• Print

14 Symptoms Of Change Fatigue

Tuesday 6 December, 2022
Change fatigue is the sense of apathy or resignation people feel when facing what they perceive as too much organisational change.

14 Symptoms Of Change Fatigue

Often by the time that change fatigue has set in it’s simply too late to stop or postpone the change initiatives that have begun.

The symptoms of change fatigue are experienced at all layers of the organisation, affecting employees, middle managers and executives alike.

However as part of the  coaching plan for change leaders, and senior and middle management, an organisation should outline the consequences of instigating too many ‘sideshow’ change initiatives.

A structured approach to prioritising which projects to work on as well as limiting the volume of projects in progress at any one time is key to the organisation to remain focused on its primary goals. This way employees won’t become distracted and eventually change fatigued.

6 ways you know your employees are suffering from change fatigue



Change fatigue manifests in a number of ways in the workforce. These symptoms aren’t only experienced by low-level employees but can be evident in everyone, right through to senior-level executives.

A change initiative usually requires people to change behaviours. But constant change can create unintended behavioural changes.

Individual employees are likely to display a number of change fatigued behaviours, including:

  1. Disengagement

    They may arrive late to work and can’t wait to get out of the door as soon as ‘the bell goes’. Their attitude to work becomes apathetic. Involvement in group discussions and team meetings reduces to a point of indifference.

  2. Burn out

    Overwhelmed by responsibilities, they lack energy for the task in hand. Soon, absentee rates rise. Worse, perhaps, presenteeism results. This is when show up to work but don’t really do anything.

  3. Increased signs of stress

    As anxiety and stress rise often also interpersonal conflict, short tempers, and lack of concentration increase too. This all leads to poor work relations.

  4. Confusion

    Workers run around like ‘headless chickens’, rushing from one job to another and accomplishing little. Productivity falls as responsibilities become blurred, leading to deep dissatisfaction in the workplace.

  5. Complaints rise

    Complaints rise, and complainers become more vocal.

  6. Every day is met with cynicism

    Perhaps this is the worst aspect of change fatigue. Every new day and every new task is met with cynicism and resignation. Phrases such as ‘Don’t worry, it will all change again tomorrow', and ‘here we go again’ become common mantras.

4 signs that change fatigue is damaging your change projects



With employees suffering from change fatigue, it follows that the change project will suffer. Here are four easily identifiable signs of change fatigue on change projects:

  1. Depletion of project resources

    Budgets become stretched, and people are not available because they are ‘busy elsewhere’. Materials,  change management tools, and regular external expertise becomes scarce.

  2. Project delivery is a regular failure

    Change initiatives fail to produce expected results on a regular basis. Projects may never be completed, or only partially finished before the next “important” project takes precedence.

  3. Delays and missed target dates

    Start and finish dates are missed, hampered by a lack of resources. Progress on those projects that have started slows and even grinds to a halt, further hampered by a lack of focus from above.

  4. Senior change leaders become apathetic

    Senior leaders and change managers themselves become confused with all the change that is taking place, and consequently, they pull back from leadership. They become as split as their employees, and change initiatives now lack direction as well as focus.

 

4 signs your organisation is experiencing change fatigue



Once change fatigue has set in, cultural change will be seen at the organisational level. Revenues will undoubtedly suffer, as will profits. The major symptoms of change fatigue at the organisational level are:

  1. Resistance to change becomes automatic

    Change initiatives are met with immediate resistance, cynicism, and apathy. Mindsets are turned off from opportunity and tuned into the expectation of failure.

  2. Operational issues lack focus

    With so much going on elsewhere, day-to-day business and the focus on the customer is almost forgotten. Managers’ time and resources become divided and sub-divided so often that it becomes impossible to focus on the need to provide customers with quality products and services.

  3. Morale collapses

    Morale across the entire organisation bounces along the bottom. Employees become disenfranchised, managers become disenchanted. Turnover increases and key personnel move to new companies.

  4. Change initiatives become no more than distractions

    Finally, every change initiative is a distraction to all stakeholders. Customers, clients, suppliers, and employees now ignore any change initiative entirely. The result is the organisation spends more and becomes stuck in the present, which rapidly becomes the past.

    In order to avoid these issues, your organisation needs to remain focussed on the future and focussed on well-planned and properly resourced change. Make your change leaders understand the consequences of change fatigue, as you negotiate the difficult path of constant change.


Solving change fatigue: less change more often



To solve for change fatigue the key is not to stop any change or even reduce. The answer lies in getting organised: Prioritising and limiting the amount of change in progress at any one time.

