Overcoming change fatigue amid endless transformation

07 November 2023 Consultancy.uk 6 min. read

Over the last decade, there have been seemingly endless declarations of major technological change being on the horizon, while the potential benefits of digital transformation have routinely been touted by leading researchers. But as the majority of business transformations continue to fail, it is easy to succumb to ‘change fatigue’. According to Bjorn Dufwenberg, managing director at STRAT7 Advisory, key leadership and cultural changes are necessary to move past this state of exhaustion.

The tech world has witnessed a curious turn of events. Once seemingly invincible players, including Google and Meta, are reportedly faltering, overshadowed by a surge of nimble start-ups, particularly in the artificial intelligence sphere.

A changing of the guard? Well, not quite, but it does lead to an inevitable question: if even organisations that have thrived on change find themselves challenged by it, how can everyone else hope to navigate the future?

Overcoming change fatigue amid endless transformation

First, we must recognise something I have encountered many times, but increasingly so: the phenomenon of change fatigue. Defined as a state of exhaustion and resistance arising from persistent transformation, change fatigue manifests in numerous ways. Decreased productivity, diminished motivation, and competitive disadvantages are the worst symptoms.

At its core, change fatigue can be broadly categorised into two types: internal and external. The former arises from ceaseless internal shifts, be it in leadership, system changes, or organisational restructuring. The latter is precipitated by external factors, notably evolving consumer behaviours, as exemplified by Meta’s frequent resource reallocations (and rebrand) in response to shifting external opportunities.

But it’s not just a media or tech industry issue. A recent global PwC survey shows that 58% of CEOs cite changing customer needs and preferences as the biggest challenge to profitability - and implicit in this is their perceived inability to effectively manage it.

Meanwhile, separate research by AlixPartners shows that while 98% of CEOs expect to overhaul their business model in the next three years, a significant 72% worry about their team's capacity to handle this transformation.

I’ve little doubt that change fatigue is part of the problem. Therefore, understanding its leading causes, and how to position a business to act on the front foot - rather than reacting to change - is critical.

The business world has changed

Historically, businesses manufactured what they could and then sought buyers. Today, they are compelled to first decipher consumer needs and then cater to them. This is a trend that has grown on the back of the rise of the internet and the subsequent boom in expectation transfer and everything, from everywhere, being available through borderless e-commerce.

This fundamentally shifted the world of business, and ever since, ‘change’ - in all its various guises - has come thick and fast. In fact, it’s hard to think of an industry which has not been impacted, and as the unfolding AI revolution gathers pace, we should expect the rate of change to intensify still further.

So, how can businesses adapt?

The first step is to build better sensory systems that are more finely attuned to evolving consumer needs, which is all part of making a business more customer-centric.

Here, tools like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics are invaluable. It’s a shame, then, that so many organisations fail to utilise them. Leverage their power and it is possible to monitor changing consumer behaviours and to identify trends proactively. This is particularly the case if AI is used to spot trends in ‘unstructured data’: a business’ internal data, such as customer emails, call-centre transcripts and website logs, and external data like social media or other forums.

This model, which places the customer at the centre of all decisions, helps businesses move in step with a market's evolving needs, rather than chasing trends. That, in turn, helps dictate the pace of change and the angle from which an organisation approaches it.

Managing change

However, there is a substantial difference between recognising change and actually managing it.

Struggling businesses might alleviate some of the problems by drawing on external expertise. Consultants, free from the trappings of internal politics and vested interests, can provide invaluable cross-industry insights and pinpoint weaknesses, new modes of working and improved change management strategies.

Yet, an over-reliance on external support is not without risks. Consultants may lack an intimate understanding of a company’s culture, possibly leading to recommendations that worsen employee disengagement.

The process also risks creating a dependency on external solutions, neglecting the development of internal skills necessary for effective, long-term change management. Additionally, the presence of consultants can disrupt regular workflows and extend periods of uncertainty among staff, further deepening the fatigue.

That is why, ultimately, businesses need to create cultures that are adaptive, innovative and receptive - and thus better able to manage change. This requires self-reflection and the ability to differentiate between what organisations perceive as essential changes and the shifts that are actually necessary. The aforementioned sensory systems and objective data analysis assist in this discernment, but so too does fostering a culture of feedback.

I’d also encourage diversity of thought. Varied perspectives nurture innovative problem-solving. In my own experience, working both in management consulting and creative agencies, the great diversity of experience, motivations and ways of problem solving usually found in a creative agency (albeit one with a strong strategic capability), can create a more open culture, and enable solving for problems a less diverse organisation will struggle with.

This resonates particularly in the realm of change management. Confining oneself to linear thought processes is restrictive; breaking free from such constraints, paves the way for adaptability.

Finally, it is essential to assign responsibility for effectively driving and managing change, whether that’s by creating a chief change officer or a similar position, or through a CEO working in tandem with a chief finance officer and chief marketing officer.

The latter option is what I regard as the perfect leadership triumvirate for customer-centric change management, bringing a deep understanding of the market and customer, a deep understanding of the business logic, and long-term strategic thinking to the table.

So yes, adapting to change is multifaceted and often difficult. But with the right approach, leadership, culture and systems in place, businesses do not have to be continuously exhausted by it - and that confers the ultimate competitive advantage.