An Unusual Question about Managing Change


Change is disruptive. Even when a particular change leads to a positive outcome, the transition from the old way to the new way can be a time of turbulence. Might there be circumstances in which it's appropriate, or even helpful, to prolong that period of turbulence? That's the question Naomi Karten wrestles with in this column.

Most of the questions people ask me about managing change concern how to introduce change, cope with it, or guide people through it. All these questions relate to how to reduce the chaos people experience during change.

One recent question took me by surprise, though, because it reflected an altogether different perspective. Gil, the fellow who asked me, wanted to know if there was a way to prolong the chaos people experience during change. Not reduce it, prolong it.

Gil's question was prompted by a situation I had just described in a keynote presentation on managing change. The situation concerned a team striving to meet a fast-approaching deadline. The team worked in crowded quarters. One day, the team's manager, Libby, announced that to relieve the cramped conditions, senior management had decided to move the team off site to a temporary office, miles from headquarters. Team members were shocked and upset. They didn't like their elbow-to-elbow existence, but they certainly didn't want to move.

As is often the case with change, the project experienced a drop in productivity as the team settled into their new quarters. But slowly—so slowly that they didn't even notice it happening—they adjusted. The new location became the team's new normal. It was no longer their new home. It was their home.

A year later, when management directed the team to move back to headquarters, team members again didn't want to move. The off-site location to which they hadn't wanted to relocate had become the place they didn't want to leave. Returning to headquarters created chaos and distress, much like what the team previously had experienced in the move off site.

And so, Gil asked his question: Using this team's experience as an example, might there be a way to keep team members in chaos so that they don't adjust to the new location and then have to go through chaos all over again when they move back?

Assuming Libby had wanted to do just that—keep people in chaos deliberately so as to spare them a second bout of chaos later on—I suppose she could have found a way. She could have imposed longer hours, a tighter schedule, or a rearrangement of responsibilities.

Indeed, there are a lot of things Libby might have done in an attempt to inflict chaos on the team, but at what cost? The temporary productivity dip that typically occurs as people come to terms with change is a delicate thing. Would Libby (or Gil, if he faced a similar situation) be willing to risk that this productivity drop might plunge deeper and last longer than the project can tolerate? And, what about the people forced to endure this intentional chaos? Surely, they would have responded negatively. In response to whatever scheme Libby contrived to prolong the chaos, team members might have responded by working more slowly, taking sick days, inserting bugs into the works, or otherwise sabotaging the project. Or, they might have quit. Morale likely would have taken a hit along with productivity, and so, too, the team's trust in Libby. After all, who wants to work for a manager who seems bent on making people's lives miserable?

Finally, there's the ethical issue. Does anyone have the right to prevent an individual's or team's adjustment to change? At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, but it's not that simple. Every organizational or technological change has some level of chaos associated with it as people cope with the loss of the old way and adjust to the new way. Still, it doesn't seem right to take steps to prolong chaos-even with good intentions—so as to spare the people involved a future bout of chaos.

Or, am I overlooking circumstances in which it would be appropriate?

There are a lot of angles to Gil's question and I'm still pondering them. What are your thoughts?

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