By now, many of us may have heard that, in order to change, we need to get out of our comfort zone, be it regarding studies, working, out or even developing patience.

Like muscles of our body during gym classes, if they are under the proper stress, they can build up the necessary resilience to endure heavier tension properly in the future.

By applying excessive tension, however, we can end up hurting ourselves or having lesions, which will require healing time or even have permanent consequences, like incidents that occur in gyms when someone tries to lift too much weight. What about people who keep lifting the same weight over and over? They see little results, if any.

The same thing can be applied to organizational change: there needs to be a necessary level of tension for things to be effective and move forward. Do too much for them and people won’t have enough “muscle” to navigate through the proposed change on their own.

They will enter a “fight or flight” mode, which is one of the reasons for people to quit their job, being more resistant and a lot of gossip. Do too little and people won’t perceive the value of the proposed change - which, in turn, leads to a lack of purpose, feeling of stagnation and, as you may have guessed, people leaving for “greener pastures”. Apply a level of tension that people are ready to navigate through? That’s when growth happens.

Tension and PLG growth

As an example, let’s assume that we have a company which needs to change its invoicing process and update the software.

Completely changing the software and process within one week would not only be extremely costly, it would leave people frustrated. The long learning curve of the process (considering it’s a big one in this case), having to understand the new updates in the software and losing the “shortcuts” they knew, might bring many complaints, lack of engagement, people updating their Linkedin, ranting in channels and more.

But what if the leadership decides to take things too slowly? Either people lose engagement because there are no perceivable changes (why should I invest my time in this if nothing major happens?) or they discredit the change process for lacking significant value to their work.

So how do we find the proper balance?

Like anything involving people and human sciences, the answer to finding the proper balance in tension is “it depends” and “there is no magic formula”. This is because every organization has its own context and culture, and each demands a different level of it.

Fast-moving companies might require more radical and fast changes, depending on the culture - small startups and highly experimental companies tend to act like this, because generally there’s little to lose if a change goes awry and there’s little cost in changing it back.

Other traditional companies, enterprises and some larger organizations, might be slower and require careful consideration, especially when it involves more people and there exists a more rigid structure.

Coffee machine, pouring a coffee

So how do we identify the proper tension level to allow people to grow their organizational muscles in a healthy way? Here are some potential ways.

Cultural probing

Cultural probing is an effective start to understanding what the underlying values are, along with the myths and rules within an organization. For instance, knowing that changing a software within the company can  create bureaucracy, you have the possibility to devise a strategy to mitigate that. Psychologists or anthropologists are the kind of professionals that can conduct such studies.

Coffee and networking

The power of coffee! Grab your mug and build your network within the organization. Knowing about the needs and pains of the folks who are about to undergo the change process (and potentially support it) allows you to have a better grasp of how much people can handle.

Do you see people stressed out and overloaded? It may be a good idea to take things slow. Do you see people lacking energy and motivation? It could be a good time to inject a more aggressive change and get those bones moving. Organizational change is, after all, helping people manage the obstacles and adapt to the new context - also known as being human in a work setting.

Motivation and influence

Now that you know people through the "coffee break", you can have a better basis to understand how to motivate key influencers to lead the development of that strong muscle, and to navigate the tension of the organizational change.

If you want to scale your proposed actions throughout the whole company, you cannot do it alone - especially in a large organization.

Running tests

Iterative processes on a small scale, to test the waters, might be a good way to start. Instead of going slow with the whole team, why not select a few representatives from different areas and run tests with them?

People are much more open to giving feedback when they know it’s a test and that they are contributing to it (and in the process, allowing them to feel empowered and co-creators of the organizational change).

Informing yourself

Previous failures, project documents, seasoned people within the company are gold mines to understand how a specific organization behaves when going through a change process.

Look at project budgets (did they spend more towards the end, or did they rush a training?), timelines, scope changes, how many people left the company during a specific period, or even how many projects were abandoned. The better your network, the more access you’ll have - so, grab your mug.

Connection and understanding

Getting this kind of information is vital to devise an organisational change strategy and there are several frameworks you can use to come up with rankings or scores to determine how well a company can cope with tension.

Whatever tool, method, or strategy you use, the most important thing you can do is connect to people and understand where they are at the moment… and avoid people looking for other gyms.

Main takeaways

  • We need the right amount of tension to promote growth and adaptation in organisations.
  • Too much tension will drive people away, due to too much stress.
  • Little tension will disengage people and the change will lose traction.
  • Each company has their own balance of tension necessary to drive things in a healthy way.
  • You can get a better grasp of your company’s tension level by conducting a cultural probe.
  • Build strong relationships and networks to understand the resilience people display.
  • Influence key people to lead and build the necessary resilience to endure the organisational change.
  • Do iterations of tests on a small scale before implementing.
  • Download information from the past from various project sources.