Change overload – how to manage change at the right pace

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One of the most overlooked problems in delivering change in any organisation is the level and speed of change that seems to be required of people.

Change seems to be the norm rather than the exception. I once worked in a retail organisation where change was almost frowned upon because they had been so successful in the past they just wanted to replicate what they did last year and the year before that. As you can expect this retailer hit the buffers when other retailers or ‘upstarts’ – as they were referred to – began eating into their market share. Change, and almost constant change, is with us all. We live in a very fast moving environment where unless you embrace change an organisation’s existence may be threatened as competitors change around you.

The problem with this constant of change is that you have to strike a balance between the status quo and trying to change everything. A change project usually requires people to upskill to a new process and/ or system as well as continuing to do their day job. This is understood. What is less understood is the fact that over a given period of time there is only so much change that people can absorb. If too much change is attempted then the chance of all the changes being successful are remote. In addition, you get the added problem of a demoralised workforce who feel put upon and uncomfortable learning new processes or systems. This is bad enough but there is an even bigger problem with attempting too much change too quickly. If employees are spending all their time ‘changing’ then their day job begins to suffer because they have to devote too much energy and time learning new processes and systems. If these employees are working in ‘front-office’ or customer facing roles, the business can really suffer. If we return to our retail example, we can see this illustrated clearly.

A large retailer will have a lot of change hitting stores. These can range from tactical messages from head office or can be as a result of projects, e.g., a new Point of Sale application, or a rebuilding of part of a store. Retailers usually have a store operations group that controls or tries to control the level of change hitting stores. Some retailers that I have worked with create a ‘firebreak’ between major change projects so that store staff are not overwhelmed by change and have time to absorb the previous change before the next one comes along. These retailers have learnt, to their cost, that too much change imposed on store staff mean that they have less time to serve customers and the takings suffer. If this happens across a large retailer, it can have a very large negative effect on sales.

So, how do we try and manage the level of change hitting an organisation?

First, we need to assess the impact of each project or initiative on the people that are affected by the change. By asking a set of ‘impact questions’ the level and length of impact can be assessed.

Second, we need to track each initiative and evaluate which people are affected by the change and when the change will impact them.

Lastly, we can then overlay the timing and impact of each change on each department or site, e.g. store affected. This will enable us to see if any initiatives clash, especially high-impact ones. We can then understand if the level of change on a group of people is too much. If this is the case, then the change portfolio can be smoothed out so that too much change too quickly is avoided.


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David Walton
About the author
David Walton

I am David Walton, Programme,Project and Portfolio Management specialist and director of Bestoutcome here in the UK. We make the PMO tools PM3, PM3time and PM3change, the only PMO tools designed by practitioners for practitioners.

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