The previous post in this series focused on the impact to individuals of change-related overload. This post will focus on the organizational implications.

Almost every organization I’ve worked with in the past few years has a problem with change overload. A combination of rapid change in the environment, leadership’s inability to say “no” to things that sound appealing, and a failure to accurately estimate the level of demand being placed on the organization lead to certain groups (middle managers in most systems; nurses and physicians in health care; teachers and principals in school systems; etc.) being swamped with change demand. Here are some of the things that I’ve seen happening as a result:

Change implementation is poor. When too much change is going on, there are not enough implementation resources to go around. As a result, communication is often last-minute and incomplete, training needs are overlooked, and leaders don’t invest enough time and energy in making sure the results are achieved.

People feel victimized and cynical. When change implementation is poor, those on the receiving end of it are confused and overwhelmed. They get into a zone where all they see is one thing after another coming their way with little rhyme or reason, and they take the attitude of “here it comes again.” They begin to see themselves as victims of “them” (typically the head office, administration, or other central function) and become passive participants in the change process.

Nothing gets finished. When too many things are going on, people pay attention to whatever is right in front of them. Usually this is the latest thing the organization is focusing on. Project team resources are typically assigned to multiple initiatives and have to prioritize their time, and often there is little incentive to follow through on earlier projects.

Accountability diminishes. When people are used to having more to do than they can possibly get done, an unspoken agreement emerges between managers and employees. Employees work as hard as they can to get everything done that they possibly can, and managers don’t give them a hard time about what they don’t get finished. As a result, people are judged more on effort than on results, and being very busy is a badge of honor. People rarely step back to ask about the business results that are achieved–they focus instead on getting things checked off the list.

Reflective thinking time disappears. When people are up to their ears, they don’t have any spare capacity to serve as a buffer. The impact of unexpected events and surges in work demand cause front-line employees to scramble constantly, and this affects health and morale, leading to higher levels of absenteeism, poor teamwork, and increased turnover. It can also potentially affect customer service, quality, and safety. To make sure that customers are not affected, managers often jump in to cover things. This constant fire-fighting means that they rarely have time for one of the most important things they need to be doing–stepping back and thinking about how to create and improve work processes to deliver more effective results. It also means that there is little or no time for anyone to replenish their energy to better address future demands.

As you can see, change overload results in significant problems for both individuals and organizations. In the next part of this series, I will talk about ways that organizations can reduce overload and get things under control.