How Do People Learn to Adapt to Change?

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Categories: Capacity and Demand


Major change is triggered when people face a significant discrepancy between what they expected and what actually happens during change. People adjust to change, not by learning to like what is taking place, but by forming new expectations that can lead to success under the new conditions. At a personal level, three types of energy are required to make these adjustments in expectations:

  • Mental (to figure out what is happening and how to respond)
  • Emotional (to deal with various feelings like loss, anxiety, threat, relief, joy, optimism, etc.)
  • Physical (to accommodate the bodily implications of stress, excitement, etc.)

To realize the intended benefits of a major change, the people affected must possess sufficient energy for the adaptation process to unfold. The capacity to adapt involves the mental, emotional, and physical means to incorporate new mindsets and behaviors—to absorb the key implications of a change. Aggregate change demand that exceeds available adaptation capacity leads to overload, which causes dysfunctional mindsets and behaviors—in other words, future shock.

Capacity ≠ Resources

The capacity people have for change and the organizational resources needed to implement change are often confused. Both are assets needed to properly address transitions, but they are not the same.

  • Capacity relates to how much disruption people can absorb before displaying dysfunctional behaviors and mindsets. There must be enough available capacity for people to adapt to the new requirements.
  • Resources relates to the means for change. There must be enough available resources (people, money, technology, etc.) to conform to the new requirements.

Whether the constraint is capacity related or resource related, the success of an initiative is at risk any time either one is exceeded by the demands of the change.

C-D graphic 1

Adaptation capacity is an individual phenomenon (although it can also be aggregated to reveal a group’s or an entire organization’s readiness for change). Organizational resources are the enablers of change that reside outside a person or group (e.g., capital, technology, available time, headcount). Both are vital for reaching intended outcomes; however, there are important differences. For example, resources lay the groundwork so installation of change is possible, but it is capacity that allows an organization and its people to fully realize their aspirations.

Capacity and resources are distinct aspects to meeting the demands of change, yet they are also linked in that each has an impact on the other. For example, if a person doesn’t have enough hours in the day to complete his or her change-related work or enough budget to purchase certain fundamentals needed for success (both are resources), it can be a drain on the personal energy an individual would otherwise have available to mentally, emotionally, or physically adapt to the new circumstances (capacity). In another situation, it might take mental/intellectual energy (thinking about how to juggle tasks, assessing options, etc.), emotional energy (worry, fear, etc.), and/or physical energy (extra hours, less sleep, etc.) to deal with the fact that there aren’t enough people to accomplish all the change-related activities assigned. If a person’s energy is consumed by the “resource” shortage, it lessens his or her “capacity” energy available to adjust to the shift in expectations.

Organizations are constantly adjusting to change, which means any new initiative follows others before it. Therefore, any time a different course is pursued, a critical question arises: Are there enough organizational resources, and is there sufficient adaption capacity remaining to assimilate the change and fully realize its intent? Failing to ask this question, asking only about resources, or not being objective and honest about the answer all contribute to the many failed transformations that occur each year. It is, therefore, critical that this question be surfaced and addressed early.

Both resources and capacity are key to change success, but this series focuses on the influence capacity has on inhibiting or fostering initiative realization.

Next: How to Manage Capacity

Posted on: November 02, 2010 03:28 PM | Permalink

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