To stay competitive in today’s rapidly-changing business environment, organizations must be willing—and able—to constantly adapt and evolve their business strategy.
It sounds easy enough. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of how quickly the world can change and how quickly businesses need to—and can—respond.
The reality of change management is much less clear-cut.
Organizations, like people, are often highly resistant to change, even when we know it’s necessary. As a result, successfully adopting a new strategy with a change initiative, regardless of how incremental or radical, is usually difficult and often messy. And the consequences of a poorly-managed organizational transformation can be devastating.
Today more than ever, organizations need leaders with the knowledge and skills to plan and manage change successfully. According to David A. Shore, instructor of two Harvard Professional Development Programs focused on strategies for leading change, leadership is often the key to a successful change initiative.
“When change initiatives fail (and they do so more often than not) they rarely fail on technical skills (hard skills), they fail on the people skills. I have identified what I have come to call ‘The Great Enablers.’ While they are not the goal of any change initiative, they are the engine and as such they represent a cornerstone of the programs I teach,” Shore notes.
Understanding some of the most common reasons why strategies for change fail—and ways to avoid those pitfalls—can help you prevent an organizational disaster and lead a successful change initiative.
What is Change Management and Why Do We Need It?
A change management strategy is a planned methodology that enables leaders to successfully guide an organization through change, while minimizing disruption and the risk of unexpected consequences. And while the goal may be to change the organization, the key to success—in most cases—lies in the ability to lead people through the change.
Businesses seek to change—in most cases—because their current business strategy is no longer promoting the success of the organization. A new strategy is required to increase profit margins, for example, or remain competitive in a changing business landscape.
“Change initiatives are the vehicles by which strategy is delivered,” according to Shore. “They represent the most significant dimension in determining whether goals and objectives are achieved. They are the connective tissue that allows us to bridge the gap between strategy and execution.”
No change initiative looks the same, but will vary widely depending on the strategic goals of the organization. Your change initiative may focus on improving efficiency or performance or building better processes. It may be slow and iterative—introducing new features into an existing product, for instance—or it could be revolutionary, such as creating an entirely new product line.
Yet regardless of the nature or scope of the change, it will likely be disruptive to your employees and to your business processes alike. Even small changes, no matter how well-meaning or necessary, can have unintended consequences. And as change becomes larger and more complex, the risks increase, as does the need for a systematic approach.
Therefore, having a systematic approach to change—and leading your teams through change—is critical.
As Shore notes, “A point of distinction between managing change and project management is that the former has as a cornerstone leading human capital (people) in a way that facilitates the intended outcome. If you can’t change your people, you can’t change anything.”
How Has Change Management Evolved?
The idea that changing business strategy must be managed is relatively new. Until the late 1940s (generally speaking), most leadership models were relatively straightforward: the boss decided to make a change and his subordinates carried it out.
Today, leaders are aware that change is extremely complex and that a heavy-handed, top-down approach is rarely successful. Thinking about how to manage change has moved from an academic exercise to the creation of actionable guidelines for business leaders.
From the 1950s to the early 1990s, the theory of change management—and it was very much a theoretical exercise at first—changed in two important ways. First, it began to identify the importance of the employee in promoting—and resisting—change. Second, it began to recognize that successful change often occurs in stages, and that these stages could be predicted, planned, and managed.
Change management as a formal, multi-phase process took its modern form in the late 1990s. Leading Change, a 1996 book by John Kotter, popularized the idea of change management, bringing it from academic theory into the practical world of business. Kotter’s eight-step change management process continues to define much of the language around change management nearly 25 years later.
7 Ways that Change Management Strategies Fail
Yet, even as thought leadership on change management has become more in-depth and sophisticated, one simple fact remains: change management is still very difficult.
Successfully implementing change—whether large or small—remains one of the greatest challenges facing leaders.
Identifying some of the most common reasons why change management strategies fail can help leaders think more critically about how their actions may be helping—or hindering—their organizations from reaching their goals.
