Change Is Good: K Is for Keep It Super Simple

Slalom Consultant Roger Kastner

Roger Kastner

In a famous episode of the sitcom series Seinfield, the father of one of the main characters, Frank Costanza, received the therapeutic advice to say “serenity, now” whenever a situation caused his blood pressure to suddenly rise. However, instead of using a calming voice to repeat the mantra, the joke was that he screamed the mantra, obliterating any possible soothing benefit.

For many change leaders as well as recipients of change, the urge to scream “Serenity, now!” might be commonplace. And just like Mr. Constanza creating and escalating his own maddening situations, many change leaders do the same thing by attempting to drive too much change, too fast, and with not enough support to make it successful.

Serenity now, indeed.

Any project manager will tell you that each additional requirement and element of scope on a project will increase the risk and complexity to the initiative. The same goes for change initiatives; the more change a leader attempts to affect, there is a corresponding increase in the likelihood of resistance by the target audience.

The more change attempted, the more resistance a leader will likely face and the more risky the project will be. The less change attempted, the more likely the effort will succeed (the Standish Group identified “Minimize Scope and Requirements” as one of its top ten project success factors, and I did too).

It’s just that simple.

So how does a leader minimize the amount or degree of change? KISS it.

“KISS” is an acronym or mnemonic that cherishes and celebrates the virtue of simplicity. Although the acronym K.I.S.S. typically includes a different word for one of the Ss, I altered it to “Keep It Super Simple” for a couple of reasons.

First, no one likes to be called “stupid.” It’s bad self-talk and it doesn’t engender follower-ship. Second, “super” emphasizes the need to continuously look for ways to reduce the amount of change.

A leader I once worked for introduced me to the saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” It’s a horrible thought, eating an elephant; I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that in the first place. As a metaphor, though, it helps drive home the concept that we can only consume so much at a time. The same is true with people and change; although we can consume a lot of change over time, we can only consume so much change at once.

As a leader, my perspective on others’ threshold for how much change they can consume is likely lower than their threshold, which would likely cause me to drive too much change at any one point.

Case in point: Have you ever had someone tell you to do something you thought was beyond your ability? Usually this statement starts with the words, “You should…” and ends in things like “lose 20 pounds,” “get 8 hours of sleep each night,” or “facilitate the workshop.”

When we are overwhelmed by change, we don’t embrace more change. And typically we don’t reject just the incremental change, we begin to reject all the change we’re being asked to consume. Like the child who goes into an irreversible tantrum when asked to “finish those carrots,” we risk increasing resistance to the point of shutdown when we ask for too much at one time.

So, as leaders it is in our best interests that we only attempt the amount of change that our target audience can consume at any one time. Now, while determining the right amount of change that can be consumed is truly an art, I’ve identified some science (or rather, steps) that take a conservative approach to helping you right-size your change efforts.

Step 1: Identify Amount and Degree of Change

If you have already performed the Change Impact Analysis, you should have identified all the change that is occurring with your initiative. If you have not performed the Change Impact Analysis yet or your analysis does not identify the amount and degree of change each role or person is going to be asked to consume, then your analysis likely did not go far enough for you to perform step #2.

In order to identify the amount and degree of change per role, here are the steps I perform:

1)     Identify all the current-state business processes that are changing; capture the future-state change, the roles that are being impacted, and the degree of change per role.

  • For degree, I create a set of low, medium, and high criteria for the change created by the future-state process in how work is performed today. For instance,
    • Low = <10% impact in number of steps to complete process
    • Medium = 10-30% impact in number of steps to complete process
    • High = >30% impact in number of steps to complete process

2)     Pivot your analysis by role so you view all the changes each role is going to be asked to perform and the cumulative degree of change required.

  • Color-code your low, medium, and highs to create an easy-to-follow Change Impact heat map.
  • Note: Green, yellow, and red are commonly used as a color scheme for heat maps. That said, I suggest you consider how “red” is perceived in your organization before displaying a spreadsheet with a lot of red on it. I prefer using shades of green or blue on this type of heat map as it induces less visual heartburn for my audiences at first glance.

