Change saturation is a tale as old as time.
Ok, that might be a bit dramatic, but one could argue that the Big Bang and supernovas are the result of change saturation, but let’s leave the history of the cosmos and fast forward to the modern workday.
Change saturation and change fatigue are hot topics in the office. How do you measure it, control it, reduce it, avoid it? What is too much? When can we ignore it? What amount is juuuuust right?
First off, what is change saturation?
If you've heard the saying, “Trying to put 5 pounds of stuff in a 3-pound bag” you get the idea of change saturation.
To put it simply, change saturation is a measure of the relationship between how much is being asked of a group of people or employees and how much that group can handle. Anytime that ratio approaches or exceeds 1:1 it means that there is a high risk of employees feeling overwhelmed, confused, and unable to process it all (see: change fatigue).
This is what it means for a group to be “suffering from change saturation,” or “change saturated.”
High change saturation has a detrimental effect on organization morale and output, not to mention the reduced odds of your change management project hitting its intended goals. To use the sponge analogy, if you’re a change lead, “pour it on them” is never a good strategy, especially when “them” is a sponge already submerged in a whole lot of other “it.”
Ok, got it. We want it low or not present at all.
Correct, but that’s easier said than done, especially at big organizations where there are tens or hundreds of projects happening in concert, each one vying for attention and calendar supremacy. Organizational change can become a major headache, quickly.
We’ve learned a number of lessons in building ChangeAnalytics’ capability for our clients that we wanted to share some important lessons about change saturation, change fatigue, change capacity, and what people always get wrong.
1. Saturation isn’t just about “change”
Let’s cut right to it. If someone is talking about “change saturation” they’re really interested in knowing what somebody’s capacity is for more stuff. To use a term everyone is familiar with in the office, saturation is nothing more than bandwidth. When someone asks you, “What’s your bandwidth like?” they want to know if you have more time/energy to do whatever it is they are about to ask of you.
So, when someone is stating a group’s “change saturation level” this person is indirectly referring to the group’s capacity to handle more stuff. Not just more organizational change, but more stuff in general. For instance, if the expectation is that someone works 40 hours a week and someone has 40 hours accounted for before any changes, then they, by definition, are already “saturated.”
There will always be some level of saturation. It’s part of work. We all have to juggle multiple projects, deliverables, and milestones, simultaneously . If someone’s saturation level is zero, they’re probably unemployed.
So don’t convince yourself that you need a change management certification and a particle accelerator to understand change saturation. It’s just bandwidth/capacity.
Naturally, you might be wondering who decides what someone’s saturation level is then?
Good question. Welcome to a wily world where data and opinions collide. (Maybe we do need a particle accelerator!)
2. Change impacts are not the same thing as change saturation
Companies are always trying to toe the line between maximizing what their staff can do, produce, or contribute without overburdening them. Sure, a car can operate at 7000 RPM, but not for a long period of time.
At the risk of sounding crass, when it comes to change management, what an executive or a senior leader really wants to know is, “ Can this group handle the change without too much kicking and screaming? ”
While that feels like one question, it’s actually talking about two different concepts
- the change = change impacts
- kicking and screaming = change saturation
They are related, but they are not the same thing. Knowing the first helps inform the second.
Simply speaking, change impacts look at the amount of time a project will demand from a particular person or group to get them proficient and efficient in the future state. The time is in a relation to a baseline of zero, since it is measuring how much new time is being asked of someone.
Change saturation, however, is a measurement of how much free time (capacity/bandwidth) a person has to absorb those impacts before some “overload threshold.” This threshold is hard to generalize especially in a white-collar world where influence, impact, and contributions are not directly tied to minutes on a clock.
To give an example, Mary might have 16 hours of new things hitting her this month while Josh only has 10 hours (ChangeAnalytics can tell you that). But this doesn't tell us if Mary currently feels more saturated with work than Josh.
So, you have to ask Mary. What is her capacity right now? What is her ability to get work done? How would she feel if someone took four hours of her time each week over the next 4 weeks? Does she know what those four hours are for? Does she know what’s in it for her? Does she feel this would have a negative impact on her job?
3. Mood and mindset can alter someone’s change saturation
This is building off of point #2 above. Someone’s capacity for something is almost always partially dependent on their opinion of the ask.
There’s a great scene in A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise’s character, Danny, is trying to be cheeky with Jack Nicholson’s character, Colonel Jessep, by asking him for something (the transfer order) that Danny knows the colonel will have trouble providing. Danny needs something from Jessep but Danny is being disrespectful with his ask and his tone. Colonel Jessup let’s him know. You can see the abridged text exchange below.
Danny: I'll just need a copy of Santiago's transfer order.
Jessep: What's that?
Danny: Santiago's transfer order. You guys have paperwork on that kind of thing, I just need it for the file.
Jessep: (pause) Of course you can have a copy of the transfer order. For the file. I'm here to help anyway I can.... but you have to ask me nicely.
Danny: I beg your pardon.
Jessep: You have to ask me nicely. You see, Danny, I can deal with the bullets and the bombs and the blood. I can deal with the heat and the stress and the fear. I don't want money and I don't want medals. What I want is for you to stand there with your Harvard mouth, extend me some freakin courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.
Danny: (pause) Colonel Jessep...if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like a copy of the transfer order. Sir.
Jessep: (big smile) No problem.
Just like Colonel Jessep, the same exact ask for your employees’ time can have wildly different answers depending on if they feel respected or not.
Ask them nicely and they may suddenly find the time you need.
Obviously, this is where good change management and effective communication comes in. Rushed or poorly communicated change management can have a profoundly negative impact on employee morale and productivity.
4. Four quarters do not equal a dollar
One common misconception is that change saturation (or saturation in general) increases uniformly based on the time being asked of someone. From experience, we know that the “switching energy,” or the time it takes to handle multiple inputs, is greater than the sum of those inputs.
Four projects of low impact might be more arresting than one project of high impact.
Or in English, adding 10 hours a month to someone’s plate for one project is less impactful than adding four different projects that each add 2.5 hours a month to someone’s plate. What is so difficult to account for in a nice spreadsheet is the energy it takes to reconfigure the mind for what new change it is up against.
Driving a stick shift car with the steering wheel on the left-hand side for 10 hours is easier than driving that same car for 2.5 hours, then switching to standard car with the steering wheel on the right, then switching to an automatic car with the steering wheel on the right, then finishing that off with an automatic car with the steering wheel on the left.
Even if you knew how to do all four.
So, the frequency of changes has to be considered when trying to quantify change saturation levels and change capacity.
Change impacts and change saturation are integral pieces of information on any single project, and across an organization. They are certainly related, but there are nuances abound. We’d love to show you how ChangeAnalytics allows you to see the change impacts on an entire department with one click of a button, and then shows you the impacts on one individual in that department with another click.