When Transformation Is Too Much to Bear

By Rick Pastore
April 16, 2019

With all the urgency and hype that propels the digital transformation vortex, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that people can only stomach so much change. Transformation to business models, strategy, budgets, processes, organization structures and work assignments all funnel down to individual people. It stresses their minds and their hearts. If not managed well, transformation will make people sick, literally.

A study from the American Psychological Association says 55 percent of employees experiencing recent or current change reported prolonged stress, compared to just 22 percent of those who had no recent, current or anticipated change. That study was done two years ago; the affects can only have worsened.

Most business function leaders struggle with change leadership. But veteran CIOs eat change for breakfast. IT automation was imposing change on workers long before any digital imperative. CIOs’ latest, and perhaps greatest, test of change leadership is occurring in their own organizations – a 180-degree pivot of their prevailing culture. IT’s predominant hierarchical culture, which values efficiency and stability, needs to be rearchitected to one of bold and entrepreneurial innovation, valuing experimentation and risk taking. It’s a staggering switch, but it’s essential to IT’s future in a digital business environment.

This change effort will be relentless, and for some IT staff with stubborn legacy mindsets, it may be ruthless. The impact is not confined to the IT, either – it will disrupt IT’s business stakeholders by shattering their familiar but outdated relationship of business customer and IT order taker. (For recent research on this topic by The Hackett Group, click here.)

Smart CIOs are prepared for push back. They monitor department noise for patterns that could indicate that their teams are hurting or in trouble. One CIO counts on his operating committee to monitor the general mood of managers and their teams. They listen for changes in the level of complaints and update the CIO and other function heads on what they are hearing via bimonthly conference calls.

Another CIO creates what is essentially a heat map for change impact prior to taking action. They list IT’s initiatives, the level of change associated with each, and the specific stakeholders or groups of stakeholders they will impact. When this analysis reveals that a particular team or manager will be slammed, the CIO  will reprioritize initiatives or make other adjustments to lessen the expected impact. If that’s not possible, the exercise still provides an opportunity to set the expectations of the affected group and establish an open and ongoing dialog to help them through the ordeal. This methodology works with IT staff and their business stakeholders.

An IT leader from a five-year-old digital disruptor company likens his situation to a half-decade roller-coaster ride, with the business growing astronomically at first, then contracting, followed by stabilization, and now another period of growth. The veteran IT managers he initially hired had to adjust their mindsets to accept that the solutions they were rushing into service would be torn down and replaced in a matter of months. He also had to convince millennials in their first IT jobs that documentation and process were not “busy work,” but things that would help them down the road. Besides maintaining close relationships with his team members, he blocks off three hours every Friday for open-door discussions with anyone who wants to talk. For those who don’t avail themselves of this time, he schedules periodic sit-downs.

What these folks have in common is preemptive thinking on what change will do to human beings, and how they can mitigate, if not completely avoid, the stressful impact. It’s common sense, but it is far from universal among C-suite executives and director-level managers, who are themselves stressed out. For those in doubt about how to manage transformation’s people impact, try asking a CIO for advice – most have change leadership coded into their DNA.