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2015 was a year of tremendous growth for Thought Ensemble and our clients. We nearly doubled in size, added many new clients to the mix, and had the opportunity to work on a whole host of challenging and interesting projects across industries. Despite the many differences we observed at our clients, the one consistent element was (and is) big plans and big changes. This manifested itself in the form of new systems, new teams, new org structures, and a variety of other grand plans for the coming year.

And now in 2016, roadmaps for those big changes have been set and portfolios prioritized. Project teams are executing and vendors have been engaged. Progress is being made, and status reported. And employees are being asked to do more than ever before. For some, this brings energy and enthusiasm; rallying behind a common vision, organizations forge ahead and accomplish great things. A recent Accenture study suggests that the highest performing organizations thrive on change and emerge energized.

But for others, the new year enthusiasm has already worn off and they’re beginning to feel tired. The challenges ahead seem insurmountable. It takes all of their energy just to get through their day without reading the 32 emails in their inbox related to upcoming projects and rollouts. Their calendars are double and triple booked with demos, project overviews, and user testing invitations. At some point, they’re forced to put their blinders on, tune it out, and forge ahead.

Many of us who have run large implementations have experienced this. People are surprised by system changes and deployment timelines, despite frequent and thorough communication. And those running the implementation can’t understand why people don’t care and don’t engage, since the project is clearly important.

This sense of feeling overwhelmed and disengaged should be a warning sign for the organization. It may indicate that the level of change is too high (a condition some call “change saturation”). Change saturation occurs when the level of change within an organization (change disruption) is greater than the organization can handle (change capacity). This typically happens when an organization is executing on a portfolio of projects with a large number of overlapping stakeholders (often without a clear connection to a strong vision). Nearly 3/4 of the participants in Prosci’s 2012 Best Practices in Change Management report indicated that their organization was nearing, at, or past the point of change saturation.

Interested in finding out if your organization may be experiencing change saturation? Consider the response that you’re getting to your project communications and invitations. Are stakeholders actively participating in your meetings and events? Are they reading your emails and newsletters and asking questions? Are they excited and engaged in your project? If this is the case, your organization is still likely solidly within its capacity for change. On the flip side, if people are regularly skipping your meetings, ignoring your emails, and starting to question and criticize the project, chances are that you’re at (or nearing) saturation.

Truly evaluating the level of change within your organization requires a look at your “portfolio of change.” Your portfolio of change is the aggregate of the project impacts across your stakeholder groups. To understand this portfolio, you must work with the leads across all of your projects, big and small, to understand their stakeholders, level of impact, and key milestones. But don’t just look at your end users, change touches all levels of the organization, including your executive team, board members, and internal support teams. Build an aggregate view from the stakeholder perspective that considers the following questions:

  • How are key stakeholders impacted by each in-flight project? Is there a role impact? Process impact? Tool impact?
  • When and how are they receiving information on projects?
  • What participation is expected of them? Do they simply need to be aware of the change, or do they need to participate in some way?
  • How do the deployment timelines line up? Are multiple projects deploying at the same time?

Do you have too many projects and not enough time to do this? Consider simply asking your stakeholders how they’re feeling about the level of change. Our clients often ask a single change-related question as part of their annual employee engagement survey: “How do you feel about the current level of change? Too high, just right, or too low?” The answer to this question alone can help diagnose whether your organization may be at, or nearing, the point of saturation.

If you do determine that your organization is at, or nearing, its capacity for change there are two clear options: 1) reduce the level of change (scaling back the number or scope of projects) or 2) Increase the level and focus on organizational change management.

If your immediate answer to 1) was “yeah, right,” your best option is to ramp up your change management efforts. Ensure that stakeholder impact, communications, and deployments are managed as a program and that leaders are aware of the strain on the organization. Challenge your leadership team to acknowledge the level of change and the associated challenges. Acknowledgement alone (simply recognizing that change is hard and requires a lot of work) can have an immediate impact on the way people are feeling.

How are you feeling about the level of change in your organization? Is the change fast, furious, and uncontrolled? Or the opposite: exciting, with a common vision to rally behind? Let’s discuss in the comments. I’m interested to hear how you got there and what you’re doing about it.