Prevent Change Fatigue by Balancing the New and Familiar

Attempting to implement too much change, too fast, leads to burnout. Instead, find the “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” change and transition gradually

The pandemic has forced a lot of change on us, causing us to work and live differently. And while some of that change has been for the better, it’s also been exhausting.

While as leaders, we might prefer making big, bold strides towards the future, every organization has differing degrees of readiness for change, with varying internal and external realities that all impact the speed at which transformation can happen. Push too hard, too fast, and you risk burning out your team—and two-thirds of employees are already feeling burned out, and taking less time off. So how can you balance the need for change with maintaining your team’s well-being?

One approach is to adapt the MAYA Principle, a concept from the field of industrial design. First introduced by Raymond Loewy in the early 1950’s, MAYA stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” Loewy believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, people are attracted to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. For an inventor, the premise is that you must hold the most ambitious vision of what’s possible in your mind when designing, but present the public with a version that is only as advanced as they are willing and capable of embracing at the time of use.

The Apple iPhone is a classic example of the MAYA Principle at work: we can credit our ability to intuitively navigate a modern iPhone to the fact that Apple released the original iPod nearly 20 years ago, with just a small fraction of the tech features we know and use today. Since then, with each new release of the iPod and then iPhone, Apple trained us as consumers to adopt new ways of behaving and interacting with their technology to the point of ubiquity. Had they started by introducing the modern iPhone to the public back in 2001, it would have flopped—we simply wouldn’t have understood how to use it, nor would we have had the necessary infrastructure to make it useful (5G, high speed WiFi, cloud storage, apps, and so on).

Though conceived with industrial design in mind, the MAYA Principle translates just as well to organizational design. Here, your team members are the consumer. An ambitious vision for the future of an organization needs to be something that a) your team members can grasp and relate to and b) can be achieved given the infrastructure and capabilities you currently have, or can quickly build.

Applying the MAYA Principle to organizational change tells us to:

  • Shift various functions of your organization gradually over time rather than all at once. If you change everything in one go, it’s destabilizing and you risk losing team members (and even customers) along the way.
  • Carry over familiar ways of working and behaviors, even as you introduce new offerings or opportunities. Researcher Karim Lakhani refers to this as “optimal newness”: the idea that you need people to maintain some familiarity if they are going to adopt something novel.
  • Lean into your team’s existing skills and mindsets when introducing a few major changes. Just because you’re headed in a new direction, doesn’t mean you need to abandon what your team already does best.
  • Moderate. If the change is so significant that your team needs to constantly refer to an instruction manual to understand what to do, you’ve gone too far. People should be able to get the new direction and its implications on their work quickly, with little re-training.

As a leader, you should always be a few steps ahead, dreaming up where you want to go next—but don’t expect a transformation to happen overnight. Sometimes intentional, incremental change is the best way to get from your current state to that desired future.

Published November 17, 2020

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