3)     Identify the cumulative amount of change each role will be asked to consume.

  • Create another set of criteria for the cumulative amount of change.
  • Everyone has his/her own threshold. I tend to be conservative and assume a cumulative 20-30% change is a lot for an individual, and therefore highlight these roles as hot spots.
  • Now is a good time to use red in case you have roles that are going to be asked to consume a lot of change.

Step 2: Acid Test—Mission Criticality

When analyzing scope and requirements, we tend to have a bad habit of asking, “Do we have everything we need?” Now, from its face, that seems like a perfectly reasonable and collaborative question. However, that question may be at the root of a lot of failed projects and change initiatives.

In a previous blog, I wrote about a 2002 Standish Group Study on “feature usage of typical software” that showed how 64% of features were rarely or never used. The Standish Group also has an annual study that categorizes projects into three categories: Successful, Severely Challenged, and Failed. The numbers change slightly, but since 1994 the results are roughly 30% Successful, 40% Challenged, and 30% Failed.

Combining these studies together, maybe the reason that we’re not delivering on expectations 70% of the time is that two-thirds of what we’re building doesn’t add value. And since every additional requirement and scope element increases time, money, risk, and complexity, asking, “Do we have everything we need?” is the last thing you should ask when analyzing requirements. Instead, the right question to ask is, “Do we need everything we have?” And that is exactly the next step in this process.

For those roles that will be asked to consume a medium or high level of change, I take each change requirement (i.e., process change), and ask for an articulation of why this requirement is mission-critical to the successful attainment of initiative objectives. Or asked another way, will the initiative be successful if this requirement was not achieved.

Based on the response, the requirements are prioritized in this way:

  • If the requirement can be articulated as mission-critical, awesome; it stays and that reasoning is captured in the Change Impact Analysis as a Priority 0.
  • If the requirement is identified as less than mission-critical but instead is a “nice to have” or “but it’s really, really important,” that’s also captured in the Change Impact Analysis as a Priority 1 or 2.
  • If the requirement is only “really important” or contains future benefit, it gets tossed, or ranked as a Priority 3.

Now that we’ve prioritized our change requirements, the next step is to start executing our change plan.

Step 3: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

With a list of prioritized change requirements, our next step is to reduce the list of requirements to only those that are mission-critical. We can reuse the justification for each requirement when dialoguing with our target audience about the change, and we can recycle those messages when reinforcing the change throughout the initiative through adoption.

  • Reduce—The prioritization effort should help the team determine which change requirements should be within scope and which can be deferred until later. The ability to articulate mission-criticality is a great barometer for these decisions. The goal is to reduce as much as possible and is reasonable.
  • Reuse – when leaders dialogue with their people about the change, the justification for each change requirement is crucial for setting the context for change, enabling the target audience to understand why the change is necessary.
  • Recycle—Funny thing about communication, saying something once usually is not enough. Just like the old married man who responds to his wife after  she protests that he doesn’t say I love you enough with, “Hey, I told you I love you when we got married, I’ll let you know if anything changes,” expecting that we only need to articulate the “why” once is also foolhardy. Provide the justification, then repeat.

It’s just that simple.

Wrap: Serenity NOW!

The Serenity Prayer provides a clue for change leaders:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In other words, there is wisdom and efficiency in focusing on that change that one can affect, and nothing more.

To increase the likelihood of a successful change initiative, change leaders should attempt to attain only the specific change that the organization needs to achieve, and not all the change possible. In doing so, the change leader will reduce the amount of needless and value-less resistance, complexity, and risk.

More success with less resistance and risk—now that sounds like a “Serenity now!” prayer answered.

It’s just that simple.

In a future blog, I’ll write about how to identify and predict when an organization has reached “Change Saturation,” or the point at which an organization can no longer consume change.

About Roger Kastner
As a member of the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom Consulting, I'm excited to share my perspectives and experiences with Change and Project Management to help clients and practitioners achieve their goals and objectives.

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