Project Management

Change Whisperer on

This is a blog about Strategy Execution, about implementing change and driving ROI to the bottom line. It is intended for: Leaders and for Program, Project and Change Management practitioners trying to manage the weather systems of change raining inside the organization.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Enterprise change vs Project change

Insights in Change Management—Interview with Kimberlee Williams, CEO, Ignitem (Part 1 Of 3)

What is leadership’s responsibility for driving and sustaining a nimble organization? Interview with Daryl Conner, Chairman, Conner Partners. Post 2 of 3

The strategic imperative of the "nimble organization" and the mirage. Interview with Daryl Conner

What is the Board’s Role in Strategy and Strategy Execution? Post 3 of 3

“You’re a little loopy when you’re hungry.” Working at the limits of change capacity

I always laugh when I see the new Snickers commercials—I admit it, I sometimes even rewind them. 

They remind me that “You’re not yourself when you’re under the stress of change.” 

Have you seen Robin Williams on your projects lately? This is the “Fourth and loopy” commercial where the usually very intense and focused coach is momentarily an incarnation of Robin Williams. Very funny…because we can relate.

 “Signs of distress”

There is a point at which any of us reach our optimum performance?many of us refer to this as “The Zone.” Then, under continued pressure, we tip over and become less and less productive. We know intuitively when it is happening but we’re not always conscious of it.  

The pressure also affects our project team and the people in the organization impacted by change (change targets). 

In Managing at the Speed of Change, (1) Daryl Conner identified the signs of distress. Have you seen these in your projects? Here are some excerpts (quoted with permission):

Symptoms of low-level stress:

  • Brief irritation which may divert attention from work
  • Poor communication and reduced trust
  • Decreased honesty and directness
  • Defensive and blameful behavior
  • Reduced propensity for risk taking
  • Increased conflict with fellow workers
  • Decreased team effectiveness
  • Inappropriate outbursts at the office

Increasingly dysfunctional behaviors:

  • Lower morale
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach pains
  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Apathy or compliance behavior
  • Feelings of resignation

Severe dysfunction:

  • Malicious compliance
  • Overt blocking of company tasks or procedures
  • Covert undermining of organizational leadership
  • Actively promoting a negative attitude in others
  • Strike
  • Sabotage
  • Substance abuse or other addictive behaviors

Tangible and measurable

What you might observe is that, as the levels of change increase, dysfunctional behavior becomes more apparent and more severe. 

You may also note that many of these symptoms pose immediate, tangible, and measurable impacts on productivity (and potentially on quality and safety), not to mention ultimate ROI of the initiative. 

Why does this happen?

Our capacity for change is limited, and yet manageable

One perspective on the capacity of humans for change comes from Alvin Toffler: “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.” (2) 

This sure sounds like many of the transformational initiatives I worked on early in my career. 

In Managing at the Speed of Change, Daryl designed a working definition for future shock as “that point when humans can no longer assimilate change without displaying dysfunctional behavior.” 

I have seen that switch flip. Have you?

So, what is capacity?

  • “Capacity is a measure of the physical, mental, and emotional energy an individual has available to use in adapting to change. Inadequate adaptation capacity poses a key implementation risk.” Glossary, Change Thinking

Daryl explains capacity for change with a metaphor:

  • “Individuals experiencing future shock are like saturated sponges. Although they are already soaked, someone walks in with another two-gallon pitcher and pours it on them. In organizations around the world, change is typically poured onto the physically and emotionally saturated sponges of the workforce while management watches helplessly as their intended objectives run down the drain.” (Managing at the Speed of Change)

We often hear targets inside of change initiatives say, “It’s raining change,” “When will it stop?” and plaintively, “When can we go back to business as usual?”

The challenge is that organizations must make so much change annually now that “business as usual” really doesn’t exist for many people any more.  

If you need your people to assimilate a change (to become proficient and even excel with it) and there is more, and perhaps concurrent, change coming, then learning how to manage capacity for change is crucial. This is a moral and a business imperative—ROI depends on it. It is a key component of organizational change management (i.e., helping people transition through change).

Fiduciary duty to optimize capacity and balance demand

Many leaders and project teams make an implicit assumption that capacity for change is unmanageable. This is both dangerous and untrue.

If you understand that change demands can put individuals and organizations under enough pressure to impair their ability to deliver daily tasks as well as impact their overall well-being, then you must acknowledge that it will become untenable at some point. Knowing where that point might be is a fiduciary responsibility. The moment it affects quality and safety, the organization has crossed into liability space.

Furthermore, if this risk jeopardizes the project ROI then it likewise requires attention.

What can we do about capacity and demand?

In the fourth post of his “Capacity and Demand” series, Daryl presents “Putting It All Together—The Mechanics of Capacity Management.” As he notes, the objective is to “determine the desired balance between demand and capacity (stretch the organization’s limits while keeping change-related dysfunction within acceptable boundaries).”

Activities should include:

  • Determining current and anticipated demand
  • Determining current capacity levels
  • Evaluating interventions required to align demand and capacity
  • Developing plans for optimizing on a rolling basis

Interventions can include the following:

  • Education on the nature of change and capacity/demand: The ability of leaders and project members to identify, understand, and explain both the dynamics and risks is a powerful advantage.
  • Prioritization of the overall change portfolio and consideration of the unimaginable: What if we try to muscle this all through? What could we re-schedule, re-plan, or shelve?
  • Insightful change management interventions: This will prepare and engage people more, and help leaders coach their people to understand and manage their own reactions to change.
  • Development of resilience (capacity for change) within this organization
  • Development of a nimble organization that can adapt to change more readily

What now?

