People prefer stability. It may seem odd to read that as the opening sentence of a blog on the subject of organizational change, but let me say that again. People prefer stability. It’s part of the human condition. For all of the inevitability and necessity of change that we talk about, we actually prefer things to be stable and predictable.
When change occurs – and it always does - we find it disruptive. Exactly how disruptive a change may be is highly individual. The amount of disruption we experience is a function of how much the change affects our individual construct of reality – the routines, preferences, habits, patterns, and ways we understand things. As we all know, this disruption can range from minor inconvenience to the “sky is falling.”
It is axiomatic that the level of change management that must be applied to a change effort is directly proportional to the amount of change people will experience. If this is true, how do you assess the impact of change in order to plan for the level of support? Where do you look and what do you examine?
The impact of change is felt at the individual level. If you want to understand the impact a change will have in order to plan a proportional change management response, then you must look at the variables that affect the individual’s construct of work reality and work experience. There are four variables that I have found to be very helpful.
- Changes in Work Context
- Changes in Work Content
- Changes in the Technical Work System
- Changes in Personal Factors
Let’s looks at each of these in turn.
Changes in Work Context
Work context has to do with the milieu that surrounds our work and us. It includes factors like place, space, membership in a primary work group, reporting relationship to a boss, and peer group relations. When taken together – where you work, the space you occupy that you think of as your own, the team/department/unit you’re part of, the relationship you have with your boss, and the relationships you have with the people you work with day in and day out – all define your work context and it is an important part of your construct of work reality.
When change threatens to disrupt these, you will feel an impact. Again, impact is individual. Some people may be wedded to place and space and proposing to move them to a new location is a big impact. Others may care less about place and space but put high value on preserving relationships. Being moved into a new work group with a new boss and co-workers will be an impact far greater for them than change in place or space.
You probably have your own stories of changes that split up work groups along with peer and reporting relationships that people found extremely disruptive. I ran across one a few years ago that sticks in my mind because it was about place and space. A department in a large corporation was relocated from the floor below the executive suite in a downtown skyscraper to a low floor just above the cafeteria. The entire group remained intact, but everyone felt like they’d been demoted and their loss of perceived status that wasn’t managed at all well affected their reaction to the overall change for a long time.
So, one important place to look for change impacts is work context – place, space, group, boss, and peers. It’s a key part of peoples’ work life construct. Understand the degree of impact here and you will have accounted for an important component of impact overall.
Changes in Work Content
Another very important place to look for change impact is changes in work content. Work content is about what you have to know and do to accomplish your work. It includes the tasks and activities you do as well as the knowledge, skill, and ability you must possess to perform them. When considered together, these define what we typically think of as our job.
However, work content should not be considered to be equivalent to job description. Job descriptions are an approximation of work content. The concept extends beyond this.
You put your personal stamp on your work. What you do reflects who you are and what you inherently bring to your work, what you’ve learned along the way, and the method and style you apply to the work that makes it uniquely yours. Over time, work content begins to merge with your work identity.
If what we do becomes our work identity (and even defines us in our life outside of work), then any impact assessment must carefully consider proposed changes to work content. Here are four work content areas to examine for change impact:
- Tasks, activities, and roles performed as part of one’s assigned job – Will people be required to do something different from what they do now? Specifically, how different will it be?
- Knowledge, skill, and ability (information, expertise, aptitude, or talent one draws on to perform their work) – Will people be required to learn something new and different from what they know now? Again, how different?
- Accountability for an outcome or deliverable. Will their level of accountability for the outcome they produce increase, decrease, or stay the same? Stripping accountability feels like personal loss. Adding accountability can be daunting.
- Authority (level of permission to act independently without oversight). Will their authority to act within boundaries of their work increase, decrease, or stay the same? Again, stripping or adding authority is disruptive.
It is important to remember that impacts to work content often affect people more deeply than impacts to work context.
Changes in the Technical Work System
The technical work system can be defined in the following general way. When people leave the work place for the day, the technical system can be thought of as everything that is left behind. That’s a broad statement, so let’s break it down. What’s left behind can be broken down into four parts.
- Space – This is a bit different from what we discussed above. Instead of location, here we’re referring to things like size, layout, and relationship. The layout and relationship of spaces determine patterns of interaction that in turn affect social connection, frequency of communication, and information processing, etc.
- Technology – the tools, machines, implements, devices, or any means by which work is done.
- Techniques – specific procedures applied to the production of a product or service or subpart of either.
- Processes – the collection of actions and decisions that sequentially transform an input into a desired output.
The technical work system usually represents a huge opportunity for improvement in most organizational changes. It’s another important place to look for change impacts.
Changes to the technical work system drive two kinds of individual impacts.
First, changes to technology, techniques, and processes are directly related to work content. Changing tools, techniques, or the nature and sequence of activities and decisions affects what people do and what they must know.
Second, and perhaps more profoundly, changes in the technical work system impact customs, habits, and patterns of behavior. These are deeply ingrained to the point of becoming instinctive. Changes to customs, habits, and patterns are typically highly disruptive.
So, a third important source of impacts is the potential for change in the technical work system – space, technology, techniques, and processes. This is where change meets the factors that give work familiarity and comfort.
Changes in Personal Factors
The fourth variable to consider for change impacts is personal factors. In Work Content, we talked about the deep connection between work identity and what we know and do. Personal factors have the same kind of importance. Personal factors are things like title, pay, progression and promotion, and opportunities for recognition and reward.
Title and pay have to do directly with status in the workplace. What you’re called and what you get paid define your place in the social order. If either is going to be affected as part of a change, the impact will be significant. For example, when broadbanding is done to support restructuring, the number of levels or job grades is consolidated. Job titles that for years may have contained the designations I, II, III, and IV may be simplified to a single broad title. If you’ve worked long and hard to become a Technician (or whatever else) IV, then suddenly losing that level designation and the status that goes with it feels like a personal loss.
Progression and promotion and opportunities for recognition and reward are related to self worth and sense of future. Will the proposed change affect my path forward or upward? Will the proposed change affect my chances for recognition and reward or disrupt current arrangements? Together these factor into a personal calculation of future.
In an example I'm familiar with, reorganization as part of an acquisition also resulted in a change to the management bonus plan. The level of managerial bonuses was downgraded across the board. The impact to managers’ personal sense of worth and future was swift and considerable and a lot of good talent left for other opportunities.
Don’t overlook personal factors in your assessment of change impacts and your change management planning. Their relationship to status and personal worth make them vitally important considerations.
I started by saying that people prefer stability. While we may prefer stability, it is a condition that doesn’t endure for very long. Change in organizations is inevitable. The consequence of change is always some degree of disruption to one’s construct of reality. The next time you confront an organizational change and need to consider the degree of impact so you can plan a proportional change management response, work context, work content, the technical work system, and personal factors are four very useful places to look.
To learn more about assessing change impact and managing change in general, please visit thechangekit.com and request a demonstration.