Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

“You’re a little loopy when you’re hungry.” Working at the limits of change capacity

You're a little loopy when you're hungry graphicI always laugh when I see the new Snickers commercials—I admit it, I sometimes even rewind them.

They remind me that “You’re not yourself when you’re under the stress of change.”

Have you seen Robin Williams on your projects lately? This is the “Fourth and loopy” commercial where the usually very intense and focused coach is momentarily an incarnation of Robin Williams.

Very funny…because we can relate.

 “Signs of distress”

There is a point at which any of us reach our optimum performance―many of us refer to this as “The Zone.” Then, under continued pressure, we tip over and become less and less productive. We know intuitively when it is happening but we’re not always conscious of it.

The pressure also affects our project team and the people in the organization impacted by change (change targets).

In Managing at the Speed of Change, (1) Daryl Conner identified the signs of distress. Have you seen these in your projects? Here are some excerpts (quoted with permission):

Symptoms of low-level stress:

  • Brief irritation which may divert attention from work
  • Poor communication and reduced trust
  • Decreased honesty and directness
  • Defensive and blameful behavior
  • Reduced propensity for risk taking
  • Increased conflict with fellow workers
  • Decreased team effectiveness
  • Inappropriate outbursts at the office

Increasingly dysfunctional behaviors:

  • Lower morale
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach pains
  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Apathy or compliance behavior
  • Feelings of resignation

Severe dysfunction:

  • Malicious compliance
  • Overt blocking of company tasks or procedures
  • Covert undermining of organizational leadership
  • Actively promoting a negative attitude in others
  • Strike
  • Sabotage
  • Substance abuse or other addictive behaviors

Tangible and measurable

What you might observe is that, as the levels of change increase, dysfunctional behavior becomes more apparent and more severe.

You may also note that many of these symptoms pose immediate, tangible, and measurable impacts on productivity (and potentially on quality and safety), not to mention ultimate ROI of the initiative.

Why does this happen?


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Our capacity for change is limited, and yet manageable

One perspective on the capacity of humans for change comes from Alvin Toffler: “Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” (2)

This sure sounds like many of the transformational initiatives I worked on early in my career.

In Managing at the Speed of Change, Daryl designed a working definition for future shock as “that point when humans can no longer assimilate change without displaying dysfunctional behavior.”

I have seen that switch flip. Have you?

So, what is capacity?

  • “Capacity is a measure of the physical, mental, and emotional energy an individual has available to use in adapting to change. Inadequate adaptation capacity poses a key implementation risk.” Glossary, Change Thinking

Daryl explains capacity for change with a metaphor:

  • “Individuals experiencing future shock are like saturated sponges. Although they are already soaked, someone walks in with another two-gallon pitcher and pours it on them. In organizations around the world, change is typically poured onto the physically and emotionally saturated sponges of the workforce while management watches helplessly as their intended objectives run down the drain.” (Managing at the Speed of Change)

We often hear targets inside of change initiatives say, “It’s raining change,” “When will it stop?” and plaintively, “When can we go back to business as usual?”

The challenge is that organizations must make so much change annually now that “business as usual” really doesn’t exist for many people any more.

If you need your people to assimilate a change (to become proficient and even excel with it) and there is more, and perhaps concurrent, change coming, then learning how to manage capacity for change is crucial. This is a moral and a business imperative—ROI depends on it. It is a key component of organizational change management (i.e., helping people transition through change).

Fiduciary duty to optimize capacity and balance demand

Many leaders and project teams make an implicit assumption that capacity for change is unmanageable. This is both dangerous and untrue.

If you understand that change demands can put individuals and organizations under enough pressure to impair their ability to deliver daily tasks as well as impact their overall well-being, then you must acknowledge that it will become untenable at some point. Knowing where that point might be is a fiduciary responsibility. The moment it affects quality and safety, the organization has crossed into liability space.

Furthermore, if this risk jeopardizes the project ROI then it likewise requires attention.

What can we do about capacity and demand?

In the fourth post of his “Capacity and Demand” series, Daryl presents “Putting It All Together—The Mechanics of Capacity Management.”  As he notes, the objective is to “determine the desired balance between demand and capacity (stretch the organization’s limits while keeping change-related dysfunction within acceptable boundaries).”

Activities should include:

  • Determining current and anticipated demand
  • Determining current capacity levels
  • Evaluating interventions required to align demand and capacity
  • Developing plans for optimizing on a rolling basis

Interventions can include the following:

  • Education on the nature of change and capacity/demand: The ability of leaders and project members to identify, understand, and explain both the dynamics and risks is a powerful advantage.
  • Prioritization of the overall change portfolio and consideration of the unimaginable: What if we try to muscle this all through? What could we re-schedule, re-plan, or shelve?
  • Insightful change management interventions: This will prepare and engage people more, and help leaders coach their people to understand and manage their own reactions to change.
  • Development of resilience (capacity for change) within this organization
  • Development of a nimble organization that can adapt to change more readily

What now?

Is your project, and your team, suffering the negative impacts of change overload?

Is your ROI in jeopardy? This is serious risk.

Four things you can do:

  1. Share this blog post with your project team, and even your business sponsors. It will help them decipher what you are seeing. It validates that capacity exists, is limited, and can have very real negative impacts on the project, its ROI, and even on current quality and safety in production.
  2. Introduce the Snickers bar commercial as a kind reminder that “we are all under stress and can get a bit loopy” (i.e., it’s not just about you or me—let’s support each other).
  3. Read more about “Capacity and Demand” on Daryl’s blog here.
  4. Consider undertaking an assessment to determine your project’s and your current organization’s capacity/demand for change, the risks, and potential mitigations.


(1) “Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail,” Daryl Conner, Random House, New York, 1992, 2006

(2) “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler, Bantam, New York, 1984

Related Posts:

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