How much change is too much?

change leadership change practitioner Oct 23, 2022

Change overload is a real thing. There are limits to what individuals, teams and organizations can consume in terms of change. 

Let's use the pandemic to illustrate what change overload looks like. 

People had to adjust to many new things. Remote work. Remote learning. How to cohabitate. Restrictions on outside activities. The list goes on.

It was overwhelming. Most of us reached change overload. We just couldn't make any more adjustments. For me, I shut down. I had to pause and start over by rebuilding daily habits and routines until it felt like I created the capacity for more newness in my life.

There are two truths in how people experience change:

  1. Change is holistic
  2. Every person has a different capacity

People experience change holistically

Change is additive. While it might be convenient to think that people compartmentalize work from life, that's not the reality. Change happening in any area of life impacts the capacity in others. At work, this means an employee who is experiencing change from multiple aspects reaches capacity more quickly. As does someone who has a significant amount of change happening in their personal life. 

At the start of a project, this is one of the most important tasks of the change manager to assess what else is going on in the organization and how much capacity there is to tackle the change at hand. For the last 10 years of my career, I have never said, "Wow this team has a lot of capacity, there's not much else going on." That's not how the work world is now.

The story is consistently one of too much and competing priorities that require employees to continually prioritize one mission-critical project over another.

That's exhausting. This brings me to the second truth.

Every person has a different capacity. Are you a teacup or a saucer?

Early in my career, a wise friend counseled me that my capacity was the size of a large saucer, whereas a colleague could comparatively be described as a teacup. What she meant by this is that I could take on a lot more work, and therefore a lot more change. 

But it wasn't fair to compare my capacity to others. It was simply the truth. 

Every person brings to the table a series of life experiences. Some of those have made them feel uncertain, scared, and even despondent about making change. "Failure" sticks to some of our memories for a long time. Along with negative emotions associated with change some will have implemented a coping mechanism to avoid change at all costs. That means they never give themselves a chance to undo the feelings of failure. 

An individual, team or organization that behaves like this has a low capacity for change. They will be able to take on less.

Individuals, teams and organizations that have built up more positive experiences with change (by starting small, or by increasing the frequency of change) will have a greater capacity for change. They can take on more.

Assessing capacity

A few questions can help you assess change capacity:

  1. When was the last time your organization successfully implemented a change? 
  2. How do people talk about change? (Do they have long memories of past "failures"?) 
  3. What other projects/initiatives are going on right now?

Once you've completed an assessment, it's a matter of judgment on how to assess the risk to the project. Given the overload in the work world currently, it's rare that the answer is anything other than "low capacity" and a high degree of competing priorities. The assessment can help bring those competing initiatives out into the open so that leaders and project team members can discuss how the projects are symbiotic or how to prioritize.

The people risk becomes part of the conversation with actions to alleviate constraints rather than waiting until something (or someone) breaks.

Photo by <a href="">Luis Villasmil</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>   

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