During the summer of 2009, Prosci will be releasing a number of "Five tips" tutorials. These tutorials will provide simple, actionable steps to improving change management application. Each tutorial will focus on a particular element of change management, including:

  • Five tips for: Succeeding in change management
  • Five tips for: Sizing your change management efforts
  • Five tips for: Better communications
  • Five tips for: Managing resistance

This "Five tips" tutorial looks at addressing change saturation. The tips come directly from practitioner experience and benchmarking data from Prosci's six benchmarking studies conducted over the last 12 years.

Five tips for: Addressing change saturation

  1. Clearly define saturation and its elements
  2. Understand why saturation occurs
  3. Share the consequences of being saturated
  4. Manage the portfolio of change
  5. Manage each change more effectively


1. Clearly define saturation and its elements

Change saturation - it can be a difficult concept to define. While each of us know what it feels like to be in a state of change fatigue - defining the concept is a bit more difficult. In developing the Change Portfolio Toolkit, Prosci developed a model for defining and understanding change saturation. At the foundation of the model is the idea that change saturation results from two distinct elements - change capacity (how much change can we handle) and change disruption (how much change is occurring). Change saturation occurs when the change disruption is more than the change capacity. This can be expressed as an equation: Change disruption > Change capacity.

Using an analogy, change capacity is like a bucket and change saturation is how much water is in the bucket. Each of us individually has a different "bucket" of change we can handle. Groups within organizations, and organizations themselves have different capacities for change. Some can handle large amounts of change while others can only handle small amounts of change. Change disruption, then, is how much water is in the bucket or being added to the bucket. When the amount of water is too much for the bucket, it spills over - likewise, when the amount of change disruption is more than the capacity for change, we experience change saturation.

Below is Prosci's Change Saturation Model. This model shows the elements that make up Change capacity and Change disruption.



Prosci Change Saturation Model

Change capacity is a function of several organizational factors (culture, history, structure), the perceived need for change and the organization's competency at managing change. Increasing the bucket requires addressing some of these factors - although some are much more difficult to influence than others. Change disruption is a function of how many changes are going on (how many sources of water are being added to the bucket) and how disruptive each of the changes are (how much water that source is adding). Furthermore, the disruption caused by a change is tied to the nature of the change itself and how effectively the change is being managed from a people perspective. The same change may create a sizable disruption if the people side of change is ignored or it might create less disruption if effective change management is employed.

While this model does not solve the problem of change saturation, it does provide a better framework for discussing change saturation and the elements that contribute to being past the point of change saturation.


2. Understand why saturation occurs

There are a number of reasons change saturation occurs in an organization. For this tutorial, we will look at three main reasons:

  1. The amount of change is on the rise in most organizations
  2. Project teams focus on their own solutions without thinking about the cumulative impact
  3. No one is looking at the cumulative impact in the organization

First, the amount of change most organizations are facing is on the rise. In Prosci's 2009 benchmarking study, over three quarters of participants said that they expected the amount of change to go up in the next two years (only 8% indicated that there would be less change with the remainder saying the amount of change in the next two years would remain constant). Technology is driving change. Customer and competitor issues contribute to the need to change. Globalization requires new ways of doing business. Even the current economic climate has required organizations to change how they operate. Overall, the number of changes, the frequency of change and the speed of change are all on the rise. This means that organizations are creating much more "change disruption" than they have in the past, contributing to change saturation.

Second, project teams tend to focus on their project. This is not an indictment of them - that is what they are paid and rewarded for doing. But, with each team focusing on their own solution and their own project, the result is collision at the front-line where employees are doing work. While each project team is doing a good job, those who are impacted by the projects feel the impact of change collision. And, many times project teams are surprised by the reactions they receive from front-line employees, not aware of the other changes that are impacting that particular group. It is not the fault of project teams, but when they operate with a view only toward their project the result is increased saturation.


Third, no one is looking at the cumulative impact of the projects going on in the organization. Project team members are focused on their particular solution, as described above. Senior leaders are making decisions about strategy and funding, and while they may know about each of the projects they do not see how the projects are colliding. Even representatives from other parts of the organization like HR or training or communication may know about numerous projects but may not be aware of the collision that is occurring at the employee level. Ultimately, the front-line employees who are touched by numerous changes are the only ones with any idea about the cumulative and collective impacts of changes taking place.

Think about an employee with the following schedule for a hypothetical week:

  • Monday afternoon - Training for Project A
  • Tuesday afternoon - A focus group for Project B
  • Wednesday morning - A conference call for Project C
  • Wednesday afternoon - A new system going live for Project D
  • Thursday morning - A follow up on training for Project A
  • Friday morning - A kickoff event for Project E

This person knows and feels the saturation that is going on, but the leaders of Projects A, B, C, D and E may have no idea about the chaotic week that employee experienced. This is probably not too different than what some of your employees are facing.


3. Share the consequences of being saturated

When discussing change saturation with leaders in your organization, you may hear the response "Well, that is just how it has to be. We cannot stop any of the changes." While in some cases this may be true, you can make headway in addressing change saturation by making clear the consequences of being past the point of saturation.

Data in Prosci's 2007 and 2009 benchmarking studies identified a number of consequences of being change saturated. Interestingly, responses fell into three distinct categories: individual symptoms, project symptoms and organizational symptoms.

