Change Exhaustion

                                                                              Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

The sources of stress that has already been identified are familiar, powerful and obvious. Another equally powerful source of stress that is less obvious though it’s familiar to many is the sense of exhaustion that arises from efforts to change which never stop and never succeed.

A borderless economy requires that businesses compete by being significantly more innovative, faster, and generally speaking, price competitive. That takes organizational flexibility, adaptability and agility. It requires setting a course and always being ready to change it. This is a change from old values and behaviors to very new ones. Since profound change is very hard to accomplish it is rarely totally successful.

There have been some major transformation successes: Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and Hewlett-Packard’s Test and Measurement Organization, now called Agilent come to mind. In each case, the need for core change was self-evident; the organization clearly had a dismal future at best if the status quo persisted. And in each case an appropriate, effective and committed leader had the helm and stayed the course. These successes have proved to be the exceptions. Most of the major change initiatives have not been successful: some never gained momentum and others that did, were replaced by a return to the old ways when good times followed crises.

Borderless organizations are different from stable organizations because they were born after 1980, after technology had created a borderless economy, and because they have IT genes and cutting-edge, entrepreneurial cultures. The biggest difference between borderless and stable organizations is the borderless organization was born in today’s turbulent reality and does not need a core transformation of its assumptions, values and practices. In contrast, stable organizations, especially those that had dominated their industry or had a monopoly, need an extraordinarily difficult and total transformation of their values, priorities and operations. These are the organizations that are most likely to experience change exhaustion.

While all organizations are affected by and use IT, IT is the heart of wartime organizations. In their initial stages, especially, there is a powerful sense of urgency! Wartime organizations are intellect-intensive and the intellectual leadership in technology has overwhelmingly come from young people in their teens, 20s and 30s instead of from more experienced senior people.

Characteristics of Borderless and Stable Organizations

Stable organizations are usually large and old. At some point they were either very successful or, like universities, many governments and still-regulated businesses, they never had any serious competition. Even today, there are still some stable organizations that act like they have all the time in the world. They’re cautious, experiencing objectively small changes as tumultuous. Studies, surveys and strategies can take years to formulate and if no action follows, that’s okay because there’s no sense of danger. While stable organizations do have layoffs, once the downsizing is completed the sense of crisis is replaced by complacency. Mentally, people are employees, expecting their salary and an annual increase no matter how poorly the organization is doing, comfortable being told what to do and how to achieve it. Many people prefer the relatively slow pace and aspects of security that stable organizations like The Container Store chain continue to provide.

In contrast, borderless organizations are always in a hurry, either because they want to grab a market or because they never forget competition comes out of anywhere. Employees are partners and colleagues, teammates who collaborate to ensure the success of the venture – which no one takes for granted. Because of stock options, many employees feel like owners. This leads them to think in terms of the good of the business – Will this make money? — Instead of the professional orientation, is this an effective solution? People who enjoy risk find borderless conditions, especially start-ups, risky and exciting.

Different behaviors are required in borderless organizations than in stable organizations and those behaviors reflect different values and priorities. Many behaviors or personal qualities that are common in stable organizations are barriers to success in a borderless economy. Stable organizations historically expected leaders, for example, to demonstrate authority by ordering subordinates. Subordinates, in turn, did what they were told and kept on saluting. That’s both slow and a waste of subordinates’ knowledge and talents. It is also counterproductive in that it precludes innovation and teamwork. In stable organizations which are typically hierarchical and competitive, hoarding knowledge, people or money is an expected behavior. In borderless organizations the rule is share! or you’re history. Note, too, that all borderless organizational behaviors require high levels of self-confidence.

For clarity, characteristics are depicted in terms of opposites. In reality, leaders must use their judgment about when to give orders and when to share decision-making power.

There are lots of reasons for the failure of basic transformation efforts: A change from a stable organization to a borderless organization is as fundamental as it gets. The more basic the change, the harder it is for people to grasp and accept. The more threatening the change the more push-back is inevitable. The more years the change takes, the harder it is to sustain people’s motivation to keep going. The more distant the external competitive threat, the harder it is to create a proactive change. The longer the organization was stable, and the bigger it is, the harder it is to achieve core change.

And, the more the change is conceptual rather than concrete, the more difficult it is to pull off. It’s easier, for example, to get people to use a new performance appraisal form than it is to get them to be performance-driven. Change agents always talk about changing an organization’s culture. The term “culture” is itself conceptual; culture is the sum of an organization’s history, assumptions and expectations. Culture involves the formal and informal values and assumptions that drive decisions and the nature of relationships. It is, therefore, not surprising that while stable organizations may change in their parts, I’ve never seen one become a nimble borderless organization in its whole. That’s why the change process rarely has a definitive end.

Some people feel that people and organizations have a finite capacity to absorb and adapt to change. If that’s true, there may well be some limit to how much basic change can be achieved at any point in time. That’s a warning to beware of introducing more fundamental change than people can cope with. But I don’t think the amount of change that’s being called for is the critical problem.

Most major organizational change efforts accomplish only partial or little success. As a result, many people in mature organizations are suffering from change exhaustion; the depleted outcome of successive change efforts to achieve a significant difference that either achieved only partial success or failed outright. Change exhaustion, therefore, is most likely the result of repetitive failure.

When a change initiative fails to achieve a transformation that’s clearly needed, the response is usually yet another major push for change. Leaders cry out, “Let’s Re-engineer! Re-structure! Re-strategize!” But the more previous efforts to change have failed, the more difficult it is for the new change process to gain credibility and champions. Success is the natural motivator and failure is the reverse. Failure reinforces failure. Repetitive failure leads to cynicism, depression and exhaustion and that’s exactly what you find in organizations that keep trying to adapt to the new conditions of competition, turbulence and unpredictability but never make it.

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