The Risk of Yo-yo Organizational Change

Has your organization ever made a change that shortly after it was implemented it felt like nothing had changed? If you answered yes to this question then you have experienced yo-yo change. Yo-yo change is a contributing factor to change fatigue. The good news is, it can be prevented.

Definition of Yo-yo Change

Most people are familiar with yo-yo change on personal level. If you have ever have tried to change a habit or adopt a new routine. Take exercising for example. You go to the gym for a few weeks or even months. You feel great. You celebrate your success. Then something shifts. Perhaps you miss a couple of days due to illness, work, or family, and before you know it your newly adopted exercise routine is all but a distance memory. You’re back to your old pattern and the thought of starting again feels overwhelming.

The same thing can happen when it comes to organizational change. In the typical project-based approach, you form the project team, develop your plan, implement the change, people are trained, and the project closed. Another change successfully implemented. But is it?

Sometime later you notice people have created a work around for the new system, or the IT department is spending time “tweaking” the new system to accommodate an old process, or some steps have been re-introduced to the streamlined process, or all those silos you worked so hard to break down have begun to re-appear. Employees feel like nothing has really changed.

Yo-yo change is any change that is implemented only to find a few weeks, or months after implementation people have reverted back to their old ways of operating. Regardless of why it happens yo-yo change is destructive to your organization. It also makes future changes more difficult.

Preventing Yo-yo Change Matters

Yo-yo change disrupts your organization’s natural ability with change. It creates a history of failed changes that limits your organization’s ability to respond and adapt to future changes. Preventing yo-yo change matters.

Yo-yo change also erodes employees’ trust in the organization’s ability to follow through and support change. Trust is a necessary ingredient for building readiness to change. If people don’t trust that the organization has the capability and resources to maintain the changes it implements, you can’t build readiness. When people are not ready for change their efforts are focused on maintaining the current state. Alternatively employees who feel prepared and ready for change move toward it and resistance is prevented.

The erosion of trust associated with yo-yo change can set off a chain reaction—change capacity is reduced which leads to decreased employee engagement, which increases employee cynicism—making current and future changes more difficult.

Three Actions for Preventing and Reducing Yo-yo Change

The good news is yo-yo change can be prevented. In this post I will share with you three actions you can take to prevent yo-yo change.

1. Think Integration Not Implementation

Every organization and any leader can implement change, but implementing change is not enough. The key to using change to increase your competitiveness, growth, and productivity while ensuring the health of your organization is integration. When you integrate the behaviours and activities required to achieve the intended outcome, the new way becomes the normal way.

Preventing yo-yo change begins with a shift in thinking away from implementing a change Event to integrating the new behaviours as normal operation.

2. Begin Your Change Efforts at the End

Shifting your thinking from implementation to integration is a good start, but alone it’s not enough. The second action needed to prevent yo-yo change is a clear, concise intended outcome. I have talked before about the importance of an intended outcome. However it can’t really be overstated.

Whether the change is new technology, process improvement, product development, or hiring a new team leader begin with a clear picture of your end result. Start by picturing and then write down the way your area will look and feel like when the new behaviours and activities have been fully integrated. You need to go beyond a vague statement, like implement a financial system or improve production processes, to include specific behaviours, relationships, knowledge, and other elements that often get overlooked.

If you don’t know the specific elements needed to enable the outcome you won’t know what to integrate.

3. Ensure your environment will support the changes you seek

In my early days I worked helping people adopt healthier lifestyles. One mantra I used to help them was “make the healthy choice the easy choice”. The mantra helped them to set up their environment to support and enable the behaviours they wanted to adopt. For example if their goal was to be a non-smoker, setting up their environment meant making their house and car a smoke free zone.

Ensuring your organizational environment supports the desired behaviours and activities makes these activities easier. Closing a change project without ensuring your environment will support the desired behaviours raises the risk of yo-yo change.

Aligning the environment to support the change could mean changes to policy and procedures, performance evaluation, expectations or even the physical layout. It can also require adjusting your own leadership and management practices to support the desired activities.

John Kotter stated one mistake many leaders make is to declare victory too soon. Monitoring and assessing the change-recipients’ progress along the continuum of change can help you determine if your environment will support the desired outcome. Until people have reached new steady state there is always the risk of sliding back.

What experience have you had with yo-yo change?

This article was previously published on Dr. Turner’s blog, and is reprinted with permission.