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Capacity: The Number One Challenge in Leading Change Successfully

We have surveyed  thousands of leaders and managers about their key risk factors in leading change. By far, having adequate capacity for change is their number one issue. Most report that they have too much change going on and no capacity to lead or execute it successfully. Often, the need to create capacity for change is not even on leaders’ radar. Without adequate capacity, change will fail.  

Free Resource: Does Your Company Have the Capacity to Change


Make Capacity for Change a Conscious Choice 

As a change leader, it is your responsibility to ensure adequate capacity for change. Make this a critical step in your initiative launch strategy. Do not be tempted to jump ahead with design before you have thought through the implications of your organization’s capacity to plan, implement and make the change stick.  

What Causes the Capacity Risk? 

Leaders make two critical mistakes that cause the capacity risk when beginning a change initiative: 

  1. They assume that change work can be done on top of people’s normal operational workloads  

  2. They do not think about the additional capacity that making change requires, so they set unrealistic timelines  

The Reality of Change Capacity 

Most organizations are swept up in today’s vortex of speed. They want speed to market, to quality, to profits, and of course, speed of change. Here are two simple truths, especially about transformational change:  

  1. The time, effort, and resources required to plan and carry out any change initiative must be subtracted from – or added on top of – the time, effort, and resources available to perform regular operational work. 

  2. Change requires thoughtful planning to determine realistic time frames, since it will take all the time it requires, despite wishes that it go faster. 

Two Types of Capacity Needing Leadership Attention 

There is a finite amount of time people can give to their work. Loading change work on top of  people’s excessive day-to-day workloads adds significantly to employee stress, drops in morale, and lower performance. Ongoing work generally takes precedence, because that is how people are measured, so changes flounder. Often people are assigned to an initiative, but they don’t have the capacity to perform, show up, or deliver what is needed to do the work of change. 

For a change initiative to succeed, capacity needs to be added or freed up for the following people: 

  1. Change leaders and change team members – those who plan, oversee, and do the change design and implementation planning work 

  2. Stakeholders – the target individuals and groups that must adopt the change and make it happen in the organization  

Both leaders and stakeholders must be engaged, trained, and supported to adopt, and perform in, the new state solution. Often, too many changes come at them at once, or their ongoing workload does not allow time and support for them to learn (let alone understand and commit to) their new reality. And if they are measured only on their operational objectives and not on making change, they will not be motivated to change! 

Determine Needed Capacity: Perform a Change Capacity Review 

To determine how much capacity you must generate or allow so your change initiatives can succeed, perform a change capacity review. This will help you understand the realities of capacity in your organization.  

Assume that 100% of the organization’s resources are consumed by ongoing operations – the work required to “keep the lights on,” serve customers, and carry out operational improvements. Given the current reality, assess the time, resources, and attention that needs to be devoted to making your major changes. This capacity needs to be freed up or generated somehow because any capacity required for change will become unavailable to normal operations.  

Leaders are typically too far from the working realities of the stakeholders to be able to guess how much capacity is needed for them to change. Engage the people who must make the change happen, both those on your change team and those closer to the front line who must adopt and sustain the changes. Ask them, and then listen to what they say.

Communicate Your Change Capacity Plan to Stakeholders 

Once you have conducted a capacity review and determined appropriate capacity for your change initiatives, communicate with your stakeholders. Just the fact that you have considered their input and the impact of the change on them generates more credibility for change leaders and greater commitment to change. 

Where Will More Capacity Come from?  

You can fulfill the additional capacity required for your change initiatives through several strategies. These require making some tough and thoughtful decisions. Consider:  

  • Stopping specific pieces of work 

  • Putting work on the “back burner” until after the major press of change 

  • Slowing down other change initiatives or piggy-backing several change actions into one event 

  • Adding more resources by reallocating people’s time 

  • Hiring more people with the right skills, or outsource work to external consultants or contract employees 

The Impact of a Pre-Determined Schedule on Capacity 

Many projects managed using a standard project management approach begin with a sponsor or project manager providing a pre-determined scope, schedule, and budget.  

Of these three, schedule is the most impactful on capacity. Schedule can be a major source of change fatigue because it is nearly impossible to predict how long a major change initiative will take before you launch and study it. The schedule is usually guessed at and leaders fail to consider the level of change saturation of the stakeholders. 

Stakeholders may try to pick up the pace of change, but they will often fail, or their well-being will be heavily impacted, leading to frustration with the change initiative and with leaders, and often  burnout.   

Determining a Realistic Schedule 

To determine a realistic schedule for change you must: 

  • Understand the work it will take to adopt the change. 

  • Perform a thorough impact analysis on the design solution to understand the magnitude of work it requires to be implemented. (This entails recognizing every aspect of how the organization operates that will need to be changed for the new state to take root. This may include structure, business processes, skills, technology, tools, equipment, space, etc.) 

  • Assess the human and cultural impact that implementation must account for, such as re-tooling people’s skills and knowledge, changing mindsets and behavior, overcoming past negative reactions to this type of change, and cultural norms that will need to be altered or eliminated.  

Change Acceleration Strategies 

When determining capacity needs, there are several reasonable change acceleration strategies to consider, such as: 

  • Adding resources. 

  • Putting the best and brightest people on your change teams. 

  • Executing more efficiently with careful thought to the process and impact on people. 

  • Building project team members’ change skills. 

  • Engaging stakeholders effectively. 

The timetable for your change has a reality of its own. Even with acceleration strategies, you still must ensure you plan for proper change capacity from the beginning of your initiative. It is your job to determine just how much time is needed to make the change and maintain operational performance without overburdening people. 


Free Resource: Does Your Company Have the Capacity to Change