Future Shock—The Scourge of Organizational Change

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Categories: Capacity and Demand


“Future shock [is] the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” —Alvin Toffler

Toffler nailed it. Forty years ago, in his groundbreaking book of the same name, he coined the term ‘”future shock” to describe the various problems that arise when people deal with more change than they can metabolize. Like fingerprints or cornea signatures, each person has a threshold for dealing with change. Once past that boundary, any more change triggers the “shattering stress and disorientation” of future shock.

Toffler’s prediction of what could happen is an all-too-familiar reality for us today. A quick glance at any TV, Internet, or newspaper summary of current events provides ample evidence that we live in a world inundated with dramatic fluctuations and redefinitions of what we, until recently, thought was stable. The increases in the volume, momentum, and complexity of transitions we contend with surpasses anything we could have imagined only a few years ago. There is no longer any safe haven from ongoing turbulence and uncertainly. Everywhere we look, people are either in future shock or recovering from some degree of it.

Organizations Feel It Too

To keep up with customers and competition, organizations must react to external pressures for change, as well as accommodate their own desire to change. To a growing extent, the combination is overwhelming. In fact, it is precisely because the downside of change has become so prevalent and costly in recent years that our profession has grown as much as it has.

The concept of future shock applied at the organizational level means so much change is being engaged that people can’t maintain the expected productivity and quality standards. When this happens, it elevates future shock from an individual’s predicament to an enterprise problem—a problem that shareholders notice.

Investors may, on occasion, be somewhat understanding about organizations contending with highly visible changes (e.g., the 2009 economic crash, the recent BP oil spill) but even such brief moments of empathy dissipate quickly when productivity, quality, and safety metrics drop. Future shock isn’t some theoretical, touchy-feely jargon manufactured by HR. Its impact on the workforce and an organization’s market value is very tangible. Leaders must be vigilant about attending to it in order to avoid unnecessary resistance, weak results, encroachment, and damaged leadership credibility.

  • Resistance: Numerous factors contribute to resistance to change. One that is often overlooked or mishandled is the inability of the people being affected to adequately assimilate what is being implemented. Managers executing numerous overlapping initiatives often say, “My people just can’t take any more.” Many times those pushing the hardest against change aren’t doing so because they lack belief in it—they just don’t feel they can comply with the latest addition on top of all the other initiatives they have been asked to accommodate. When the demands for change exceed a person’s or group’s capacity to absorb, resistance is inevitable.
  • Results: Of even more concern is the impact future shock has on the outcome of the endeavor in play. When people lack the ability to assimilate what a new initiative is asking of them, they don’t just resist, they tend to install rather than realize the project’s intent. In other words, instead of fully accomplishing the true purpose for the change, they only have the absorption capacity for short-term/superficial application. The appearance of change is in place, but the fundamental reason for doing it is likely to be an unattainable mirage.
  • Encroachment: Future shock not only debilitates at its own point of origin, its dysfunctional nature invades surrounding change efforts. Even though a particular project may have pushed people past their absorption limits, all the other changes they are trying to accommodate are affected as well. The implications for overloading an organization with change go far beyond the obvious negative impact on a single effort.
  • Credibility: When important changes are announced that don’t materialize later as intended, problems are left unsolved and opportunities unexploited. As a result, the leaders who sponsored these initiatives inadvertently teach people not to listen to them. They reinforce the cynics who don’t believe the change is possible or that the particular leaders are up to the task. Either way, leadership credibility suffers.

Whenever the demands of change outstrip the capacity to accommodate, the people involved and the projects themselves suffer. It is up to us as change professionals to know what to do to help sponsors anticipate and, to the degree possible, minimize (if not avoid) the dysfunctional implications of future shock.

When Is Future Shock Most Likely to Happen?

Many factors contribute to the likelihood an organization will end up in an overload situation. Here are seven common ones:

  • Leaders understand how to balance investment opportunities with available capital, but fail to see a relationship between the desire to change and the capacity to execute.
  • Leaders badly underestimate what is necessary to accomplish their desired results and the level of disruption people will experience when the change is implemented.
  • Leaders begin initiatives with high aspirations, but later settle for lower results without suffering significant consequences; as a result, they adjust their thinking and stop holding themselves accountable for failing to deliver on promises they made.
  • Leaders believe so strongly in the soundness of their change decision that it never occurs to them any due diligence is necessary to assess the organizations’ readiness to absorb the implications.
  • Leaders operate as if there is an unlimited supply of energy and goodwill available among their workforces to accommodate any change they decide is necessary for the organization.
  • Leaders lack the courage and/or discipline to say “no” to initiatives they desperately want to execute (or are under political or competitive pressure to pursue) in order to protect the organization’s ability to absorb even more important changes.
  • Leaders are served by change practitioners who are either:

-        insensitive to, or incapable of, properly addressing future shock implications, or

-        so focused on a single initiative that they are blind to the cumulative impact of other changes affecting the same constituencies.

Future shock is a costly and ubiquitous reality in today’s organizations. Its prevention, diagnosis, and treatment fall squarely on the shoulders of the change practitioner. Of course, change agents must work in partnership with sponsors to address the negative implications, but it is up to the agent to provide the proper navigation through the issues. Unfortunately, many practitioners are not as prepared as needed for this part of their role.

Next: How Do People Learn to Adapt to Change?

Posted on: October 26, 2010 10:33 PM | Permalink

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