Individual symptoms of change saturation are tied to how people behave and react in your organization when there is too much change. Below are just a few of the behaviors exhibited by employees in a change saturated environment, as identified by 2009 study participants:

  • Disengagement, apathy and indifference
  • Burn out and fatigue
  • Anxiety, stress and weariness
  • Confusion
  • More complaints and "noise"
  • Cynicism and skepticism

Not only do individuals suffer, but projects are also impacted when the organization has too much change going on. Symptoms related to project performance cited by study participants included:

  • Lack of necessary resources for projects, including budget and people
  • Poor project delivery including failure to produce expected results
  • Delays and schedule implications, including slowed progress and missed deadlines
  • Little direction and sponsorship from senior leaders

Organizational symptoms of change saturation were costly and long lasting. These symptoms directly impact the bottom line and can create a poor working environment. Participants cited numerous organizational symptoms of saturation including:

  • Automatic resistance
  • Lack of focus on operations
  • Attrition and turnover
  • Low morale throughout the organization
  • Changes were viewed as distractions

In addition to the consequences of being change saturated, there is also a real potential for changes to collide throughout the organization. Change collision can take place on a number of fronts - from people resources to budget to priority to mindshare and involvement by employees. When changes collide, the projects ultimately suffer.

So, while the reaction may be that the amount of change must continue, it is important to share the consequences and potential costs of operating past the point of change saturation


4. Manage the portfolio of change

This is the first of the five tips to provide specific actions and advice for alleviating change saturation - the first three help to build an Awareness and Desire to address change saturation. Managing the portfolio of change does not mean simply keeping an inventory of changes that are happening. It involves the mapping out of changes and their subsequent impacts on groups within the organization. It includes accounting for the cumulative and collective impact of changes on employees. It means highlighting the collision occurring and devising solutions.

The graphic on the right shows the Change Portfolio Management Process that is the centerpiece of the Change Portfolio Toolkit.

portfolio-process2Phase 1:  Identify - Here the boundaries of the analysis are established. An inventory of the change efforts underway is created. The different groups in the organization are segmented so change impact can be evaluated in the next step of the process.

Phase 2: Investigate - This phase is dedicated to learning about each of the change efforts in the portfolio. A common set of data is collected about each change including the size, impact, disruptive nature, risks and health of the initiative. This is also where the mapping of each change to the groups that are impacted by that change occurs.

Phase 3: Analyze - In the third phase, a portfolio perspective is created. Heat Maps are graphical depictions of who a change impacts. The cumulative impact of all the changes in the portfolio drives an Organizational Heat Map which shows areas of change saturation. Various other graphs are created to show the positioning of the current portfolio. Finally, a Portfolio Dashboard is created which captures high-level data and risks for the portfolio.

Phase 4: Act - In the Act phase, the portfolio moves from an academic to a pragmatic tool. Risks are identified for specific change efforts, groups in the organization and points-in-time where there is too much disruption occurring. The portfolio is presented to senior leaders and others in the organization who will benefit from a "big picture" of the current change environment. Actions are taken to alleviate change saturation and the consequences of changes colliding.

Phase 5: Monitor, Manage and Control - This is the final step of the Change Portfolio Management Process. Here, the portfolio becomes a management tool for evaluating new change efforts being proposed and change efforts that are concluding.

Learn more about the Change Portfolio Toolkit - visit the overview page,
view the table of contents or download the first tab of the toolkit

Managing the portfolio of change takes considerable leadership involvement. There must be commitment from leadership to undertake the work necessary to collect and analyze data on the numerous changes in the organization. Leadership must also provide authorization for the collection of all of the information needed on the changes in the portfolio. While it is a large undertaking, there are many advantages of a portfolio perspective - particularly addressing the saturation and collision consequences described above.


5. Manage each change more effectively

The final tip for addressing change saturation is probably the quickest to implement - manage the people side of change effectively on the projects in the organization. When the people side of change is not managed effectively, it causes more disruption and takes up more of the capacity available in an organization. However, when a solid, structured approach to change management is utilized, the negative impact and disruption on impacted employees is greatly reduced.

Think about the two changes:

Change not managed effectively:

  • Primary sponsor not active and visible
  • Managers left in the dark about what was happening and how it would impact their employees
  • No coalition of support across senior leadership
  • Communications were late or never occurred
  • Training was delivered without any background or context
  • Resistance was ignored
  • Employees did not understand why the change was happening, how they would be impacted or what was in it for them

Change managed effectively:

  • Primary sponsor actively and visibly demonstrated support and commitment for the change
  • Managers were prepared ahead of time and bought-in
  • A strong, healthy sponsor coalition existed across the organization
  • Communication occurred early and often
  • Training was effectively positioned after employees understood the change
  • Resistance was proactively identified and addressed
  • Employees understood why the change was happening, the risk of not changing and the WIIFM (what's in it for me)

Which of these two changes will be more disruptive (i.e. take up more of the available change capacity)?

Managing change effectively means applying a structured process, tools and principles to mobilize support and engagement from employees. Prosci's methodology describes a Preparing for change phase where assessments are conducted on change readiness and a strategy is developed including the needed sponsorship and team structures. During the Managing change phase, five plans are developed and implemented which are all geared toward building employees' Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement (read more about Prosci's ADKAR Model). Finally, the Reinforcing change phase includes specific mechanisms and actions to measure adoption and feedback, correct gaps and cement the change in the organization.

When a change is not managed well from a people side perspective, the result is confusion, resistance and disengagement. These activities all contribute to a higher level of change disruption.


Download the Managing Resistance to Change Executive Summary

Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.