Based on feedback I’ve received from previous blogs, a common challenge for people tasked with developing a new strategy is understanding where change management fits into the process. It’s a great point, because invariably when you create a new strategy, you impose a raft of changes on your organization. So, at what point in the development process should you start managing change? And what are some tactics to address change effectively? Since I haven’t seen this topic discussed elsewhere, I thought I’d tackle it here.
To be clear, I don’t intend this as a dissertation on specific change management methodologies. There are countless volumes of material that cover that topic in depth. My intention is to share where I have failed and learned in change management is essential for strategy development and the key factors to address to ensure change is managed effectively. I also review a set of tactics to help you improve how you manage change across the entire strategy development process.
7 Ways that Change Management Strategies Fail
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: 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.
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.
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 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.