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Change Management is less frightening when you understand the load

Updated: May 29, 2021

Change Management and Change load

I am passionate about improving enterprise change initiatives, and today's article is about looking at change load, that feeling of heaviness that comes with influencing and bringing about change.

I have been chatting in a few Clubhouse sessions where complexity is a catchall term for anything challenging in a change initiative. That's fine, but it is also good to understand that not everything that seems complex is complex.

Also, there are degrees of complexity underpinned by variations in uncertainty; in other words, our ability to identify and label - attribute meaning - to variables, connections, and connectivity level. By 'seeing' differentiations in complexity, we, as change leaders, can help people to understand the load created by their challenging experience. When we can do this, when we can make sense of the load, change becomes less frightening.


This article, is once again going to touch on science. Stealing a line from Carl Sagan, science is a candle in the dark. Science helps us to see and make sense of our place in the world. I do not think we should fear discussing science, but I believe that there is a need to be pragmatic in the language we use.

Those who know me know that I use Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework a lot in my leadership, decision-making, KM and change management work. If you are not familiar with Dave's work, see his website and my short explainer video of the Cynefin domains: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disorder.

The challenge for the complicated and complex domains is that there are varying degrees of complicatedness and complexity. The argument could be that a complicated change initiative cannot be as challenging as complex, but this is not true.

Think of a complicated change initiative as a car journey. Complicated change initiatives are about branching decision-making points, where the outcome is known, and there are better or worse ways to reach the said outcome.

Imagine taking a car journey from Miami to Seattle, where you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible. With enough time and money, you will get to your destination - the outcome is known - but each junction in a road brings a decision point that will either accelerate or delay your journey time.

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The more intersections that you experience, the higher the level of complicatedness. As the level of complicatedness increases, so do the unknowns. Any increase in the potential for unknowns, both known and unknown to you, amplifies the change initiative's intrinsic load. Unknowns lead to uncertainty, and, depending on the team's limiting tolerance for uncertainty (governed by the person with the most anxiety), uncertainty drives fear. Fear amplifies the challenge of your change initiative. Now, that, to me, sounds complex!

However, according to decision-making frameworks such as Cynefin, it isn't because the outcome is known, and we can begin to predict what will happen if we do not follow the better route. Consider a nuclear power station project such as Hinkley Point C in the UK. We can predict the outcome - the government contractors will build the power station, even if it costs three times as much and takes twice as long - but the dynamics of a joint venture between French and UK contractors leads to extreme complicatedness.

Read: What is the difference between change management and transformation

Considering Hinkley, the argument is that change leaders operate in nested environments. By definition, the overarching project is highly complicated. Still, a progress review meeting between Joint Venture Project Managers on a given day can be complex, where people cannot predict the outcome of the said meeting.

As with complicatedness, there are similar distinctions to be made with complexity. In the 1950s, Boulding, a General Systems Theorist, published a Skeleton of Science that is useful for understanding scientific views on complexity and links to organisational change initiatives, which I first explored in 2012.

Boulding Hierarchy of complexity ADAPTED

Boulding's original Hierarchy of Complexity

  1. At level 1 are structures and frameworks which exhibit static behaviour and are studied by a verbal or pictorial description in any discipline; an example being crystal structures

  2. At level 2 are clockworks that exhibit predetermined motion and are studied by classical natural science; an example being the solar system

  3. At level 3 are control mechanisms that exhibit closed-loop control and are studied by cybernetics; an example being a thermostat

  4. At level 4 are open systems which exhibit structural self-maintenance and are studied by theories of metabolism; an example being a biological cell

  5. At level 5 are lower organisms that have functional parts, exhibit blue-printed growth and reproduction, and are studied by botany; an example being a plant

  6. At level 6 are animals that have a brain to guide behaviour, are capable of learning, and are studied by zoology; an example being an elephant

  7. At level 7 are people who possess self-consciousness, know that they know, employ symbolic language, and are studied by biology and psychology; an example being any human being

  8. At level 8 are socio-cultural systems that are typified by the existence of roles, communications and the transmission of values and are studied by history, sociology, anthropology and behavioural science; an example is a nation

  9. At level 9 are transcendental systems, the home of "inescapable unknowables", and which no scientific discipline can capture; an example is the idea of God


Change leaders need more information to make sense of the decision-making domain. It is here that we can learn from Cognitive Load Theory. In doing so, we can make better sense of what our teams and we are experiencing. In doing so, we will find ourselves better placed to influence and bring about behavioural change.

Cognitive Load Theory provides a useful framework for understanding the different ways the [change initiatives] could be playing havoc with your mental function - BBC , Cognitive Load Theory: Explaining our fight for focus

Read: Powerful Change tools to avoid failure

Change Load AND Cognitive Load Theory
  1. Use Cynefin to understand the intrinsic load - the characteristics - of your change initiative.

  2. In having an awareness of the change initiative's intrinsic load, know that the germane load is directly related to the level of complicatedness or complexity within the change initiative; the higher the intrinsic load, the more effort and resources needed to lead and manage a given project.

  3. Probe for unknowns! Explore and make sense of the extraneous load, the external forces you have no control over that influence your change initiative; you can anticipate challenges in doing so. For example, economic circumstances that drive redundancies and lay-offs; if your change initiative is about expert knowledge capture in such an environment, you can expect resistance to change created by circumstances beyond your control.


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