For many leaders, the hardest part in the journey of organizational change is the Trough of Chaos. Given it is a difficult, uncomfortable, and deeply challenging time period, many organizations and people get stuck within its complexity. Still, once they understand that there are four stages that people go through within the Trough of Chaos Stage, they often gain perspective and hope to keep moving forward.
The first stage in the Trough of Chaos is called “The Preservation Stage”. At this point in the journey, most employees are simply unaware of the larger change process that is underway within the organization because they are doing their job on a daily basis. What little, if any, information that does cascade down from senior management about strategic change is often ignored as unimportant or not realistic. For the most part, employees are focused on preserving a past definition of success as well as preserving a pattern of work which is comfortable and efficient. Unaware and, in reality, unknowing, they just keep on keeping on in product and service delivery.
However, when senior management does finally explain to everyone what is going to change at the strategic and operational levels, it is common for employees during this stage of the journey to feel like they have been completely blind sided by the information and overwhelmed. With a lack of orientation that connects to the strategic nexus, no clear executable priorities, and no structure to what happens next, employees act like deer in the headlights, shocked, sacred, and desperately trying to return to their old and balanced way of work and life. Nevertheless, with constant communication, training, and periods for strategic dialogue, they come to realize that strategic change is not going to go away, and thus they move in to stage two in the Trough of Chaos.
The second stage is called “The Loss Stage.” At this point in the journey, employees are grieving the loss of the familiar in systems, structure, and culture. It is normal for them to want to try to preserve familiar ways of doing things based on an older description of success, because the old way had meaning, purpose, and gave employees’ a sense of identity.
As their normal routines become obsolete due to strategic and subsequent operational changes, employees also become more and more resistant to change and may become dissatisfied with the new product and service delivery methods. Furthermore, it is common for employees to Tarzan swing from “there is no way this is going to work” to “OK, are we done yet?” With a focus on doing it the “right” or “proper” way in order to not get blamed for mistakes, employees are deeply frustrated and struggling.
This stage ends as employees come to understand what will and what will not change. As they become familiar with the new patterns of work, they also regain some confidence and clarity about their new roles. Gradually, there is a degree of acceptance, understanding, and a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.
The combination of these factors propels employees into the third stage of the Trough of Chaos called “The Discovery Stage”. As individuals and teams begin to work together in new ways, there is great deal of energy, focus, and intensity in the work place. People come together and collaborate on projects about new and better ways to do product and customer service delivery. Creative problem solving surfaces and positive momentum starts to take place.
The challenge of this stage is that people often start heading out in all sorts of new directions and some people even want to change more things. Without clear goals and priorities, or a better utilization of the strategic nexus, this time can often result in creative and overwhelming chaos. People often burnout as they try to do too much too fast. Brainstorming can be infectious, but not realistic.
This stage ends as more and more people come to understand how the organization’s new strategy connects to the organization’s vision, mission and core values. And as more and more people have the “Aha Moment” when they see the whole, the context for strategic change and how the new strategy helps the organization move through that context, and the parts, i.e. the interrelationship between the vision, mission and core values and the redesign of people’s roles, systems, structure and culture, then a new depth of commitment is born. People not only want to move forward but also take a greater degree of responsibility for collective success.
The fourth and final stage within the Trough of Chaos is called “The Commitment Stage”. It is clear from the work done in the previous stage that employees are now beginning to get settled into a new pattern of work and are focused on specific short and long term goals. Not only are they showing responsibility and seeing change as a positive event with possibilities, they have regained a clear vision of where the organization is going and why this direction is important. Because they are now able to once again control things that are important to them, they are more willing to be accountable and approach solving problems in a collaborative and healthy manner.
We also note in this stage that as their commitment and productivity grows, so does their competency and willingness to manage and lead projects and teams. People not only want to get things done, but they also want their team to function better and better. This combination of a commitment to decisions, goals and objectives along with the rise of accountability for carrying through on these plans builds discipline and persistence, two keys to sustainable action.
When we recognize the role and the importance of a strategic nexus during organizational change, we create a foundation for success. When we understand the stages and complexity of a sigmoid curve, and the eighteen month journey of change, we build a framework for maintaining perspective. Finally, when we realize that the Trough of Chaos is a normal part of this journey, we regain hope, courage, and confidence that we can turn a vision into reality.
Geery Howe, M.A.
Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in
Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change
Morning Star Associates
319 - 643 - 2257