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So, in summary you can see that there is more to understanding and planning for change than to rely solely on the change heatmap.  Change is multidimensional.  Simply using one view to depict it may not be sufficient.  The key is to use it to provide a broad high level understanding and then drill down into other change data to understand what the story is and what the risks are the organisation.

Being clear with what the story-line is will help you to determine what data to present to your stakeholders.  If you are purely focused on driving discussion on whether to delay the roll out of certain projects due to limited business capacity of a particular business unit, then a bar chart may be more useful.  If you are wanting to portray the impacted volume of certain roles, then a line chart portraying the volume of change that these roles will be facing into over time is a better option.

If you are finding it too complicated or manual to derive various change data visualisation or charts have a chat to us.  Digital is the way to go for organisations that would like to become more digital.  Business are putting their weight on digising as many parts of the operation as possible.  Change also needs to catch up and digitise itself.  This does not mean being data-centric at the expense of the ‘softer side of change’.  It means using data to be more impactful and have better conversations to portray what will happen to the organisation and being able to call out critical risks, with adequate confidence.  

For more on change measurement go to The Ultimate Guide to Measuring Change.

Click here to read more on building change analytics capability.

How to manage change saturation during or post COVID19

How to manage change saturation during or post COVID19

What is change saturation?

Change Saturation is a concept that describes our capacity for change as limited … like a cup.  We have a limited amount of capacity for change.  When there is too much change going on the cup spills over and there is ‘change saturation’.  When this happens with too much change then there is stress in the impacted stakeholder groups.  

It could be that there is intense increase in workload or work complexity.  Performance could drop as a result.  When frontline staff experience change saturation it could be that they don’t have the capacity to support all the customer enquires leading to longer customer wait times.  Customer satisfaction levels could be impacted.  Employee satisfaction could also be impacted.        

What causes it?

There are 3 causes for change saturation

1. There are too many initiatives going on at the same time.  The totality of changes across multiple initiatives leads to the cup being overfilled.  This is the reality of corporate life.  There aren’t many organizations that are only executing one initiative at any one time.  However, it also depends on the level of impact within each initiative and not just the number of initiatives in total.  If every initiative has very little impact it could be smaller in total than a very large complex change initiative with very high impact.  It will take a lot of peanuts to fill up a jar, versus a few large biscuits.  

2. The change initiatives are occurring too fast.  We have all been through highly agile initiatives that have short sprints, that pivot quickly and implement the change quickly as well.  Often due to discoveries and learnings along the way there are project delays as the project figures out how to get itself on track.  However, the original go-live date has not been changed so as to meet senior stakeholder expectations and to manage project cost.  What this means is that the impacted business suddenly has much less time to get ready for the change compared to the original timeline.  This condensed timeline to go through and embed the changes leads to increased change saturation.

3. Business circumstances have lead to the cup being overfilled.  In the case of COVID19, most businesses are going through challenging times.  Some are struggling to cope with increased customer volumes, whilst others have lost significant business and can no longer operate.  During these times businesses revert to survival mode, or their business continuity plan.  The top focus remains to delivery its core services with all other priorities to take a back seat.  The very nature of this environment means that a large part of the organisation is under immense pressure to perform.  The cup is saturated even before any additional planned initiatives.  To read more about Planning for change during COVID19 click here.

How to measure it

Every part of the organization may have a different level of change saturation.  This is because different teams play different functional roles by definition.  As a result one department may be impacted by the same change differently compared to another.  

Therefore it is important to be able to measure the change saturation point for a part of the business if we are aiming to manage it. Change saturation should not just be a point of discussion just based on feelings and perceptions.  

How do we measure the change saturation point for one part of the business?  Measuring change saturation is not purely a science but more of an art.  

Take for example, you have been working closely with the call centre team and have monitored their business performance across different initiatives over the past few months.  Last month you noticed that they had reached a point where there were more initiatives being implemented than previously.  

