“There Are Almost Too Many Things to Worry About.” Then, a few days later, on the second anniversary of the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 pandemic declaration, the American Psychological Association published a set of “alarming” findings about how overwhelmed Americans feel. According to its Stress in America survey, on top of the enduring stress of Covid-19 and its tragic death toll, 80% or more of respondents also find inflation, supply chain issues, global uncertainty, and the war in Ukraine to be sources of significant stress.
Globally, we are in a moment of overload. Extraordinary forces are affecting our economy, our communities, and our workforce, sometimes feeling like an overwhelming flood. The task of leading any organization in today’s rapidly changing environment is indeed a complicated responsibility.
One place to look for guidance is how companies embark on transformative change. People have a limited capacity to absorb change, and each of us has a different level of resilience. As a result, efforts to meaningfully transform businesses can easily overwhelm employees and organizations.
Capacity is one of nine factors that determine an organization’s power to change, according to the latest Bain & Company research. Organizations can expand their capacity for change by taking five foundational steps:
Sacrifice good ideas so great ones have the space to flourish.
Accelerate speed by systematically removing bottlenecks and working in smaller increments.
Give the front line more ownership and control.
Invest in building personal resilience.
Dynamically reallocate resources as circumstances change.
Effective managers rigorously set priorities, limiting change to what can be accomplished without overload. One way to do that is a one-in/one-out policy: For every new initiative added to the agenda, another needs to come off. Walter Isaacson, author of the seminal biography Steve Jobs, recounts how the Apple founder approached this. He told his management team to reduce their list of priorities to the top 10; then he crossed off numbers 4 through 10, declaring “We can only do three.” While this may sound extreme, it can be an effective way to clear out clutter and focus on the initiatives that truly offer the greatest payoff.
Ultimately, the goal of any leader should not be just to manage within certain constraints, but to actually increase the organization’s overall capacity to change. To do this, it is important to be able to predict where in an organization initiative overload might occur and then channel resources to those places to help absorb stress and build change muscle. This can include activities such as:
Uncovering signs of overload with employee sentiment analysis—gathering a large volume of feedback to quantify and measure their perception of work and the organization and setting up a network of change agents to act as listening posts, keeping their finger on the pulse and conveying that feedback to management on a regular basis
Running sessions designed to anticipate the changes people will be asked to make and how that will affect them, in order to identify things that might go wrong and put mitigation plans in place ahead of time
Training leaders to spot signs of potential overload early
Connecting changes across the company so people can see the whole picture
Consider the approach the executive team of a global consumer products organization took as part of its transformation. First, the team grouped employees by their importance to creating change and by the degree to which they would be affected by the change. Those results were mapped on a two-by-two grid. In the upper right-hand quadrant were the employees most likely to be overwhelmed: Their help was critical, and they faced a high degree of change. The executives next overlaid all their transformation initiatives on the individuals in the organization who would actually have to perform the work. This clearly identified the places—and people—that would come under the greatest pressure and need the most help.
The organization used this information to focus its efforts and increase its ability to absorb change. Executives added resources in the areas of potential overload and altered the sequence of initiatives to create a more realistic critical path. They helped their business units and line functions by filling key roles with more resilient talent, providing focused training, and reinforcing Agile behaviors—including using discrete time-boxed sprints, product backlogs, and regular huddles.
Nothing will make our current moment an easy one, but it is possible for leaders to pivot from a flood management challenge to a change capacity opportunity by systematically building resilience and agility into their organizations.