How to Reduce the Risk of Colliding Change Initiatives

Where should leaders focus when managing multiple change initiatives simultaneously?

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Most prescriptions for organizational change have focused on how to launch a single change initiative. This made sense in a stable world in which undertakings were planned and executed gradually and sequentially — like controllers directing airplanes taking off on a single runway, one at a time and well distanced from one another. However, the challenges of coping with dynamic markets, global crises, and advancing technologies are forcing organizations to transform quickly, which can require multiple, simultaneous efforts on several fronts. When time-pressured controllers launch many airplanes in close succession, the risk of collision increases significantly. Yet change managers have a very limited understanding of how such “collisions” happen or how to reduce those risks.

Failure to manage interrelationships between change initiatives can generate poor overall performance in three ways. First, it can lead to a large number of seemingly discrete initiatives with unclear prioritization and insufficient resources allocated for implementation. Second, it creates misaligned incentives for managers whose concern for their own key performance indicators inhibits cooperation across departmental siloes, when cooperation could better generate the desired benefits. Third, it prevents managers from perceiving connections between their own initiatives and those occurring elsewhere in the organization, creating unexpected conflicts about resource allocation or the timing of implementation. These conflicts undermine each change initiative and decrease overall corporate performance.

Competing Change Initiatives at TechCorp

Launching multiple, simultaneous change initiatives clearly raises the stakes for managers. But with so many moving parts and pieces, where should their primary focus be?

To answer that question, our recent paper in Academy of Management Journal explores the experiences of a leading global technology company we’ll call TechCorp that attempted two large-scale change initiatives in tandem. The first initiative, Foundation, was a strategic project designed to instill a culture of innovation into the hierarchy-heavy organization by inculcating principles such as lean management, listening, and risk-taking. The second, Rebranding, introduced a year later, was intended to comprehensively reposition TechCorp in the marketplace and to be more customer driven, led by a separate team of senior managers along with the marketing department.

During both change initiatives, we conducted 94 interviews with 65 TechCorp staff members, including top managers, middle managers, and front-line employees. We also conducted employee surveys, analyzed corporate documents, and sat in on key meetings and workshops.

It became readily apparent to us as observing researchers — but less so to change managers until it was too late — that the Foundation and Rebranding initiatives interfered with each other in ways that undermined the success of both initiatives and overall strategic change. As one leader put it, “There are change initiatives here at various levels, which has led to extreme instability of the entire organization. I probably would describe this organization as traumatized.”

Challenges of Competing Change Initiatives

Amid the wealth of information we collected, inconsistency as perceived by employees stood out as the pivotal factor. In other words, multitasking per se wasn’t the problem. Rather, employees felt that the two change initiatives they were expected to execute had no overarching rhyme or reason. Employees perceived inconsistency on multiple levels: content (“What are we changing exactly, and why?”), procedure (“How will we integrate the various initiatives?”), and normative expectations (“Do these initiatives in aggregate convey a legitimate and coherent direction?”).

First, employees perceived content inconsistencies in terms of overlap between the stated change goals of the two initiatives. Both Foundation and Rebranding seemed to have the same core purpose: transforming TechCorp’s culture in a broad sense. Yet each initiative employed different symbols, used inconsistent labels for similar themes, and formulated seemingly divergent values. Middle managers could not understand why there were two change initiatives that focused on the same thing — in this case, the organization’s cultural values.

Second, employees perceived little to no procedural clarity about implementation and integration — the “how” of organizational change as opposed to the “what.” HR leaders, for example, had barely formed their game plan for onboarding the Foundation principles when the Rebranding team hit them with a new set of objectives. Middle managers and their teams felt as though the two initiatives were the proverbial square peg and round hole, with no problem-solving tools forthcoming from senior management — not even a mallet to help pound the two together. Many teams gave up on integration completely, forming associations with either one initiative or the other that predictably led to internal squabbles over resources.

Finally, Foundation and Rebranding seemed to imply starkly contrasting norms and values. TechCorp’s efforts to bolster its cutting-edge credentials, as represented by Foundation, were undermined in many employees’ eyes by the stilted corporate video marking the launch of Rebranding. “This was done as a huge, over-the-top party with a song — yes, seriously, a song,” said one interviewee. Another observed that the rebranding ceremony’s “gigantic” scale and production cost violated the core Foundation principle of lean management.

After three years, both of TechCorp’s change initiatives were significantly behind schedule. Planned training programs and performance management interventions had not yet reached several important manufacturing sites. A number of critical activities were abandoned due to intractable logistical problems or a lack of resources.

These disappointing results should not be surprising. As humans, we crave consistency, especially in our working lives. Inconsistency, which TechCorp’s managers inadvertently created in spades, causes psychological distress and negative emotions. In the change management context, such emotional responses create undercurrents of resistance that are almost impossible to settle once they get going.

In TechCorp’s case, the C-suite came to realize the problems of the colliding initiatives late in the process. These problems stemmed from strong resistance from middle managers. Yet they were not willing to admit initial mistakes and halt the programs, for fear of appearing weak. They felt it was too late to reset and restart the change initiatives. Instead, top executives tried trimming the change management supervisory teams, pouring money into brand education for employees and internal communication, and slicing the initiatives into smaller subprojects (which only compounded the complexity).

None of these responses solved TechCorp’s core problem, which ran much deeper than any on-the-fly adjustment could address. From the beginning, Foundation and Rebranding should have been treated as two halves of one holistic change initiative rather than two projects running in isolation. This error is hardly unique to TechCorp; viewing initiatives as stand-alone projects is common management practice.

Lessons for Leaders

What should organizations launching multiple change programs do differently? First and foremost, they should take the holistic view. The top management team (TMT) orchestrating change management should draw up a map of all the initiatives, planned or ongoing, occurring within the organization. This map should incorporate all of the vantage points that matter: not only the perspectives of top management, but also those of middle management and front-line employees. Middle managers and employees may perceive inconsistencies among these change initiatives more clearly than TMTs can, and they may well offer practical ideas about how to address inconsistencies upfront.

Once the organization has mapped out all employees’ perceptions of inconsistency in various initiatives, it should consider how to address these inconsistencies from the start. TMTs can stay ahead of the game by preparing a clear, consistent communication narrative explaining the necessity for multiple initiatives as opposed to one, detailing exactly how they fit together. Such a narrative can preempt the perception of inconsistency on all three levels: content, procedure, and normative expectations.

The timing and pacing of each initiative are additional key considerations. TMTs should have a clear idea of which initiatives can be wrapped up quickly and which may take years — and when to launch or stop each one. With a clearer time frame, they can ward off inconsistency by ensuring, for example, that one team isn’t assigned two conflicting tasks at the same time or that teams aren’t saddled with a storm of changes that could overwhelm their capacity.

TMTs should also monitor whether each key initiative has been allocated adequate resources. Remember that strategic change is exhausting, and periods of high activity should be followed by intervals of rest or less-intense work. The alternative to careful timing may well be burnout, which is an even greater threat to change performance than inconsistency.

Ultimately, successful change managers shift their focus from single initiatives to the dynamics among multiple initiatives. A successful transformation typically does not rely on any single change initiative but emerges from the careful management of multiple, integrated initiatives that interact and reinforce one another over time. One key success factor is to be alert to emerging inconsistencies among various initiatives regarding content, procedures, and normative expectations. These emerging inconsistencies can cause initial supporters to resist change, ultimately undermining the initiatives. Instead, taking the deliberate, comprehensive approach described here can drive your success in leading change.

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