When I work with organizations on change management, I often use a game involving tennis balls. In this exercise I ask the group to form a circle. Then I hand a tennis ball to a person in the circle and ask them to throw it to someone. Then that person throws the ball to someone. This continues until a pattern is established. Next, I add a second tennis ball into the mix, beginning with a new participant. Once again I request they create a different pattern and start throwing the ball. The kicker is, I ask the group to simultaneously resume the first tennis ball pattern. Can you visualize the chaos? Two tennis balls being tossed about with two different patterns competing. Each member in the circle has to remember which pattern they are catching from and throwing to. Not easy. Of course laughter erupts. Balls end up on the floor. I say- “STOP! What does this feel like? Why do you seem overwhelmed?” The responses usually range from: “I didn’t remember the pattern!”, “I didn’t see the second ball coming!”, “I can’t keep track of the two balls!” It is at that point I share that this exercise demonstrates what it’s like to have too many changes coming at us at once. We are on overload and can’t keep things straight. We cannot function at a high level because we are not clear what to do. But isn’t this what the real workplace is like? Here are some ways for leaders to deal with the onslaught of too many balls:
Clarify the vision or instructions: When that first ball or change is tossed out, it is important to explain why it is being thrown and what is expected of each person. The more information shared, the better for the team. The clearer the communication is presented, the more successful the transition. Don’t skimp on details or reasons behind the change. This is not the time to hide facts for fear of “too much” for the team to handle.
Change is a process that needs time: In order to digest all the facts and new ideas, leaders need to allow their teams to think and feel. When more than one ball is being thrown, we all can become disoriented and not sure of where we stand. We have questions on just how the change or changes will impact us and our job responsibilities. If individuals have questions or concerns, leaders need to take the time to meet with them, re-explaining if necessary until a clear understanding is reached. Listening actively can help leadership gain great insights into the roadblocks or challenges that lie ahead.
Slow down the balls: As we witnessed, too many changes at once can unhinge a critical transition. When we see those around us unable to push forward or even appear paralyzed, it is a sign that too much change is happening too quickly. We need to step back and decide what can be put on hold temporarily. We need to ask ourselves: “What is the priority to making this change happen, and what can wait?” “Can we divide this transition into smaller steps?” During a transition for a hospital system I partnered with, we realized that some of the employees were overwhelmed with performing their new job tasks. We decided to slow things down, provide them with more practice and empower them to see how they fit into the future.
Are you a leader with too many balls to toss at once? Have you ever experienced this? How did you go about managing change upon change?