It's funny how those who are most pro-war are almost always the guys who never had to fight in one. --Jerome P. Crabb

Based on the title of this blog, you may have thought you were going to read a heroic story about a soldier in combat. Maybe an image even came to mind – one of a highly trained trooper navigating his way through a battlefield to save a citizen or fellow brother, all while airplanes from above are dropping bombs. The solider is running, diving, and yelling in between shelter points as he drags an injured companion to safety. Sorry, I don’t have that type of story to share. This story is about a very different type of battle...

A few weeks ago, my family and I went to dinner at a restaurant we use to frequently visit. We hadn’t eaten there in a few months and were excited to be back. This brand was always testing new food and design concepts so we were interested to see what had changed. Despite the (clearly) busy shift, the General Manager (who we will call John) stopped by our table to say hello when he heard we were there. John always makes it a point to say hello and engage in authentic conversation; our kids know his name and often reflect on things he said during prior visits. Talk about making an impression!

Early into the conversation, I couldn’t help but notice how tired John looked. Usually a very put-together man, his uniform was quite dirty and his body language screamed fatigue. This prompted me to ask, “How is everything going?” John started talking about complications with a new piece of kitchen equipment recently installed, thus his dirty uniform. Apparently, this equipment was way harder to clean than the unit they had before. It consumed more labor and brute strength to do the job right. In addition, he was dealing with a staffing issue. An employee called and said they wouldn’t be in for several days. That single event caused a ton of chaos with workforce scheduling. The ultimate solution: John was picking up extra hours in an already long workweek. Finally, he talked about the impact of changes being pushed down from the corporate office.

After a long pause, he took a deep breath and said, “It sorta feels like they’re dropping bombs.”

We knew from previous conversations that John is an advocate of change. He doesn’t seem like the type of person that floats through life in the land of status quo. In addition to achieving role of General Manager, John regularly takes “higher education” classes and has held active roles on (some of those) corporate projects – all while doing his day job. These experiences don’t say underachiever to me. Rather, these experiences tell me John cares about quality and making a difference through his life of service. That day however, John looked defeated. In fact, he even mentioned that it might be time to try a different career.

Because of my professional background, I was eager to learn more. So, I asked an open-ended question and turned on my listening ears. John talked about five or six different people, process and/or technology changes that he and his team were trying to consume. Personally, I thought each individual “thing” he mentioned sounded like an impactful change with sound purpose. I also thought about how cool it would be to work on a delivery team deploying any of the changes. I’m sure when John heard about these changes at the idea stage he too was excited and optimistic. Unfortunately, now in the middle of deployment, it felt like a battlefield.

My conversation with John reminded me of a friend who now works in real estate after a long, successful corporate career. She once told me, “Sometimes I feel like I need to be an IT professional in order to do my day job.” She made this statement after sharing a story about how her company was kicking off a project to change their contract management system – despite the fact that she and her peer group really like the current system. My friend then said, “Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the parts of the job I love, because I’m always trying to adapt to some new system.”

As such, rather than go to work and master her trade, she feels like she is often stumbling – which doesn’t make her feel strong or satisfied.

Now, I fully understand it isn’t smart or healthy for us as individuals or companies to stay the same and never introduce change. That’s a silly notion. But as someone whose career is focused on delivering change, here is my takeaway: change saturation feels like a shower of bombs to some really good, talented, smart people. And no matter how educated or driven they may be, too much change at a given time will take its toll.

For those of us that chose a career in managing and delivering change, I think it’s easy to get frustrated when our stakeholders and end-users don’t fully adopt something we rolled out. After all, we’ve worked long hours for months, maybe years, to nurture and support “a big idea.” Many times, we put in hours on the weekend, often giving up time with family and friends. So, when people don’t adopt the related change as expected, it feels like our efforts and sacrifices were for nothing.

I have worked with many people who have become desensitized by realities of low adoption and now measure their performance solely by “turning the lights on.”

I don’t believe this is the right approach to project delivery, but I understand why some take this position. It's self-defense. Project leaders usually can't control their stakeholder groups' total workload and availability, but they can (at least) control making a solution available. (Think about the saying: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink!")

So, what can be done about this problem? How can we, as project leaders, help the John's of the world succeed? How can we ensure we are delivering the right kind of outcome (adoption vs go-live)? For one, we need to encourage our leadership teams to be disciplined about how much change we are throwing at a single stakeholder group, at a given time. Whether it's a prioritization model coupled with a capacity index or some other technique, we have to advocate this discipline for our end-users. Although the impact of change saturation is way more than dollars and cents, lost investment and high turnover are often a result. No leader wants this reality!

Most importantly, we have to be empathetic with our end-users. No one likes feeling overwhelmed at work. And unfortunately, even if the project you are leading is your everything, it might be the tipping point of change saturation for someone else.


Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.