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How Much Change? June 10, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Change management is sometimes focused and relatively simple, for example an introduction of a single new process or a re-assignment of responsibility from one person to another. The change still requires alignment and oversight, but everything is easier when the scope is narrow. Fewer people are involved, there are fewer dependencies and collateral processes, and the expected improvement as a result of the change can be more easily and unequivocally measured.

Change management is obviously more challenging and time-consuming when the change is more comprehensive. A common question that any manager or leader is likely to ask themselves is: “How much change can I or the team handle at one time?” Is it better to break up a large change initiative into smaller pieces and consolidate around a new equilibrium after each piece before introducing more change? Or, is it better to introduce all the planned change at the same time in the hope of getting all the turmoil out of the way at once?

As usual I don’t think there’s a single right answer here. However, my inclination is to go with the “all at once” approach. I think once you’ve convinced everyone that the changes are necessary it’s better to roll them out in one package while people are still receptive and open-minded. I think there’s a kind of battle fatigue that sets in when organizations are subjected to extended periods of planned change, and this leads to passive or active resistance once momentum has been lost. Assuming the team has been successfully aligned on the reasons for the change, and that they share the vision of the improved future state, the sooner you can get there the better.



1. Joanne Wortman - June 11, 2011

I think today’s business climate more often demands taking it all on at once. There are some situations where we don’t have the luxury of achieving full alignment, and have to neutralize the influence of the parties who will not get on board.

I see the narrow scope change initiatives as being evolutionary, but the big scope initiatives are essentially disruptive,– things like mergers, divestitures, ERP implementations, introduction of whole new product lines, or fundamental changes in the business model. An additional complication arises when these big initiatives shift strategy midstream, preventing you from achieving any sort of equilibrium between phases.

You are right on target, there is no single right answer. The answer often changes while the change is in motion!

timrodgers - June 11, 2011

Thanks for the comment. I agree that full alignment is an unlikely event, although I make a point of explaining the reasons for the change. It would be great if everyone came on-board, but agreement is not required, only listening and (at best) understanding.

Big scope changes are certainly disruptive, and I think your point is that if you’re going to be disruptive, then it’s best to dive in and “just do it.”

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to expand this topic a bit. Here are a few additional thoughts:

1. I agree that flexibility is needed during any change management initiative, particularly in response to unexpected events or elements that were not taken into account during the initial planning. I think the challenge for the change manager is differentiating between legitimate considerations vs. objections that are derived from resistance.

2. Even in a “big bang” disruptive change initiative it’s vitally important to monitor and measure the effectiveness of the changes. In my recent experience as a quality director I know the value of systematically introducing change to a production process so you can be confident that the last change had the intended effect. Introduce too many changes at once and you don’t know which one was the one that worked. Unfortunately business processes don’t usually allow for that kind of controlled experimentation, but you still have to determine if the changes are moving you in the intended direction.

3. In my original post I forgot to come back to my early point, which has to do with the readiness and capability of the team to handle changes of different magnitudes. I still think that’s a consideration, but it has more to do with how much support the team needs during the change. If the change is justified by business priorities, I don’t think the manager can say, “Well, the team really can’t handle this, so we’re not going to do it.” It does mean that the manager will have to work harder during the change, providing more communication, encouragement, training, and other support.

Finally, I should have added a plug for a great book on this topic: “Leading Change” by John P. Kotter (Harvard Business School Press, 1996).

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