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

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

George Dickson

Over 70% of organizational change 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.

While a river may change its course naturally over many years, altering its course in a specific direction within a particular timeframe requires significant planning, effort, collaboration, consideration, and tooling. 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 change in process or organizational principles is tantamount to 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 the challenge of change management from a unique perspective, it turns out there are ten barriers common across nearly every industry.

Let’s take a moment to address each of these barriers and outline some research-backed and time-tested strategies for overcoming them, so you and your team have the best chance of succeeding in the change management process.

Strategic Shortcomings

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Successful change management starts with a sound strategy. It’s crucial to know why you want a change to take place, what the expected outcome will be, whom it will impact, and how you plan to get there. Many change management processes fail because simple logistical or tactical details were overlooked, or the team wasn’t properly equipped.

How do you fix that?

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? What opportunities are available to you in the here and now, and what threats or obstacles stand in the way of your ability to implement change?

You can’t plan for every contingency, but frontloading a bit of planning early on can save a massive future headache, or worse, a failed change initiative.

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 fix that?

Before taking a single step toward implementing change, take time to outline the resources you’ll need, when you’ll need them, and for how long you’ll need them.

Are you implementing a small change in process that will only impact a small number of people in your organization, or are you attempting to institute a significant shift across your organization? Don’t try to keep it all in your head; use a system to track and manage those requirements.

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

Neglected Stakeholders

It might seem obvious who most of your main stakeholders will be in the change management process, but it’s easy to forget others who will be impacted by the changes you’re working to implement. 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 fix that?

In the earliest stages of your plans for change, you must consider everyone the program will affect. The effort spent determining who all your project stakeholders are will have a significant influence on your ability to earn the buy-in that will be crucial for success.

Get stakeholders involved in those plans early on and solicit their feedback. Build a change management team or coalition to lead the change management process. Not only will this help them feel a sense of interest in and ownership of the plan’s success, but there’s also a good chance those stakeholders will have visibility into blind spots or weak points.

Poor Communication

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 that?

It’s crucial for managers at every level to be closely aligned, and “know in their bones the reason for the change,” as Victor Lipman explains in his recent article in Forbes. That takes thoughtful training, consideration, and empathy. Help them to understand how they’re expected to roll out 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.

Lack of Buy-in

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

A successful change initiative requires buy-in from every level of the organization, which means earning buy-in from entry-level employees to senior leadership and everyone in between.

If the senior leadership team isn’t buying into your plans for change, those plans won’t likely get any further than your desk. If you’ve earned buy-in from senior leadership but not middle management and team leads, your change initiative is likely to suffer implementation challenges.

Finally, if you’ve won everyone’s approval and buy-in except for those who will be working in that area day-to-day, execution will almost always suffer. 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 vital to think horizontally and earn buy-in from your peers in other departments that may be impacted by your plan, or you’ll have a hard time getting key collaborative work done.

How do you fix that?

There are many things you can do to earn buy-in from your colleagues, and it’s often true that you’ll need a different strategy for each functional area. Ultimately, it boils down to developing an empathetic change management process, and establish a plan for change they can all comfortably get behind.

For example, those in senior leadership will want to know the high-level objectives, how they’ll be measured, and how well they align with those of the organization. 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, and whether or not they’ll be able to dedicate appropriate bandwidth. Show consideration for their position and solicit their feedback to ensure you’re not asking for more than they’re able to give.

Help individual contributors 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.

Your 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, and make sure you know they’ll be able to count on you for assistance in mitigating any challenges it might pose to their workflows.

Lack of Vision

If you want to create a successful change management process, it’s crucial to develop a clear vision of the post-change state to share.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” John P. Kotter explains the irreplacable 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 that simple unified vision, it’s easy for a change initiative to get lost in murky aspirations and never truly reach its full potential.

How do you fix that?

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 speaks to your broader audience persuasively.

Active Resistance

Unfortunately, many change management programs fall victim to active resistance. This mode of failure is often a result of missing some of the key elements mentioned above, but it can also be the result of a deeper cultural issue.

How do you fix that?

While it’s not always easy to overcome process change resistance, we developed a three-step formula to address and overcome the most common sources of resistance.

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 – There are many reasons employees struggle to trust their manager, and not all of them may fall on your shoulders. 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. You can help them to overcome this thought process by assisting them to transform their explanatory style from permanent to temporary, from pervasive to specific, and from personal to external.
  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?”

Lack of Tooling

What does tooling have to do with change management?

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 change plan to get misinterpreted or lost in the mix. A program that began on the right foot can quickly go awry without the tools to support it.

How do you fix that?

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.”

There are many great modern tools available that can make navigating change easier, whether you’re working to initiate change at the organizational level or the team level.
While the list of tools that can support you in this goal is extensive, the key is finding one you know your team will adopt and use.

Inertia

The longer a process has been in place, the more people invested in it, and the more comfortable they are with it, the more inertia you’ll need to overcome to institute change.

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.

The more inertia your change initiative needs to overcome, the harder it will be to implement, and the more resources you’ll need to succeed.

How do you fix that?

While it may seem like your current process is an immovable object, the more momentum you can build behind the change, the more unstoppable a force it will become, and the easier it will be to sail through obstacles.

Building that momentum is much easier when you’ve developed an enthusiastic change coalition who can help guide and share your vision for the future.

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 that?

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

Process change 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.