#1: Starting with an Incomplete or Poorly-Defined Strategy
When thinking about an organizational transformation, leaders often focus on what the change is and why it is necessary. However, failing to give equal priority to how the change will happen can undermine any transformation effort.
Without a comprehensive change management strategy, short term tactical decisions can delay or undermine long-term results. They can lead your organization down an unexpected—or unwanted—path and make it more difficult, or even impossible, to achieve the desired results.
In addition, the lack of a strategic change management plan can make it more difficult to build a strong guiding coalition and buy-in, hinder your communication with employees, and create misunderstandings and diminish trust in the leadership team.
The Solution: Invest significant time and energy into creating a comprehensive change management strategy before starting any change initiative. It can be helpful to choose a model to follow: Kotter’s 8-Step Process, Lewin’s Change Management Model, or Prosci’s ADKARⓇ Model—to name a few—can all offer a starting point on which to build your unique strategy.
As you build out your strategy, identify areas of resistance and potential problems you think you may encounter. SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis can be a helpful tactical tool to help develop alternate pathways to achieve your long-term goals. While you likely can’t plan for every single contingency, developing a robust strategy will help you minimize unexpected problems.
#2: Following a Strategy that is Too Rigid and Inflexible
Having a well-defined change management strategy can be key to keeping your change initiative on track. At the same time, however, being too dogmatic and inflexible in implementing that plan can be equally detrimental to your long-term success.
No matter how much thought and planning you put into your strategy, you are unlikely to account for every development. Change—especially large-scale change—can take a long time, and the environment and market are also changing around you. Failure to adapt your strategy to unanticipated or sudden developments can render your long-term strategy ineffective, or at worst, irrelevant.
The Solution: Revisit your strategy plan frequently, both before and after unexpected developments occur.
Be sure that your long-term vision and goals are clear, but also that your strategy includes short- and mid-term objectives that you can revisit and realign to account for changes in the environment around you. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments throughout the process to keep your end goals on track.
#3: Lack of Effective Communications
Leaders often spend a great deal of time communicating about the proposed change in order to gain buy-in before beginning the change initiative. However, change management strategies often fail or fizzle out when leaders don’t communicate enough after the initiative is announced.
For example, you announce your vision and strategy for change in an all-staff meeting. You then reinforce the message in an email to the organization or the team. You schedule follow up meetings with key stakeholders and 1:1s with your employees. At this point, it’s easy to believe that the message has been received and the organization is on board.
In reality, once the initial communication drive is over, the day-to-day demands of the job take over and enthusiasm for change diminishes. Your team quickly reverts to the comfort of the status quo.
The Solution: Create a short, comprehensible explanation of your change strategy. It should be clear, consistent, and constant. Be prepared to repeat that explanation frequently, throughout the entire process and with everyone who may be impacted, no matter how remotely.
Make sure that every action that the leadership team takes aligns with your vision of change. Every interaction with your team, from a staff meeting to a performance evaluation, is an opportunity to educate the organization about why this change is important and the positive impact you believe it will have on the organization in the long run.
When it comes to change management, remember that even if you think you have communicated enough, you probably haven’t.
#4: Failing to Identify and Address Resistance
Every change initiative is going to encounter resistance. This is true no matter how much you worked to build a guiding coalition before launch and no matter how well you communicate and create enthusiasm after launch.
In fact, according to Shore, resistance to change is the most common reason why many change initiatives fail.
“People are people—carbon and water. As such, we resist change. It’s important to recognize that managing change is about upsetting people only at a rate that they can tolerate. It’s all about physics. For change there must be movement. With movement there is friction,” Shore says.
People resist change for many reasons. They may be uncomfortable with the unknown or perceived risk. They may misunderstand or disagree with the goals and/or the strategy of the change initiative. They may fear what change means for their role or even their job security. They may lack trust in the management team or the organization.
