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10 Reasons the Change Management Process Fails (and How You Can Succeed)
process change

10 Reasons the Change Management Process Fails (and How You Can Succeed)

By George Dickson

Over 70% of organizational change management process initiatives fail, but change itself isn’t the stumbling block. Change is common and natural, even inevitable. Seasons change, people change, mountain ranges change — yet successful change management remains a lofty, even insurmountable challenge for many organizations.

Why is that?

Organizational change happens every day as a matter of course. The challenge lies in instituting and managing manufactured change in a deliberate and focused direction, and within a specified timeframe.

Altering a river’s course over many years in a specific direction requires significant effort. If you build a crude dam with little thought to its impact downstream, the results can be devastating.

The work you’re doing when instituting a process change or organizational principles is like changing the course of a river. Without the necessary effort, consideration, and tools in place, results will be unpredictable at best, and harmful at worst.

Although each team faces a unique change management challenge, we found ten barriers in common across nearly every industry.

Let’s address each barrier and outline research-backed strategies for overcoming them.

Top 10 Reasons the Change Management Process Fails

  1. Strategic Shortcomings
  2. Underestimating Scale and Scope
  3. Neglected Stakeholders
  4. Poor Communication
  5. Lack of Buy-in
  6. Lack of Vision
  7. Active Resistance
  8. Lack of Tooling
  9. Inertia
  10. Lack of Endurance

1. Strategic Shortcomings

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Successful change management starts with a sound strategy. You need to know why you want change, expected outcome(s), whom it will impact, and how you plan to change. Many change management processes fail because simple logistical or tactical details were overlooked, or the team wasn’t properly equipped.

How do you fix strategic shortcomings?

The Strengths, Weaknesses, Obstacles, Threats (SWOT) analysis framework can be a great place to start formulating your strategy.

  • What are your team’s unique strengths and weaknesses, and how might you leverage those in your change management plan?
  • Are there opportunities available to you in the here and now?
  • What threats or obstacles stand in the way of your ability to implement change?

You can’t plan for every contingency, but assessing issues early can save massive future headaches. Or worse, a failed change initiative.

2. Underestimating Scale and Scope

What is it going to take to accomplish the organizational change you’re hoping to achieve?

As with most significant undertakings, there are often a greater amount of resources and time necessary to achieve success than initially expected. Many process change initiatives failed because of an underestimated scope, a lack of resources, or the clock running out.

How do you address understanding scale and scope?

Before taking a single step toward implementing change, think of the process from beginning to end.

  • Plan your resources ahead of time. Outline the resources you’ll need when you’ll need them, and for how long you’ll need them.
  • How big is this change? Is it small enough to only impact a few people or a large scale organizational shift?

By scoping the work that lies ahead, you’ll have an easier time executing and earning buy-in from your colleagues.

3. Neglected Stakeholders

It’s easy to assume who your main stakeholders will be in the change management process. It’s even easier to forget others. They have an equally substantial stake in the outcome.

As Bruce Harpham explains in his CIO article, “8 Ways You’re Failing at Change Management

“Successful change management requires strong input from stakeholders, but if you fail to properly map out who the true stakeholders really are and what they will need to get out of the project, your change management efforts are sunk.”

How do you include stakeholders from the start?

In the earliest stages of your plans for change, you must consider everyone the program will affect.

  • Solicit feedback EARLY from all stakeholders involved
  • Build a change management team or coalition to lead the change management process
  • Provide roadmaps or timelines with plenty of communication

These efforts will give stakeholders ownership of the plan’s success and enhanced visibility into the process.

4. Poor Communication

Is this thing on?

The way you communicate change is just as important as your implementation plan. Miscommunications are the root of many process change failures.

A Willis Towers Watson study found that “only two-thirds (68%) of senior managers say they are getting the message about the reasons behind major organizational decisions. Below the senior management level, the message dwindles further. Only half (53%) of middle managers and 40% of first-line supervisors say their management does a good job of explaining the reasons behind major decisions.”

As you might imagine, with communication so poor among management, even fewer individual employees “got the message.”

How do you fix poor communication?

Managers at every level need to be closely aligned. As Victor Lipman explains in his Forbes article, managers should “know in their bones the reason for the change”. That takes thoughtful training, consideration, and empathy. Help managers understand how they’re expected to implement this initiative, what role they play, where it’s going, and why it’s essential.

To avoid ambiguity, document the process, the critical milestones, and the steps needed to get there.


Looking for a project management software vendor that understands change management? Request a Workzone demo to see how Workzone walks with you the entire way to project management success.




5. Lack of Buy-in

Once you’ve identified who your stakeholders are, you’ll need to earn their buy-in.

Successful change management process initiatives require buy-in from entry-level employees to senior leadership and everyone in between.

Buy-in from both senior leadership and entry-level are important for different reasons. Senior leadership buy-in adds legitimacy to your initiative. Middle management and entry-level leadership is needed for day-to-day implementation. The difference in engagement between taking part in a process “because you’ve been told to” vs. “because you believe in it” is night-and-day.

It’s also important to think horizontally and earn buy-in from your peers in other departments. They could be a helpful resource in execution or just a sounding board.

How do you fix a lack of buy-in?

There are many things you can do to earn buy-in from your colleagues. It’s often true that you’ll need a different strategy for each functional area. Ultimately, buy-in needs an empathetic change management process. Establish a plan everyone can get behind.

