Avoiding Repetitive Change Syndrome

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Most management advice today — whether it’s from books or articles, prescribed in courses or by consultants — says that change is good and more change is better. Advice on how to change varies quite a bit, but it has three features in common: “Creative destruction” is its motto. “Change or perish” is its justification. And “No pain, no change” is its rationale for overcoming a purportedly innate human resistance to change. The overarching goal is to invent a spanking new future ahead of one’s competitors.

Divorcing to remarry, gutting the house to rehab it, downsizing the work-force in order to rehire and ripping apart the organization in order to restructure — these all exemplify the common approach to change these days. And it’s necessary — sometimes. The problem is that this highly destabilizing and painful change-management process has been overprescribed.

Examples of a lemming-like reliance on excessive change are easy to highlight. Consider the reengineering fad of the early to mid-1990s. Then a few years later, new-economy mania led change-pushers to herald Enron Corp. and other “revolutionaries” as companies to emulate. At the far edge of absurdity, the constant emphasis on radical change made a bestseller of Who Moved My Cheese? in which the most successful character learns to be ready, if not eager, to adapt to any and all changes in his food supply.

It would be wonderful if each disruptive episode of creative destruction had such a cheesy fairy-tale ending. But for many companies, repeated change efforts over the past 20 years have been too much about destruction and not enough about creation. What fairy tales do not mention is that many organizations make big revolutionary changes and perish, or worse, change and therefore perish.1

This is not to make the overblown point that all creative destruction is bad. There are, after all, the IBM’s of the world that revolutionize themselves very successfully. But for most companies, excessive levels of change-related pain can render change slower, more expensive and much more likely to fail entirely. In other words, “more pain, less change.” Employees who have to live through continuous rounds of change suffer the most, and the effect on the organization as a whole is likely to be corrosive. To guard against this damaging outcome, executives should continually monitor their organizations for symptoms of repetitive change syndrome: initiative overload, change-related chaos, employee cynicism and burnout.

The Symptoms of Excessive Change

Consider how excessive change leads to repetitive change syndrome in otherwise stellar employees. Three years ago, Jennifer (a pseudonym), a midlevel executive with experience in the telecom industry, arrived at what was then called AOL Time Warner. During her time with the company, it has had three CEOs. Each one has tried to put his own imprimatur on the firm — his mission, his vision, his 100-day plan. Jennifer’s own boss changed four times and, at the time of this writing, she was about to move on to her fifth.

As Jennifer puts it, “One day this top team is in favor, another day that one is. One day this is the strategy, another day that is. One day this is how we implement, then it changes the next day.” Strategic execution, in particular, swings like a pendulum between one approach and another. Indeed, everything changes repeatedly in Jennifer’s world — not only leaders, managers, strategies and priorities, but also the company’s culture, structure, evaluation processes and reward systems. Not surprisingly, the only thing Jennifer knows is that “everything will change again in six months.”

On a personal level, Jennifer lives in a world of perpetual starts and stops on projects. As bosses and evaluation criteria come and go, she is unsure about what to focus on. She is even more uncertain about her career prospects. Jennifer is not a complainer or a slacker — she cares about her job and the company’s success. She is ready to throw her all into moving in the right direction, if only that direction would stop changing continually. Jennifer, in short, is not “resistant to change” but “resistant from change.” She is struggling to work effectively in a company exhibiting all the symptoms of repetitive change syndrome.

The first symptom, initiative overload, manifests itself when organizations launch more change initiatives than anyone could ever reasonably handle. At a large U.S. pharmaceutical firm, a team of midlevel executives had spent three days working on a new change initiative when one executive admitted that the team was not ready to take the exercise seriously. Although the team members believed that the initiative was vital, they felt it had little chance of making a difference. Many change initiatives at the firm, once started, had not been completed; they were dropped midway when yet another new “superb initiative” was launched. Moreover, so many initiatives were already in progress, and the executives were already so overworked, that launching a new one would only cut further into the precious time they had left to run routine operations and to serve their customers.

Change-related chaos, the second symptom, is the state of upheaval that results when so many waves of initiatives have washed through the organization that hardly anyone knows which change he or she is implementing or why. Such chaos leads not only to anxiety and political infighting; it also makes it difficult for employees and customers to find out what procedures to follow, who has responsibility for what tasks and who to turn to when they cannot find the answers to those questions. The greater and more protracted the speed of change, the greater the chaos and the more time needed to resolve it.

Employee burnout, often expressed as cynicism, is the third symptom. The magnitude of change-related cynicism in today’s businesses, expressed in gallows humor or by the presence of Dilbert cartoons in every cubicle, cannot be understated. Such cynicism often shows up as data in employee surveys. Marburg Grace (not its real name), a global financial-services firm, under intense industry pressures to consolidate, merged three times in as many years. After three years of merger mania, only 18% of its employees reported that they were satisfied with their work, and more than half expected to move voluntarily to another firm within two years.