On top of this you noticed that some of their performance metrics that may be linked to change saturation were negatively affected.  These included increased call waiting time, decreased customer satisfaction, increased staff turnover, and challenges for planners to schedule sufficient resources to cover shifts and undergo allocated initiative activities such as training.  Team leaders also provided feedback that there was too much change going on and managing workload was challenging.

You can then calculate this change saturation by assigning a weighting to each change initiative in terms of its change impacts on the business.  Then adding the various change impacts for last month will give you a total factor of change saturation.  Last month your assessment, together with the call centre business, is that there was definite change saturation.  So, if you see this level of change approaching in your planning coming up, then this would be a red signal for you to start to work with your stakeholders on managing this upcoming Change saturation.

Here is an example of measuring change saturation with The Change Compass.

The green line depicts change saturation for this department

It is important to note that some businesses may be calling out that they have change saturation simply to lower the expectation bar.  By lowering the bar expected to undergo change volume, it is then easier for them to meet their performance targets.  This is why it is important to measure change saturation.  Anyone can claim that their cup is overflowing with change without data to support.

How to manage it

There are 2 main ways to manage change saturation.  Either you reduce the change saturation level or you increase the change capacity (increasing the size of the cup).

Short term – Reduce change saturation

1. Stop all change initiative roll out during COVID19.  If your organization is undergoing significant challenges and it was deemed that the cup is already overflowing in terms of capacity, then work with your business to determine how long of a period would there need to be a hold of any change implementation.  This decision may be reviewed on a monthly basis or fortnightly basis to enable careful monitoring of the development COVID19 impact on the organisation.

2. Delay the roll-out of change initiatives to reduce change saturation.  Work with your stakeholders to re-prioritise certain initiatives and push out others to better manage the change saturation.  During COVID19 your organization may have a significantly reduced level of change tolerance, whether its because everyone is adjusting to working from home or its ‘all hands on deck’ in serving the customer.  Work with your stakeholders to understand what initiatives are critical in order to meet any shorter or medium-term business objectives or deemed a priority by senior managers.  Then determine the roadmap of implementation taking into account business change capacity.

3. Use a scenario approach to model the period in which COVID19 may be impacting your organisation and therefore model the recommended change implementation sequences. This approach requires that you have a good awareness of the existing planned initiatives across the business. You may need to adopt a logic-based approach to assess the change saturation points if you have not collected historical data. Here is an example of a scenario planning feature from The Change Compass where you can visually model likely scenarios of change roll-out sequences.

Initiatives may be dragged around to model different change scenarios

Long term – Build change capacity and resilience

1. Hire more people.  For some parts of the organisation where there the change saturation is on frontline consultants servicing the customer.  It may be possible to increase change capacity to some extent by hiring more staff to serve the customer.  However, this depends how effective the organization is in quickly hire and onboard frontline consultants to reach ‘time to performance’.  For other parts of the organisation where the subject matter experts may be in short demand because of COVID19, leveraging potential business substitutes where available may be an option.  This approach may be used in conjunction with other recommendations to reduce change saturation.

2. Improve the change capability of leaders.  One of the most important levers in building change capacity and resilience is the effectiveness of leaders.  We have all seen how some leaders who are engaging, open, actively make way for the change, and address any obstacles, have led teams to undergo significant change journeys.  Other leaders may be undergoing the same change journey but somehow have not had the same success.  Instead, they could be plagued with change resistance and stagnation due to the ability of its leader.  Change leadership development of leaders is a long term play and not a quick win by any means.

3. Work on change maturity.  Organisations that have higher change maturity have more capacity for change and are more resilient to constant changes.  Change maturity measures such as change leadership capability, business change readiness and project change implementation maturity.  This is also a long term play, requiring significant focus and time investment. 

Here are some articles you may be interested

A guide to planning during COVID19 the role of change practitioners

A new guide for improving change management maturity

The ultimate guide to measuring change

5 ways to graduate from change heatmaps