  • Senior leadership will want to know high-level stuff like objectives, measurements and reports, and overall goals. Make sure to address those concerns preemptively, and show how your change initiative will positively impact the organization’s bottom line.
  • Team leads will want to know how well those plans fit into their team’s day-to-day work. Show consideration for their concerns and solicit their feedback.
  • Individual contributors need to understand how the extra resources invested will pay off down the road. Communicate the value of their participation and the payoff you expect it to bring.
  • Colleagues across departments need to know how this effort will impact their work before giving it their support. Earn their buy-in by showing them the universal benefits of your change initiative. Make sure they’ll be be able to count on you for assistance in any challenges along the way.

6. Lack of Vision

Change management process lack of vision

Lack of vision can de-rail the change management process from buy-in to execution. If the vision is unclear to you, it’s unclear to the ones implementing the plans.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” John P. Kotter explains the irreplaceable role of vision.

“In every successful transformation effort that I have seen, the guiding coalition develops a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees.”

Without a unified vision, it’s easy for a change initiative to get lost in murky aspirations.

How do you fix a lack of vision?

To develop the crucial “picture of the future” Kotter describes, it’s important to crystalize your vision into a simple, coherent, and compelling narrative of where all the work is heading.

What will it be like once you’ve implemented the changes, and how will it be better than the current state? How do we expect to get there?

The fewer words you can use to share this vision, the more likely it will be to gain acceptance among your team. If you’re not able to address these questions effectively early on, it may be a sign that your plan for change needs more work before taking it to the team.

Lean on the change leaders you’ve selected to help you develop that vision and use their perspective to ensure it persuasively speaks to your broader audience.

7. Active Resistance

Unfortunately, many change management programs fall victim to “active resistance”. This reason is often a mashup of the reasons above, but can also indicate a deeper cultural issue.

How do you fix active resistance?

Twenty years in project management has led us to some conclusions about process change resistance. It’s not easy to overcome process change resistance. Not one bit. However, we developed a three-step formula to address and overcome the most common sources of resistance.

Here’s a peek at the process:

Discuss your process change solution with an open mind

Most employees want to do the best job they can for their employers. Listen mindfully as you hear feedback about how this change will affect your team and the organization. You’ll likely gain some valuable perspective on the impact your plan will have.

Identify why team members are resisting and address it

Although each team and each situation are different, there are three common reasons for resisting change:

  1. Mistrust – In order to earn their trust, it’s crucial to be consistent, fair, transparent, and protective. Once they know they can trust you, your team will be much more willing to engage in a change initiative.
  2. Pessimism – Past failed change efforts can leave employees feeling as though new change efforts are just as likely to fail. Help them overcome this by realizing things can change.
  3. Comfort – A team that is competent in their current work will have a difficult time transferring that success to new challenges. For the team to accept change, they need to remember how long it took them to see the success they have today. They need to set realistic expectations, not based on their current success. And they need room to be able to fail.

Make sure you’re prioritizing actions that increase trust, help overcome past failures, and set expectations.

Turn resistance into an action plan

Turn specific objections into objectives to earn buy-in for change. Here’s a formula you can follow:

  • Get to the root of the problem. Make sure you’re not misrepresenting their position.
    • “So what I hear you saying is ________. Is that right?”
  • Work together to turn that objection into an objective:
    • “For this to succeed, we need to ________.”
  • Get their commitment:
    • “If we can ________, are you on board with this change?”

8. Lack of Tooling

What do tools have to do with a change management process?

More than you might think. Without a documented change process, a single source of truth, or system of record, it’s easy for essential elements of your plan to get misinterpreted or lost. A program that began on the right foot can quickly go awry without the tools to support it.

How do you fix a lack of proper tools?

As Boris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith, and Ashvin Sologar explain in their McKinsey & Company paper, “…applying new digital tools can make change more meaningful—and durable—both for the individuals who are experiencing it and for those who are implementing it.”

Many tools exist today that can make navigating change easier. Basic to-do lists to project management software come to mind. Even a share Google Doc helps keep everyone’s thoughts together. Just make sure you find a common tool that you know your team will adopt and use.

9. Inertia

Inertia: The resistance of the object to any change in its motion, including a change in direction.-Wikipedia

Apply that to an organization. The longer a process has been in place…the more people are invested…the more comfortable they are. That is a lot of inertia to deal with.

It’s common for people to become comfortable doing things a certain way because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” At some point, a process was developed, and it worked well enough for people to become comfortable following it.

How do you fix (organizational) inertia?

While it may seem like your current process is an immovable object, you need to start small. Little wins will add up. Every conversation is a chance to win over someone else. The more momentum you can build, the more unstoppable a force you will become.

Use your new enthusiastic change coalition to keep that momentum going.

10. Lack of Endurance

While a well-developed and supported change management program may be able to achieve a significant transformation in a small amount of time, it’s rarely (if ever) going to happen overnight. As Brent Gleeson explains in his article for Inc., even change management experts and consultants find their one-year change management plans taking two or more years.

How do you fix a lack of endurance?

Most change initiatives take place over a protracted timeline, and part of developing a successful change management plan is understanding that timeline and communicating it effectively. If you’ve done a good job of outlining the scope of the change you’re hoping to accomplish, you’ll have a more accurate picture of how long it’s going to take to implement it.

Transparency is key. If you project that your process change will take a few weeks, but it takes seven months, you’ll have a hard time keeping everyone on board. It’s also important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re not in it for the long haul, don’t expect the change to stick.

In conclusion

Mastering the change management process is one of the most challenging issues for any organization, and the statistics reflect that; however, careful planning, modern tools, and frequent, thoughtful communication will help stack the deck in your favor.

Partner with a project management software company that understands how hard it is to change. Request a demo today and see how Workzone walks with you through your project management journey.