You can't solve a problem if you don't know it's there, and you can't take advantage of an opportunity when you sleep through it. The first step in handling change is being aware of it. Sometimes that is easy because circumstances thrust it into your face. Other times it takes work to recognize something is afoot.
The worst way to learn about change is at the last moment. Unfortunately, that is often how people come across change. Sometimes there is no other choice. The forces that create change present themselves suddenly, and you have to deal with them.
All too often, the need to adjust to circumstances with little notice is a product of our reaction to the idea of change. We tell ourselves that things actually do go in a straight line; otherwise, we're left with the scary realization that life is more uncertain than we'd care to think.
So we bury out heads and insist that everything is supposed to progress smoothly. Often, part of that insistence is the attempt to believe that change really isn't happening. We basically convince ourselves that the signs of change aren't there, and so we don't take action early.
If you have built a series of metrics and created some kind of monitoring process for your team, you will be a step better off. What you do is first create a baseline set of numbers that indicate “normal” activity. This isn't a measure of optimum conditions so much as usual ones. You might even take readings for a month, or even a quarter, and average the results to get a more representative set of numbers. When you calculate the average, also track how far the numbers vary, low to high.
Now you have data for typical conditions you might expect — both the average values (the mean) as well as how far they can shift away from those values (the range). On an ongoing basis, you can watch for trends, possibly using a moving average. When you see an overall shift in a number, you know that there is a change happening.
A moving average is an average over some period of time — maybe a week, a month, or a quarter — using a longer period of time for more volatile data. On any day, you take the average going back the given period of time. It helps you spot longer-term trends without being distracted by the momentary ups and downs.
Be aware that watching internal data has limitations. One is that it only tells you something is happening but doesn't give the reason — the what, not the why. You still must determine the underlying reason for the trend if you want to understand the actual change happening and formulate a plan to adapt to it. Another limitation is that data won't let you catch everything — only what you can directly measure. For example, if you're in charge of a customer service group, overall customer satisfaction numbers can't warn you that one of your best team members has decided to leave.
Third, what you learn is no better than the data you collect. You have to choose metrics that are actually meaningful, a more difficult prospect than you might think. Many people become drunk on data, collecting massive amounts that do nothing but drown them in detail. The trick is to choose only what gives a telling indication of a fundamental influence on your group. Finally, although data can help indicate trends, it often is next to useless in catching sudden unpredictable changes.
It is often smart to look for external data that might help pinpoint changes you should address. If you were involved in a community outreach program, you'd want to know if a shift in demographics meant your team would need some fluency in a particular language to be effective.
As with internal data, take in only what is telling, and realize that you may need that data less frequently. In the outreach example, you'd only check a population breakout at most once a year. It takes time for neighborhoods to change and, just as importantly, more frequently updated information would be unlikely to exist. Many sources of external data may be refreshed only every few years.
In organizations, the harbingers of change are often nothing measurable. They may be modifications in operations or spending patterns indicating that someone is emphasizing one aspect of the organization at the expense of another. A new directive might itself be a reaction to some form of change, requiring adaptation by your team.
Various occupations use these sorts of skills. You might turn to them for training or support. They would include business analysts, competitive intelligence specialists, equity and financial analysts, forensic accountants, and strategic planners. Classes or books on these subjects cover different aspects of reading an organization.
Although this topic alone could be the subject of a book — and getting a grounding in it will help you learn to read your own organization — the basics are largely common sense. You are looking for signs that suggest the real interests of the group and the people running it. If there is a change in spending, consider what different factors might trigger it. A reorganization will offer clues in terms of the hierarchy, who is now on top, and what particular skills or orientation they bring to their positions. A new strategy can be an acknowledgment of different stakeholders, emerging competition, or the failure of past approaches.
Perhaps the best source of information is other people in the organization. As people's thinking and feelings change, so do perceptible indicators, such as attitudes, emotional signs, body language, and behavior. Sudden frostiness or warmth, inclusion in or exclusion from meetings, distraction, and unexplained closed-door activity are all clues.
As you would with data, take a benchmark of how people usually act. When you see changes, you can expect that something is causing them. The difficult part here is understanding the source. Someone might be having problems at home or working a large project that is consuming a lot of attention — or there may be change afoot.
Often people will not admit to changes, but you should still ask what is going on. There are few things as toxic as an atmosphere in which you perceive that secrets are being kept and you are not allowed to ask about them. When that happens, you operate completely based on fear. You're now in a psychological condition in which you cannot really lead because you're too busy running away from something. So turn around and deal with the conflicts around you. At worst, you'll find that things are as bleak as you fear, and then you can make plans and take action. At best, you may discover an innocent explanation and find you've been turning yourself inside out for no good reason.
Simply approach people who might know what is going on and ask their opinion and advice. People on the line, so to speak, often have a more accurate sense of reality because circumstances force them to face it. There is no insulation between them and the outside world; they are the insulation. By the time changes show up in metrics, they may have been happening for a while. The time lag can be enough for a change to achieve momentum. Think of this process as part of empowerment and delegation.
See the Need
You can see change coming from various directions, but that isn't enough. Not all change is imposed, and there are times you'll see the need for a change. The same indicators that let you understand what is different might also give you insight into something that needs to be different. Generally things grow or decline, and if you find that conditions seem stagnant, they probably suggest that your team is in a rut.