Drowning in Change

“Why am I standing in a puddle of water?”

The question came at the end of a marathon “cook” of pesto last weekend. Usually my husband prepares our winter supply in installments over the month of August, a little each weekend. But due to the July flood and an unusual amount of family travel, we were a little behind-schedule and decided to knock it out in one big batch. When I tell you that it required almost 5 pounds (excluding stems) of basil, 16 sticks of butter, one of those enormous tins of EVOO, 6 heads of garlic, and 4 pounds of parmesan, you’ll get an idea of the scope of this batch.

My husband’s question came just as we were descanting the very last of the vat into one more container and trying to figure out how to squeeze it into the freezer.

We pulled everything out from under the kitchen sink. The under-cabinet pull-outs were rusty – an indication that the sink had been leaking for awhile. But I had pulled a rarely-used cleaner out of the back of the cabinet earlier in the week and hadn’t noticed water – a mystery… Eventually we traced the leak back to the seal around the sink drain. Apparently it had been slowly dripping for a longer period of time (as evidenced by the rust) and gave way entirely under the pressure of washing 5 pounds of basil all at once, alas.

If you’ve noticed something similar – a flooding kitchen sink or an overflowing toilet with a houseful of guests – you’re not imagining it. It isn’t just you and it isn’t murphy’s law. Your guests – and your behavior on their behalf – put additional strain on your plumbing and some part that has been carrying the load or leak that has been quietly dripping suddenly gives way.

Stewart Brand writes about this phenomenon in his wonderful book, How Building Learn. He tells how buildings adapt to their inhabitants’ habits and, when those people or those habits change, it stresses the building’s systems, causing a break down.

You can see this at work in your town – do the streets flood after a rainstorm, causing puddles to leap over at corners? This is like the slow drip under my kitchen sink – one good hurricane and the system gets overloaded and floods. I was watching an interview with Thomas L. Friedman yesterday about his new book Thank You for Being Late, and he talked about how the “Now or Later” decision that people needed to make about climate change a few years ago had changed to a “Now” decision because “Later” is already here. Whether you believe that humans are responsible for climate change or not, we all need to begin planning how we’re going to live with it, because it’s too late to stop it from coming.

Organizations need to be watching for drips, too. Maybe it’s a slow leak of talent indicating a stressed culture or an occasional uptick of customer complaints that hint at a system about to max out.

Change Fatigue

In Change Management, we talk about “change fatigue” which drains employees’ capacity for change: a new cash register system, updated hiring-rules, a revamped loyalty program, new product lines requiring new fixtures, a local initiative to build community engagement… each originating with a different owner, each demanding employee attention, each distracting from customer-focus… drip, drip, drip until a sudden change in the system – a new competitor, a regulatory change, traffic-killing weather on Black Friday – reveals the inability of employees to absorb any more change.

Kurt Lewin introduced the three phases of change: Frozen, Unfreezing, and Refreezing. If you introduce so many changes that employees feel like they’re stuck in a “slush” of unfreezing, they become apathetic towards change and the challenge of securing adoption grows. That challenge increases again if there is already a distrust of the people imposing the change, either because they have introduced changes before that failed, or because they say they will relieve the pace of change, and don’t.

Three approaches can help alleviate this fatigue:


One retailer I know established a change governance committee who owned the calendar on behalf of the stores. They owned the pool of hours available after the core operating hours required just to open the doors had been allocated. If you wanted to make a change, any change, it had to go through the governance committee and once those hours were used up, that was it.

This committee was cross-functional with the power of a strong executive leader to reinforce it. Without the strong reinforcement, it wouldn’t work.

Too often you see this responsibility assigned to groups that don’t have the structural power to give it teeth. The system breaks down because executive after executive determines that their project is important enough to make an exception to the governance, and then, when their project fails or causes the failure of another project, blame the process or the gatekeepers.


Another approach is to bundle the changes together, so that they seem like different facets of the same change. Tying a change in the sales approach with a new loyalty program or a new product rollout can reinforce both without making it seem like multiple changes. This requires a level of trust between the executives involved because each fears that their change won’t receive the attention it deserves if connected to another.


Sometimes structuring a change as “the next step” in an existing program – as opposed to “a new program” – can help. Introducing a new mystery shopping program as “the next step” in developing the team’s customer service skills makes it seem like more of something they already know, not as something new that they’ll have to learn. Again, this requires leadership who is more focused on getting results than on their own egos – an executive who insists that their change has to be a whole new program has no one but themselves to blame in the end.

How a Change Strategist Can Help

One of the jobs of a change manager is to evaluate the change-readiness for the community on whom the change depends, identify obstacles like change-fatigue that can get in the way of adoption, and develop strategies to overcome the resistance that accompanies them. I believe that another responsibility is to leave the organization more change-ready than they were before the intervention (for example, by helping an executive establish a governance process).

With so much change in our lives – political leaders causing cultural whiplash, weather that is forcing individuals and communities to re-evaluate lifestyle decisions, and the everyday erosion of the stuff that we live with – it’s up to businesses to find an easier way for their employees to adapt to changes in the way they work.

That is, if they want don’t want to look up one day and ask themselves metaphorically, “Why am I standing in a puddle of water?”

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