As we seek to understand change-related overload, we’ve talked about *why* change is demanding, and we’ve talked about the sources of change demand. The next piece of the puzzle has to do with the magnitude of demand. Each change we encounter brings a different amount of disruption.

Organizational change theorists talk about different levels of change:

Incremental changes are those that represent relatively small adjustments to the previous way of operating. Often these changes are the result of continuous improvement processes, in which people review the existing ways of doing things and identify other options that might be better. For example, at our firm we reviewed the application we were using to send out newsletters and identified a different one that we thought would offer advantages. It was a relatively minor change, because the main activities that needed to be done (creating content, updating mailing lists, etc.) were the same, but there were some new things to learn about how these tasks were accomplished.

Transitional changes are those that involve moving from one state of operating to another. Organizational changes in this category include such things as reorganizations, moves, personnel changes, the introduction of new business models or processes, and the launch of a new product line. Our firm recently moved from one office space to another. It was a moderately impactful change, because in addition to the planning and physical effort involved in moving things from one place to another, we had to make some choices about what to keep and make some tough decisions about giving up a meeting room we loved but were not fully using.

Transformational changes are those that involve a fundamental shift in the definition of the system. Organizations engage in transformational change when they create a new vision, merge with another company to create a new entity and operating model, undertake to change the culture, or redefine the nature of the services they provide. A firm I worked for some years ago began the process of transformation when they made the decision to shift from a product and intellectual-property based business model to a service/consulting-based company, with an associated change in brand.

While descriptions of the three levels focus on planned organizational change, the same categories can be applied to planned individual change, and also to unplanned changes of all sorts.

Planned individual change. In our personal lives, we often deliberately make incremental changes–perhaps we alter something about our eating or exercise habits that represents a relatively minor shift. We sometimes take on transitional changes, such as quitting or accepting a job or moving to a new home. And we periodically embark on transformational journeys such as committing to a marriage or other significant relationship, bearing or adopting children, or adopting a new religion.

Unplanned changes. The unanticipated disruptions in our lives also come in various sizes. At the incremental level are things such as a flat tire or an unexpected minor illness that we can deal with relatively easily. At the transitional level are disruptions that we need to respond to by significantly altering some aspect of our life for a period of time–these might include getting fired from a job, experiencing a significant injury, recovering from a hurricane or flood, or having a relative come to stay with us. And at the transformational level are unplanned events that have the power to deeply change who we are and how we view the world–these could include the loss of a loved one, an unexpected divorce, a life-threatening illness, the birth of a child with special needs, or even winning a large sum of money in the lottery.

Although we have divided changes into three categories of magnitude for the sake of simplicity, the reality is somewhat more complicated. Changes that appear to be transitional in nature can turn out to be transformational–for example, we may think that retirement will simply involve shifting our daily habits, when in fact it may cause us to fundamentally alter our view of who we are and what we are doing in the world. Disruptions that may appear major at first may turn out to be relatively minor in impact. And the categories are not neatly bounded–in fact, they represent a continuum of changes from small to large.

There are other factors that influence the magnitude of change demand, including the duration of impact and the level of control we experience. I have written a post on my other blog (on the My Resilience Gym web site) describing the terrain of adversity that covers this topic in more detail.

In the next post in this series I will talk about what happens at the individual level when change demand exceeds available capacity.