In parts 1 through 5 of this series I’ve talked about the causes and effects of change overload in organizations. Now it’s time to look at some solutions for managing overload. Here are 4 strategies that can be helpful:
1. Focus the organization
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes a convincing case that people (and, by extension, organizations) get far more done when they decide on the few things that represent the best use of their resources and say no to everything else. This is not easy at an individual level, and it’s even more difficult within an organization.
If you look at the typical leadership team of an organization, each member is responsible for a different area of the organization’s functioning, and each is usually rewarded for achieving goals relevant to their area of focus. This leads to each department or division identifying its own initiatives, many of which will have an impact on other parts of the organization. The organization’s strategic plan represents the combination of these initiatives.
A better strategy is to agree on no more than three major goals the organization is trying to accomplish, figure out what needs to happen to get these things done, and line up everyone, across all departments, in service to these goals. This requires making sure that each department, and ultimately each person, has a clear line of sight into how their personal activities support the overall priorities, and that their goals and incentives are aligned in this direction.
As an example, consider two school systems that are experiencing low levels of student achievement. In one system, each department is asked to think about how they can contribute–the technology department identifying the upgrades they can make to systems and computers; the academic office working on the best curriculum they can manage; the human resources department establishing new hiring standards for teachers, etc. In the other system, the team sits down together and agrees on the two or three core issues that need to be addressed, such as student attendance, principal-teacher relationships, and parent involvement, and figures out how to get all departments working on these issues. Which one is less likely to create an overloaded system?
2. Manage the initiative portfolio
Most organizations do a fairly good job of managing their financial resources. They go through some sort of budgeting process and make sure that anticipated expenditures don’t exceed the money available.
However, when it comes to human energy, organizations often don’t measure, let alone manage, the resources required to implement their objectives. To effectively manage initiatives in a way that minimizes overload, it’s important to treat all major initiatives as part of a portfolio, keeping an eye on the cumulative impact of initiatives on various parts of the organization and making decisions to terminate, delay, or rescope initiatives when the combined load exceeds the organization’s capacity.
Effective initiative portfolio management includes:
* A list of all major initiatives that is updated regularly
* Estimates of how much energy each initiative will require, broken down by department and time frame, and rolled up into an overall picture of change demand for each part of the organization
* A benchmark for how much change demand each part of the organization can accommodate
* A process for monitoring demand over time to identify areas of overload
* A process for prioritizing initiatives and deciding which to terminate, delay, or rescope to bring demand and capacity into balance
* The discipline to say no to lower-priority initiatives and follow through on decisions to reduce demand
As an example, consider two health-care organizations that are experiencing high turnover and low morale among patient-facing staff, with data suggesting that the core issues are overload and burnout. One organization allocates resources to gather data and gathers leaders to make tough choices about the timing and prioritization of key initiatives. The other organization places pressure on mid-level managers to improve morale, and begins additional programs designed to increase health and wellness, Which one is likely to create a sustainable reduction in overload? Which one is possibly making the problem worse and risking burnout of middle managers?
3. Manage initiatives effectively
Many change initiatives consume more energy than they need to because they are not managed well. Poor communication, inadequate planning, and low levels of support from leaders increase confusion, frustration, and inefficiency. In turn, these require people to spend more energy adjusting to each change.
It’s unrealistic to expect that major change initiatives can be implemented without requiring participants to expend physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual energy. However, well-managed initiatives ensure that unnecessary disruption is kept to a minimum.
Signs of well-managed initiatives include:
* Designated resources to manage the human side of change
* Effective integration of change management and project management
* Strong support and modeling by leaders
* Clear and timely communication
* High levels of engagement of change participants
* Recognition and management of interdependencies with other initiatives
As an example, consider two pharmaceutical organizations that are planning to reorganize and close some facilities. One of them manages everything through a central team that waits until everything is finalized before communicating. People lack the information they need to make informed decisions about their jobs and careers, and experience frustration that inhibits their ability to focus on work. They start looking for other jobs and some very talented employees leave the organization. The other organization creates a task force that includes representatives from the affected groups, and sends out regular communications letting people know when major decisions will be made, the approximate timeline for key events, and the options and support that will be available to them if their facility will be closing. They identify people who are high priorities for retention, and make sure these people receive special attention. While people do not have all the information they would like, they have a sense of what is happening and less of their energy is spent in worry and frustration.
4. Support individual capacity
Even though this recommendation is very important, I’ve deliberately listed it last. Many organization’s focus their overload-management efforts on increasing individual capacity for change through programs on wellness, meditation and mindfulness, resilience, and other aspects of well-being. However, this can backfire. If the organization is not doing the other things listed above, this can easily be interpreted as “we’ll help you get ready to take on more, but we’re not prepared to do our part to reduce the insane demands we’re placing on you.”
The most important thing an organization can do to support individual capacity is to establish a culture that values building and replenishing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy. This can include:
*establishing norms about working hours and accessibility outside of the work setting that support work/life balance
* modeling by leaders of self-care and healthy behavior
* designing offices and work spaces to support movement
* focusing performance measurement on results rather than effort
* helping individuals see the connection of their work to a larger sense of meaning and purpose
* actively encouraging personal growth and development
* expecting and encouraging individuals to speak up when they are experiencing overload
* offering courses to build knowledge and skills about wellness, mindfulness, resilience, and other aspects of well-being
* anticipating surges in change demand and providing support and resources at critical periods
As an example, consider two financial-services institutions that are experiencing high levels of employee stress-related illness and absenteeism. One of them sets up an employee fitness challenge and offers wellness and nutrition courses. However, managers continue to work extremely long hours and give preferential treatment to their employees who do the same. At meetings, the food provided is often high in sugar, fat, and sodium. The other organization begins by engaging leaders and managers in a program to help them manage their own stress levels, and holds them accountable for creating a culture of balance and health in their departments. Norms shift to include taking walks while discussing important issues, and making sure that food at meetings includes some healthy options. Which organization is likely to see increases in employees’ ability to handle high levels of change and disruption?
The remedies for change-related overload are not complicated, but they are not always easy to implement. They require a level of discipline that many organizations and leaders have not yet developed. But if an organization can create a clear sense of essential focus, use that focus to select and prioritize key initiatives, manage each of those initiatives well, and give individuals the tools they need to build and manage their own energy, it has the potential to significantly reduce the likelihood of overload. This increases the likelihood that high-priority changes will be fully implemented, achieving the desired business results efficiently and effectively. And, as a result, the organization can gain a significant advantage over competitors that are slower and less nimble in adapting to the fast-moving and ever-changing business environment.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on overload. I’d love to hear your best stories and ideas on this topic–please comment here or write me at email@example.com.