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Beware of Innovation Fatigue: The Ultimate Barrier to Organisational Change

Repetitive change initiatives engender innovation fatigue among employees, and it inadvertently puts a current change programme in jeopardy. Dr. Jongwook Pak, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management, discusses why overcoming the "here we go again" mentality is a critical management challenge.

Why does organisational change too often end up futile? The question persists, troubling top managers and academics alike. My inquiry began with an observation that, in practice, staff in modern corporations are frequently exposed to a stream of continuous change efforts. Yet, the current discourse is built upon a rather problematic assumption that a certain change project is a single isolated event. In research, the current program becomes nothing more than a referent. If not utterly biased, the existing studies appear to tell half the story at best. How could unravelling the datum change our landscape of understanding the phenomena?

Recent developments on this topic reveal that the frequent destruction for too little creation does more harm than good. Repetitive change initiatives often develop into innovation fatigue among employees. A deep trouble concerns its carry-over effects. In other words, it undermines implementation endeavor of forthcoming initiatives.  Anecdotal evidence from my research suggests that negative attitudes toward change bolted down over time are likely to put a current program at risk even when it is not only strategically-relevant but easy-to-execute. In addition, the presence of implementation climate and provision of necessary resources are not as impellent as they are supposed to be. The end results? Organisational change fails. Then, another wave of change programmes is rashly introduced to fight the status quo. Indeed, the investigation is noteworthy in that above are common recommendations when prior research relate to the success of change efforts. My conundrum was why change still bears little fruit although companies seem to have all the right conditions at some point in time. What is the missing link? From my view, cutting through the vicious circle of repetitive change is a critical management challenge.

Restoring authenticity.

After all, implementation failure occurs when resisting forces outweigh driving ones. In the context of repetitive change, a new initiative becomes no more than another administrative routine on an employee’s mind. The dominant sentiment is ‘here we go again’. Employee cynicism and indifference prevail within the organisation. What makes them cross the tipping point and think ‘senior management is quite serious this time’? It is when, following the development phase, top management begins to care more about what real differences a change program is making than the initiative per se. That is, when C-suite’s focus shifts from input to output. In reality, organisational initiatives are often viewed as a matter of adoption and, to make matters worse, implementation falls off the radar. It is not surprising that too many come into being, creating too little.

Understanding change as a long-haul journey.

Real change takes time. Here, patience is the key. For instance, when new work processes are introduced, overall performance may abruptly dip in the short-term. Simply put, it is because people need time to adjust themselves to new ways of doing things. The problem is that when the organisation is inevitably muddling in the early go-live stage, the change programme is quickly dubbed a failure. The search for solutions marches on – intended or not – falling into the circle of repetitive change. Failure in organisational change is not much due to a faulty design. It is lack of patience. A true value of adopted initiatives is veiled until the organisation internalises enough of new rules and procedures. Time serves its purpose.

Beginning with a meaningful break.

Kurt Lewin’s unfreezing is very much a cliché. But, in the context of repetitive change, the stage serves as the most important conduit that enables the organisation to get ready for the next move. In the face of a speculated failure in an attempted change, companies tend to rush into finding solutions, trying to fix things right up. Instead, senior executives need to spend quality time with employees at all levels before moving on. A candid discussion on key strategic issues creates common ground upon which the new direction will be set. Formulating new initiatives, top management should make sure that employee voice is heard and, more importantly, reflected on. Before the implementation phase, a cohort of change agents needs to be nurtured while readiness for change is being tracked down throughout the organisation. In the end, waiting for the right moment is not time wasted when it comes to organisational change.

For any chief executives, leading change is a daunting, inevitable journey. I have no intention to devalue the potential impact of appropriate design features, resource allocation or any other situational contingencies that the extant studies put forward. My view is that organisational innovation is still such a challenge because employee sentiment inadvertently, or deliberately, slips off top management’s agenda along the way. In its simplest form, an organisation consists of jobs and people. And, it’s people who carry out their duties. In essence, organisational change is about orchestrating individual employees. It often puzzles me to see how little this axiom is contemplated in reality. Beware of innovation fatigue. Stop talking to a brick wall; it won’t lead you anywhere.