Strategic Planning and Paralysis
For many organizational leaders, July is the most delusional month of the year. All year, as things get overwhelming and we deal with crises, bigger, but less urgent issues get put off “… until things slow down over the summer.” Once July comes, we bring our team together, roll up our sleeves and start making the plan. We have overdue stuff that we need to get at and we have to chart our course into the future.
In that July conference room very few leaders have the ability, or the willingness, to put limits on these plans. It all needs to get done, and some of it should have already been done. We feel impatient and frustrated. In this situation, leaders will often respond to cautions about employee overload with statements about the urgency of the need. As though the fact that these problems are very intense increases the capacity of our staff to make the changes happen effectively. Sometimes we even blame staff and quote Jim Collins, stating that “…maybe we don’t have the right people on the bus.”
The reality is that more than 70% of these plans will fail. This is a huge failure rate, and it is at a level that should tell leaders that the problem is not their employees. A majority of this failure rate is caused by overload. Leaders asking for so much change that they can’t attend to the change management process with fidelity and staff can’t operate beyond their emotional capacity.
There is a bit of common sense to the notion that all change takes an increased amount of energy. There is also a long standing law of energy conservation that states energy can be neither created nor destroyed. This means that when we ask organizations to adopt changes, we are shifting our finite energy from something to other things. This is problematic because many strategic plans operate as though they are adding energy to the equation.
When staff are asked to embrace more change than they can effectively implement, they don’t just get tired. This dynamic is called change fatigue, but it is a bit more than the name implies. Change fatigue describes a state in which staff are actively budgeting their efforts across different initiatives because they are being asked to give more energy than they have. Additionally, this dynamic represents a violation of an unspoken trust between staff and the organization. So, overloading staff with too much change means less effort than is needed for initiatives and staff who are becoming distrustful and resentful.
As these new initiatives fail or move very slowly, leaders feel more urgency and often respond by loading new changes on the organization. This is a natural reaction for those that are in leadership positions. If something is not working, change it. Change is good. If a little change is good, more must be better, and a lot must be great. It is difficult for leaders to allow for things to slow down when things aren’t going well. Deciding that ‘less change’ is the answer is a difficult decision to make and leaders need some help in making it.
To this point, there has been no way to measure whether an organization was experiencing too much change or not. Lot’s of leaders hire consultants to come in and analyze things. These consultants, if they are careful and experienced, might diagnose that there has been too much change — that people feel over-taxed and initiatives have not had opportunities to become rooted in the culture before staff are asked to move onto the next initiative.
Instead of relying on consultants, leaders can consider the magnitude of all their initiatives by considering how much energy each initiative demands. The energy demand for initiatives is measured in something called a Change Value Unit, or a CVU. CVUs are a function of the percentage of staff that an initiative affects, the degree to which staff like or dislike the change, how complex and how intellectually challenging the initiative is.
CVUs can be calculated using a change management dashboard and mapped across the calendar for implementation. The Law of Energy Conservation says that every organization has a finite amount of energy, the change management dashboard helps leaders recognize when they are trying to make the organization exceed its capabilities.
By quantifying the energy required by initiatives, leaders don’t have to manage by feel, and can be more secure in deciding when to add more to the plan, or taking some things off. Change Value Units and teh change management dashboard are new tools rooted in management principles that have stood the test of time. I encourage all leaders to take a beat before locking in their plan for the next year — do an initiative audit and use the change management dashboard to see how successful the plan is likely to be. You might save yourself a great deal of aggravation.