We’ve all experienced this. We are facing a really big change, and yet when we begin to discuss it with others going through it with us, they shrug their shoulders and say, “No big deal.” Or, vice versa.
Is it a big change, or not? What makes a change big, or not?
There are two critical perspectives to apply when answering this question. The first is examine the change itself; the second is to view the change as seen by those who are experiencing it.
Before we explore these perspectives, let’s return one more time to the definition of change: Change is a disruption in expectations. The bigger the disruption, the bigger the change.
Applying a Change Perspective
Is this a big change? Here are some questions to reflect on as you apply a change perspective.
- How many different sets of expectations are being disrupted?
- What, specifically is being disrupting? Is it:
- Who people interact with
- How they interact with one another
- The expectations of those interactions
- How people think about one another
- How people think about what they are doing
- That power bases will be shifted; some people will gain power, others will lose it
- How large are the disruptions it requires?
- How many people are being disrupted? Is it a small number, or does the change ripple across an organization or large familial/social network?
- how clearly defined–and visible–is a successful outcome?
- How clear is the journey from the present state to the desired future state?
- How important is it that the promises of the change be fully delivered?
Applying a Change Target Lens
Is this a big change? To some degree, that is in the eye of the beholder, the targets of the change who have to modify their behavior, and perhaps even how they think about things, if the change is to succeed. There are several factors that come into play.
Is the change perceived as positive or negative? It is likely that different people will see it differently, and thus approach it differently. If you are approaching something from a negative perspective it is generally much more difficult to face than if you are approaching it in a positive manner; the change appears tougher–and bigger–than if it were seen in a positive light.
How much else is going on? If life is really quiet, people have more mental, physical, and emotional capacity for adapting to the change than if there is a lot going on. One of the challenges is that, especially in organizational change (but sometimes in personal change as well), we really don’t know what is going on in people’s lives beyond what we see in our interactions with them. Mary might have a sleep disorder; Charlie might have just lost a loved one; Tommy may be a single dad working two jobs. Nonetheless, to the degree that you can, it is important that you factor in people’s capacity for change, and that you watch for signs of overload.
How resilient are those being affected by the change? Each of us has a different level of personal resilience. How resilient we are affects how much change we can handle at one time. Our resilience also affects whether we approach the change proactively, or reactively. And, it may affect whether our “default position” is perceiving change as positive or negative.”
How much control–direct and/or indirect–do people have? The greater the sensed loss of control (including the ability to accurately know what to expect), the bigger the change is perceived. Think of it this way. If the lights go on and off when you flip the switch, you are in direct control. When you see someone else walk over to flip the switch, you have indirect control, since you know what to expect and how to respond to it. But, if the lights just–apparently randomly–start going on and off with no one near the switch…your environment has suddenly changed significantly.
Do people have the skills, or know that they will be able to develop the skills, needed to adjust to the change? For those who do, the change is not as big as for those who don’t.
How invested are they in the status quo? As we have discussed before, even if people don’t like the status quo, they often stick with it because they know what to expect. The more invested you are in the current way things are, the bigger any change that disrupts things.
How aligned is the change with one’s world view, personal beliefs, values, etc. If the change remains equidistant to these things, or moves closer, it will be perceived as a less disruptive change than if it moves further away.
The answer to Is this a big change? is sometimes self-evident. But often it’s much more nuanced… “Yes” over there, “No” in this other area, and “So-so” down the hall.
It is unlikely that you will ever be able to know the answers to all these questions for a change touching more than a small handful of people. Nonetheless, there are things that you can do to take these factors into consideration, and to lessen the disruption of any change. I will write about some of those things next week.
How do you determine how big a change is? Add your thoughts below.