Overcoming Change Saturation: How to Map the Change Landscape (Part 1)

Thoughtfully achieving transition objectives requires an understanding of how change is already affecting your organization. This blog is the first in a series on change saturation, in which North Highland shares perspective on three ways organizations can drive better results.

Before they could complete their 3,000-vertical-foot ascent of rock climbing’s most difficult challenge – the previously unconquered Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park – professional climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson spent a long time exploring to find a viable route. The Dawn Wall’s sheer granite surface provided few handholds or cracks the duo could use for their climb, and the year spent exploring gave them the lay of the land they needed to become the first team to free climb the Dawn Wall.

It’s a lesson that’s just as applicable to organizational change management: As with Caldwell and Jorgeson’s historic climb, an understanding of the landscape is a critical determinant of success for companies that want to forge a new path. They must first understand the effect of changes already in-motion in order to achieve their goals effectively.

And change has become the new constant. In recent years, the near-constant drive for excellence has created an environment of persistent change in most organizations: In a recent Harvard Business Review survey on resilience conducted in partnership with North Highland, 58 percent of respondents reported that change had deeply or very deeply affected their team, business unit, or overall organization.

From a human perspective, this perpetual churn is causing change saturation. And when people reach the saturation point, not only are they unable to absorb additional changes, they are many times paralyzed by the changes already impacting them. Change fatigues management and employees, in the process reducing their physical and mental wellness, driving up change costs, and affecting organizations’ abilities to achieve the long-term results they need.

Is it possible to get results without causing burnout from change saturation within the organization?  Consider taking a more integrated approach to facilitate lasting, productive results.  In this environment, change must be thoughtfully driven – and that starts with understanding the initiatives underway in your organization.

Uncover change that’s already in motion

In working with organizations across industries on their transformation journeys, we’ve found that most have numerous changes already in progress or in the planning stages. These changes may or may not be widely known across the organization. Chances are that there’s an individual function or a siloed group already trying to achieve its own change goal, whether driven from a previous organizational change initiative or a new one the group is spearheading. These internal groups often have the perception that they are optimizing change or achieving their goals. The reality, however, is that they are often sub-optimizing, because the change is limited to their business unit and they may be a barrier to achieving the organization’s broader change objectives.

To understand the amount and types of these in-motion changes and disruptions taking place throughout the enterprise, ask yourself two key questions: “What is impacting our people?” and “What are the parallel objectives?” What you find out can help you move forward with the next step.

Identify low-hanging fruit

As a change leader, having a deeper understanding of your company’s change landscape can help you prioritize change initiatives and see where change saturation is impacting your organization. Take a big-picture view and assess the enterprise as a whole, including in-progress projects, individual department objectives, organizational factors, and your current change goals.  If your organization doesn’t have an enterprise PMO or planning organization, you may want to consider establishing a function that identifies, prioritizes and governs strategic initiatives.

When faced with strategic change, an organization must look to move or remove obstacles that can limit the ability for their people to absorb and adapt.  Evaluate all in-motion opportunities to determine if they 1) align with the organization’s vision, 2) address a specific step in achieving that vision, and 3) if their timing matches the desired pace of change. Projects that don’t meet this criteria should be eliminated to free up resources and energy to achieve change objectives. Projects that do align should be connected to the broader vision to give them additional purpose.

Ask yourself: "If we had to place our bets in just a few areas, where would they be?" Sometimes, you really can accomplish more by doing less. That’s what we found when working with one financial services firm, which found itself addressing a vast number of change initiatives. We helped them chart the change landscape, set up a prioritization framework and institute a process to enable better results, more quickly. In the process, they canceled $8 million in in-flight projects that weren’t aligned to their operational strategy. By sequencing their efforts, they were able to apply the best minds to the initiatives at the right time while ensuring that the organization was engaged and ready to embrace change.

As this financial services provider found, understanding your organization’s ever-shifting internal change landscape and the impact of change saturation is key to tackling new change initiatives. By taking a holistic approach to change, you can empower your organization to achieve its change goals more effectively at a faster pace.

Read part two and three of our series on overcoming change saturation to learn about how co-creation can minimize the effects of change saturation and how to build resiliency in times of change.