Unless their specific concerns are addressed, resistance can easily derail or undermine the change initiative, either covertly or overtly. As Shore notes, “The job of an agent of change is to address this friction.”
The Solution: Make a strategic and thoughtful assessment of how your change initiative may impact your employees in order to identify potential resistance from the start. Tailor your communication strategy so that you can address that resistance as soon as—or even before—it arises.
And most importantly, actively listen to and engage your employees throughout your change management strategy. Active listening is the best way to avoid misunderstandings, ensure that all parties have complete and accurate information, and address fear, anxiety, and discomfort that comes with any change.
#5: Disconnect Between Strategy and Culture
Have you heard your employees say, “That’s not the way we do things around here?” If you have, then your change management strategy is probably in conflict with your organizational culture.
Change initiatives that work against existing corporate culture will likely be more difficult and less likely to succeed. Demands to change workplace habits and behaviors will be met with distrust and resistance if employees lack trust that the organization will support and reward those changes in the long term.
Conversely, if the proposed changes are already in line with a shared vision of the organization’s purpose and goals, employees are more likely to trust that their efforts in supporting change will be rewarded.
The Solution: Ensure that your change management strategy is grounded in a realistic assessment of your organization’s culture and vision.
Even before you begin a change, make certain that senior management and front line employees alike are aligned on organizational priorities and goals, as well as on reward structures and tolerance for risk. An effective communications plan should include a focus on how your change supports the shared vision for your organization.
#6: Setting Unrealistic Expectations
One of the major pitfalls when starting a change initiative is to push too hard, for too much, and too quickly. Rushing through a change increases the risk of mistakes and removes the opportunity to respond appropriately to changing events. And moving too fast can quickly burn out both your team and your organization. Change fatigue can quickly undermine even the most enthusiastic team.
The pressure to do too much too quickly comes in several different forms:
- The marketplace: Rapid change may be required to stay competitive. Waiting too long to launch a new product, for example, could leave an opening for your competitors.
- Top management: Executives often underestimate how long change takes and how much it will cost, and they overestimate the end results. Enthusiasm for change can quickly fizzle when it takes too long or gains aren’t perceived as “big enough.”
- The need for momentum: People and organizations alike have short attention spans. It can be challenging to sustain enthusiasm for change over the long term.
The Solution: Managing expectations—both positive and negative—during a change initiative is just as important as managing the change itself. Remind yourself and your key stakeholders—frequently—that true change takes time. A well-paced solution is much more likely to be effective and successful.
Be sure that your strategic plan is realistic in its goals and intended outcomes. Outline a clear timeline, with both short- and long-term objectives. Short- and mid-range goals will help your team stay on target without moving too quickly.
#7: Not Creating—and Celebrating—Short Term Wins
Pushing for change too quickly can lead to burnout. Yet not showing positive progress in a timely manner can be equally detrimental. Employees and teams can easily lose momentum and enthusiasm for a change if they feel they aren’t making progress.
And the more difficult the change is—the more it requires changing behaviors or making sacrifices—the more quickly your teams will lose interest.
The Solution: Don’t wait for wins to emerge naturally from the change management process. Build them into your strategic plan from the start. As you define your short- and mid-range goals, include achievable outcomes that will yield visible results.
And when your team achieves those outcomes, be sure to publicize them as wins, and celebrate them—as soon as they happen. Building on the enthusiasm for a short term win will help sustain momentum for a longer duration.
How Can I Learn to Avoid These Change Management Mistakes?
Leading a change management strategy is challenging and takes effort and dedication. And even the most successful change leader is likely to make a few mistakes and missteps along the way.
However, the skills you need to improve your ability to manage change successfully can be learned at any point in your career.
Professional development programs focused on business strategy generally—and change management strategy specifically—can give you the frameworks and tools to lead your organization’s change initiative to completion. These key leadership skills can help you advance your career and help your organization stay competitive in today’s crowded and chaotic marketplace.