This does a few things:

  • One, it stops the thrashing, uncertainty and resulting in decreased motivation, poor quality, longer cycle times, higher variability of the change initiatives.
  • Two, it increases 'flow', which allows for change initiatives to move rapidly and evenly from concept to customer.
  • Three, it improves the quality and motivation of employees who, as discussed above, grow tired of switching from one change to another over and over again.

Ironically, prioritising in this way allows the organisation to actually change faster and be still more responsive to changing market needs.

To do this you first need to understand a little about queuing theory.

Backlogs, queues, Little’s law, and wait times



Let’s take some time to understand the relationship with the backlog of change initiatives, wait times and flow. There is a set of concepts of queueing theory which has application all through our lives.

The idea is to visualise work-in-progress (WIP), reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths.

 

Little’s law



Little’s Law says that the average wait time for an item in a queue is equal to the average length of the queue divided by the average processing rate of an item in a queue.

In other words, the longer the queue, the higher the wait time. Also the higher the variability and the more time for mistakes to happen.

To gain some intuition for this, imagine a busy coffee shop. The longer the queue the higher the wait time for your coffee. Simple, right?

Consider also the different types of coffees people can order. Further complicate this with food orders and your simple coffee order takes even longer and the likelihood of errors goes way up.

Long queues get longer!



The point of all of this in relation to change fatigue is this: Long queues cause decreased motivation, poor quality, longer cycle times, and higher variability.

So, the key to subduing change fatigue is to reduce the amount of project in progress. How do you do this? Queuing theory tells us to not create queues of projects and definitely limit the number of projects in progress. Instead, create 'backlogs'.

What’s the difference between a backlog and a queue? 



Backlogs are distinct from queues in an important way: Items in a backlog are ongoingly prioritised where they can bounce up above other initiatives or even out of the backlog without consequence.

Not everything in the backlog is a committed initiative or project. Compare this to the coffee shop, where the staff must service the queue. If they do not, they lose customers, possibly forever.

However, if all the items in your backlog are committed to stakeholders, then your backlog behaves like a queue, and the longer it is, the longer your stakeholders are going to have to wait for service.

And if they have to wait too long, they will find another coffee shop, as your shop just can’t meet their rapidly changing market needs.

Therefore, in order to increase speed and responsiveness as well as avoid change fatigue, teams and organisations must actively manage their backlogs. By reducing the backlog and limiting commitments to longer-term work allows flexibility for other higher priority items that may come along.

If organisations and teams have too many fixed and commitments in the backlog, it cannot respond quickly, regardless of how efficient they are.

Reliability and speed are only possible when teams and organisations actively manage the backlog and keep it short.

Visualise and limit work in progress



The biggest obstacle team and organisations have is they don’t know how many commitments they’ve made.

Overloading teams and programs with more work than can be reasonably accomplished is a common and destructive problem. Visualising commitments and work-in-progress (WIP) become critical to managing queues.

Having too much work-in-progress will confuse priorities, cause frequent context switching, and increase overhead. It overloads people, scatters focus on immediate tasks, reduces productivity and throughput, and increases wait times for new functionality.

That’s when you see the symptoms of change fatigue mentioned above.

In the same way that a freeway at peak hour cannot handle still more cars entering, there is really no point in having more work in a system than the system can manage.

The first action to rectify the problem is to make the current work in progress visible to all stakeholders. A Kanban board is a simple way of doing that:

Another way to reduce work-in-progress, improve flow and speed the work moves through the system is to decrease the 'batch sizes' of the work.

In systems development and the project world, this included items such as the requirements, designs, code, tests, and other work items that move through the system.

Small batches move through the operation faster and with less variability. It also helps the team learn faster, too. Variability decrease comes from the reduction in the number of items in each batch.

Because each work item has some variability, the accumulation of a large number of items compounds the variability.

 

In summary, to fight change fatigue follow these three steps

 

  • Ensure team and program backlogs compact and mostly uncommitted

    This enables new, more important initiatives and tasks to enter the system.

  • Create work-in-progress (WIP) limits for each phase

    This reduces the size of the queue in each phase, improving speed and flow.

  • Be particularly cautious of large, long-term promises 

    Long term commitments usually arise out of people wanting certainty over the future. However, long-range promises increase the response time for new opportunities. Said another way, long-term commitments reduce enterprise agility.


These three primary mechanisms for implementing flow, visualising and limiting work-in-progress, decreasing work batch sizes, and limiting queue lengths, increase throughput and quicken the delivery of value.

Implementing these ideas helps everyone feel a sense of control over their work. It also causes fast and measurable improvements in customer satisfaction and will all but eliminate change fatigue.

 

Author Credits

Daniel Lock is the principal of Daniel Lock Consulting a firm specialising in helping managers and executives improve profitability and productivity, through process improvement, project and change management. https://daniellock.com/

  • Print