Repetitive change syndrome harms a company’s capacity to make further changes. That is, for every change initiative added, another one slows down or disappears. In extreme cases, older initiatives aren’t completed and are eventually forgotten. Moreover, people begin faking it, acting as if they are cooperating with a new initiative while secretly carrying on business as usual, a subtle form of sabotage. Or they will spend undue time in elaborate internal public-relations campaigns to launch their own change initiative — in the hope that it will rise above the thicket of other initiatives and thereby gain the attention of the organizational powers that be.

Repetitive change syndrome also starts taking time away from routine operations. There is only so much effective working time in a day, and time spent on change takes away from time spent on routine operations. In some cases, important routine processes that focus on the long term — such as visits to clients, maintenance and innovation — fall by the wayside. Problems go unaddressed until they can no longer be ignored. Firefighting becomes the norm. Companies suffering from the syndrome become increasingly focused on internal change and less and less focused on customer needs.

The Organizational Dashboard

A significant reason for the prevalence of repetitive change syndrome is that executives are often oblivious to the effects of constant change on their organizations. By surveying small samples of employees at regular intervals, they can measure the current rate of organizational change and the degree of organizational stability and, more important, the damage that excessive change (and in some cases, excessive stability) has inflicted on the organization’s capacity to make further changes, on its routine operations and on its relationship with customers. An analogy can be made to a car’s engine: Executives need to know how fast the company’s engine is going, how well it can cope with the speed and whether it’s running too hot or too cold.

Many companies, divisions, departments and even subunits lack organizational-change speedometers. Their tendency is to increase the speed of change until they are traveling dangerously fast. For instance, high-level executives at one of the most prestigious U.S. consumer-products companies could not agree on whether initiatives had been started, stopped, restarted or completed. There were so many that no one could keep track of them all. More important, no one was monitoring what proportion of employees’ time was being devoted to change-related activities, nor the cost of those activities, nor the returns on these investments in change. Companies should monitor their rate of change by surveying executives to obtain both a list of the important change initiatives (and their anticipated duration) in their business, division or department and an assessment — in the form of a score ranging from 1 to 5 — estimating the relative magnitude of the change.

Some organizations have engines that can handle relatively high speeds. But few actually know where their red line is — the point at which the speed of change begins to damage the organization’s capacity to make further changes. (Similarly, few managers in excessively stable companies realize when the change engine is about to freeze up.) Another survey can act as a tachometer, indicating the rate at which the engine is revolving and warning when it is over-revving or redlining.2

The survey should not only ask questions designed to reveal employee burnout and cynicism but also those that will uncover initiative overload — the point at which there are so many change initiatives that it is impossible to carry them all out while also running routine operations effectively. The clearest indicator of overload is the proportion of time employees are spending on change initiatives. Employee estimates are usually quite accurate, and a rule of thumb is that overload is severe when employees are spending more than a third of their time carrying out change initiatives. The tachometer survey should also measure change-related chaos — the multiple disruptions that occur when old operational controls are no longer in place and new controls have not yet been implemented.

An organizational temperature gauge measures actual trouble — the results of repetitive change syndrome, in a sense. At Marburg Grace, a survey of customers was even more disheartening than the employee survey. Customers perceived that the firm was focused more on managing change than on serving customer needs. They were up in arms over the rude and ineffectual service they were receiving from change-weary, frustrated, cynical employees.

Servicing the Change Engine

Clearly, drivers court disaster when they keep their eyes fixed on the speedometer, tachometer and temperature gauge rather than on the road ahead. However, drivers also may destroy their cars when they fail to check those gauges in response to grinding engine noises or a sense of excessive speed. Likewise, organizational gauges can never be a viable substitute for good intuitive leadership and should never be used as such. Rather, they should be used to provide the monitoring tools that intuitive leaders can use to develop, hone and check their intuitions.

Let’s be clear: Creative destruction may be necessary, and even preferable, in certain situations. Companies that have enjoyed captive markets, docile suppliers and government support may need the rude awakening it provides. In such instances, organizational stability is so ingrained that creative destruction may even be the best way to achieve change with the least amount of pain. The Koç Group, a Turkish conglomerate, is a good example of a change-avoider. Koç thrived until recently as a result of its powerful ties to the Turkish government, compliant suppliers and the lack of serious European or global competitors in Turkey. But as the Turkish economy has entered the global arena, Koç is faced with the urgent need to change dramatically.

But for every change-avoider today, there are many more “change-aholics” — companies that have changed more aggressively, quickly and repeatedly than any organization could hope to do successfully. For change-aholics, creative destruction cannot be the only option. Executives at such companies must keep a close look at the organizational dashboard in order to prevent repetitive change syndrome from overwhelming their employees and harming their customers



1. See, for instance, W.P. Barnett and J. Freeman, “Too Much of a Good Thing? Product Proliferation and Organizational Failure,” Organizational Science 12, no. 5 (2001): 539–558.

2. Note that sometimes an organization is redlining — indicating that it should slow down — but the industry, in effect, won’t let it stop revving the engine. When competitive pressures force rapid change, the organization may have no choice but to hold on for the ride, enduring the pain that comes along with it.

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