2020 has been a year like no other.
Organizations worldwide and in every industry made things happen practically overnight that would otherwise take years (if they were possible at all).
So, after a year that saw more change than ever before, we thought we’d recap some of the most important lessons 2020 has taught us all about change management.
Lesson #1: Massive Change Can Happen FAST
Digital transformation initiatives have played a central role for many organizations over the past 4-5 years. Given the level of change required, it could take multiple years to complete just one of many digital initiatives.
But here’s the thing. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that initiatives originally planned over years can be completed in weeks – sometimes days – when there is no other choice. In a lot of cases, initiatives that were considered ‘impossible’ for an organization became essential almost overnight… and then became a reality within an almost unbelievably short period of time.
Imagine walking into a meeting this time last year and setting out a plan to enable an entirely remote workforce… from scratch… in two weeks. You’d have been laughed out of the room. Anybody would. But that’s exactly what organizations all over the world achieved earlier this year.
In 2020 we all got really good at implementing change really fast. And we managed it because we had these three essential change drivers:
- A clear burning platform.
- A collective cause.
- A complete lack of alternatives.
What can we learn from this? Under the right circumstances, what we think of as ‘impossible’ is often nothing of the sort. Clear priorities and laser focus can yield astonishing results.
Lesson #2: Massive Change Comes at a Cost
Of course, these huge leaps forward don’t come for free. Aside from the financial cost, which has undoubtedly been significant, there has also been a human cost: change fatigue.
And this time, we aren’t talking about a general sense of fatigue and apathy caused by one-too-many change initiatives. We’re talking about a serious, practically medical-grade exhaustion brought on by the onslaught of change this year has forced upon all of us. In a word: burnout.
The non-profit group HelpGuide defines burnout as: “Emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.”
Sound familiar? We recently surveyed over 500 global project management professionals and 64% said they had experienced some degree of burnout in the past six months. Beyond all the personal difficulties this can cause, burnout can also lead to:
- Lower employee engagement
- Lower productivity
- Change resistance
Not surprising, is it? When we go through massive change, we naturally seek a period of stability afterward. We’ve been through enough, after all.
According to Gartner, “The amount of change that the average employee can absorb without becoming fatigued is half what it was last year.”
While unsurprising, this fact is already causing problems for a lot of organizations. At precisely the time employees are being asked to change most, they are least well equipped to deal with it. Solving this challenge will be a top priority for PMO leaders in all industries over the next 12 months.
Lesson #3: It’s Often the Small Changes that Hurt
The initial ‘big bang’ of having to work remotely and conduct meetings via Zoom was clearly a big change for most people. But in a sense, it was so big and so new that, for a lot of people, it seemed almost exciting to start with. It was completely new for everybody, and so everybody adapted as best they could.
But that’s not what caused most people to burn out. That was a result of all the small changes (and potential changes) that happened on an almost daily basis for months at a time. It was not knowing what was going on day to day, constant changes to regulations and working conditions, lack of social engagement, separation from loved ones, job insecurity, and a thousand other things that everybody had to accept – both at home and at work — with no end in sight.
Consider how this might be relevant during less turbulent times. It’s not necessarily the big change of implementing a new IT system that causes fatigue, but the constant ‘ripples’ of change that force people to continually change their working practices and routines. For many people, there’s never an opportunity to ‘settle in’ and adapt to a new system or process because there are always multiple initiatives ongoing at the same time – at all levels of the organization. And, when one finishes, three more spring up to fill its place.
What can we do about this?
The most important step we can all take is to stop communicating about individual initiatives as though they were happening in isolation. We have to shift from a message (and mindset) of “implementing change initiatives” to one of “navigating constant change.”
At the same time, we need to support employees to cope with – and ultimately thrive in – continuous change. By setting realistic expectations and supporting employees to become more change resilient, we can prepare our organizations to adapt and evolve as needed to best serve our customers.
How To Manage Change that Never Stops
Today, change is the only constant. Even before the pandemic, organizations in all industries faced challenges that forced them to adapt and evolve and a tremendous rate.
Now, as we look back on a year of almost unbelievable change, many of us have a simple question on our lips: How do we manage change that never stops?
Recently, I co-hosted a webinar with Planview AdaptiveWork where I demystified the process for sustaining change. I also passed on some lessons I’ve learned over the last decade about implementing organization-wide change… and making it stick.
Watch the on-demand webinar to learn:
- Why digital transformation isn’t just about technology, it’s about people and technology — and the intersection between the two.
- The real reason why organizations struggle to implement continuous change. Hint: it’s not just about “change fatigue.”
- Why it doesn’t work when leaders simply act as “cheerleaders” for change projects… and what they should do instead.
- How to think about navigating constant change as opposed to managing change at an individual project level.
- How to sustain change momentum when the initial burning objective isn’t as apparent.
For all that and much more, register for the free on-demand webinar today.