Is your project, and your team, suffering the negative impacts of change overload?

Is your ROI in jeopardy? This is serious risk. 

Four things you can do:

  1. Share this blog post with your project team, and even your business sponsors. It will help them decipher what you are seeing. It validates that capacity exists, is limited, and can have very real negative impacts on the project, its ROI, and even on current quality and safety in production.
  2. Introduce the Snickers bar commercial as a kind reminder that “we are all under stress and can get a bit loopy” (i.e., it’s not just about you or me—let’s support each other).
  3. Read more about “Capacity and Demand” on Daryl’s blog here.
  4. Consider undertaking an assessment to determine your project’s and your current organization’s capacity/demand for change, the risks, and potential mitigations.


(1) “Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail,” Daryl Conner, Random House, New York, 1992, 2006

(2) “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler, Bantam, New York, 1984

Posted on: May 16, 2013 09:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Leading strategy? Vicarious rejuvenation. Post 3 of 3

 “The whales sing, not because they have an answer. They sing because they have a song.”    —Andrew Stevenson

There is no substitute for getting away from it all.

Displacement is a powerful rejuvenation technique.

For six hours on March 14thwe forgot everything. We focused only on finding whales. I hope this story will “take you away” for a few minutes.

The power of adventure

This was the first whale-watching trip of the year for the Endurance, the official research vessel of the Bermuda Zoological Society, which runs out of the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo (BAMZ).

Every year in March and April, humpback whales migrate from the Caribbean to New England, the Maritime provinces of Canada, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, and even Norway. They pause in Bermuda on their 5000-kilometre journey to rest and feed (sound familiar?).

We were fortunate to be joined by Lynne, a biologist from BAMZ and, at the last minute, at the invitation of Captain Nigel, by Andrew Stevenson, founder of the Humpback Whale Research Foundation. As we set out (and immediately forgot all of our daily stresses), Lynne told us what to look for (a mist, or “blow” on the sea as the whales come up to breathe), described common humpback whale behaviors such as logging (swimming along the surface) that we might see, and shared stories of previous sightings. Andrew noted that he had seen twenty different whales just the day before.

Captain Nigel let us know that our path would take us on almost a full loop of the entire island in six hours. As we headed east, he tried to manage our expectations: “Finding the whales is a bit ‘hit and miss’?naturally the whales move around so we might see some and we might see none.”

Uninformed optimism and conscious incompetence

We were still incredibly optimistic and scanned the horizon looking for anything that might look like a whale breathing.

Mid-March in Bermuda is winter. The ocean seems like a massive cauldron. Even on this beautiful day, the waves were easily 10 feet and rolled in lengths of 100 feet. The boat that seemed big at the dock became remarkably small. Yet we were undeterred.

One of the guests became increasingly seasick (known locally as “feeding the fish”), but we were glued to the deck on look-out. Andrew and Lynne made their way to the top deck and braved the sea spray for a better view. None of the rest of us were so brave.

The hours and the miles passed and we became a little worried. Was that a whale? Or just a wave? The eyes begin playing tricks with you when you want something so badly.

More time passed. The kids had a snooze in the cabin.

Suddenly initiated

About four hours in, Andrew called out, “Whale! 1 o’clock” (front right of the boat).

We all sprung into motion and crowded at the edge of the boat, straining to learn what a “blow” looks like.

There it was! Smaller than you might think, in the distance. Then a fin, then a second fin! Amazing.

Captain Nigel, half-in the cabin and half-out through the driver’s window kept look, steered, and adjusted the speed. “We have to pace them. We don’t want to over run them or scare them” Lynne explained.

We were breathless. Where were they?

Suddenly the ocean seemed vast again. They could be below the boat or a mile farther away. “They breathe every three minutes,” someone said. We waited and tried to time it. Did we miss the last blow?

There! Ahead! Again, Nigel sped up to get close enough to see but not close enough to scare them, or endanger us.

Wonderful. We watched them as long as they let us. We were hooked. Then they were gone.

We cruised around a while longer but it seemed those two beautiful whales would be it for today.


On the way back, I had an opportunity to speak with Andrew. He is a man who has repeatedly reinvented his life?you can read his amazing story here.

By my count, he has lived in eleven countries and it is easy to lose count of the number of his vastly different careers. He says he even has dreams of another country and another career.

The Humpback Whale Research Foundation, his current project, has catapulted humpback whale research: “By the end of 2012 we had obtained 673 fluke IDs, which compares to 145 Bermuda fluke IDs over the 40 years before this project began.”

In 2010, he learned how to film and produce an underwater movie. Amazing you say? Better still, It was an award winning production. If you can give yourself five more minutes, watch this clip from “Where the Whales Sing,”narrated by his daughter Elsa, then a precious six years old.

His advice to me? “Life is short. Follow your passion.” Sounds quaint right? Not so, coming from a man whose own life is a testament.

Secondhand vacation

I hope that in sharing this little story you might experience a break?a little vicarious R&R.

And I hope that if you are considering taking a vacation to rejuvenate, this might be a tipping point.

And if you have any interest in whale watching, Bermuda, or anything else, I hope you will feed your curiosity.

Posted on: May 16, 2013 09:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)