Change Reflux Disease


During my working years I was frequently bothered with night-time acid reflux. Given the stresses of work and life, along with poor eating and exercise habits, I guess that’s not an unexpected consequence. In any case, one night last year, as I sat chewing two extra-strength antacid tablets in an attempt to soothe the burning in my chest, it struck me that there was a leadership analogy to this ailment that might be worth exploring.

Since I was already awake and needed to stay vertical for a while anyway for the antacids to do their thing, I figured I might as well think this through, and write it down. I decided that if, the next morning, I could read what I’d written that night, and it still made sense, I’d pass it along in a blog. It did, so I shared it with my colleagues then, and now I’m sharing it with the rest of the world.

We’re living and working in a time that requires us to process and implement a seemingly endless stream of changes. If our business leaders aren’t wise in the way they prepare for, or the way they ask the workforce to digest (starting to get the analogy?) these changes, the organization will develop “Change Reflux Disease”. Without getting too graphic, change reflux disease is the pushback that comes as a result of forcing people to take on too much change, implementing the wrong kind of changes, and/or choosing the wrong time to implement the changes. And, just like acid reflux disease, change reflux disease causes damage. It makes people miserable, keeps them up at night and dilutes their productivity.

So, if you’re leading the implementation of a change in your business, step back and take a systems thinking and human factors approach. Take a hard look at the magnitude and timing of the changes you’re trying to implement, and the context in which you’re trying to implement them. Gaining that perspective, and making thoughtful adjustments to the implementation methods and tempo, will reduce the organizational reflux. The prescription for avoiding change reflux is to: 1) prepare people to accept change by openly communicating the thinking behind the change; 2) informally engage a broad spectrum of people in the planning the change; 3) instead of the usual, “Now Hear This” change announcement communications, adopt a more holistic approach that enables them to see the WIIFM (What’s in it for me).

Is it realistic to expect business managers to take this more enlightened approach to change implementation? Maybe not…but it is something I would expect business leaders to do.

About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as a Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise are in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning in a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. I'm an Aerospace Industry Consultant. I serve my community as a Rotarian. My hobby is playing as a jazz keyboard.
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2 Responses to Change Reflux Disease

  1. Rick Ladd says:

    Excellent analogy, Don. With respect to the three points you make, I would suggest (I’m sure this will surprise you 🙂 the adoption of some form of internal social business application, coupled with obvious recognition by leadership that they welcome, even encourage broader participation by everyone in the enterprise, would serve to implement your prescription.

    As I envision your suggestion, I see all three steps as being considerably “intertwingled” – q.v. – in that various social business apps can be used to address each step somewhat simultaneously. For instance, step three might be addressed by publishing a blog, or series of blogs, sharing the reasons change is seen as necessary and the thinking that’s gone into addressing what that change might be. At the same time, both comments on the blog(s) and conversations via a micro-blog app could be used to facilitate wide discussion of the topics, as well as a form of internal crowd-sourcing . . . which I believe would address all three issues in your prescription.

    As we know from our experience, however, merely throwing tools at a problem is no way to solve it and, in fact, using those tools may be one of the changes causing reflux disease. It is, therefore, imperative for leadership to do what their name suggests, i.e. actually “lead” the change by understanding how to fit these tools into the current culture and business processes the organization is comfortable with, and by demonstrating how to put them to use rather than just throwing them “over the fence” and expecting the workforce to figure it out on their own.

    Part of showing leadership is also being willing to accept negative feedback and reasonable criticism (maybe even some cynicism) from their workforce – in the process perhaps changing direction once or twice while moving toward some sort of consensus. I believe this is theoretically possible, has been achieved in some organizations, and is probably nigh on to impossible in others.

    As I said, seeing change as capable of causing a painful, if not crippling, disease is a great way to express just how difficult it can be. I am of the opinion broader participation in the process of understanding and addressing change can make it much easier. Your prescription addresses that need implicitly. I do believe (as you well know) the use of social business tools/apps can greatly facilitate dealing with change far less painfully by providing for more widespread communication and participation than previously possible.

    As always, thanks for a good read.

  2. Stuart Swalgen says:

    Always good to hear from you Don –
    One of the things that can be done to prepare for the Change Reflux Reaction is to better condition the organizational body (just to continue the metaphor). One of the ways I think this can be done is through development of a clear understanding of the organization’s Purpose. This is not necessarily a vision statement, and is certainly not focused primarily on “enhancing shareholder value.” Part of it is to answer the question “what difference are we trying to make.” It is the difference between “coming to a “job” and “going to work.” If such a Purpose can be succinctly crafted, communicated, and accepted (and regularly reinforced or validated), then the communication of the reason for change can be given a more meaningful context. Then the discussion can more easily move from the rationale of the need for a given change, to the more basic topic of the potential discomforts (but no longer barriers) as it is may be implemented.

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