How to Fix the Biggest Mistakes in Change Management

Mar 2, 2015
8 Min Read

Organizations often dedicate a lot of money and resources to change management, yet research shows the efforts often aren’t successful. Understanding why it happens and how to improve can lead to better outcomes.

No organization these days can afford to ignore the fact that change has become a permanent part of the business landscape. Those who are not prepared to transform quickly may find themselves left behind.

But research finds that even when organizations embrace change management, they’re falling short. Specifically, a study by the Katzenbach Center at Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.) found that 48% of change initiatives fail because companies lack the skills to ensure that change can be sustained over time.

Further, the study found that only 54% of major change initiatives are successful, which can be costly not only financially but in how it adversely affects the company culture and employee engagement and productivity.

Management guru Peter Drucker once said that half of the leaders he met did not need to learn what to do – they needed to learn what to stop doing. So, here’s a look at what leaders and organizations are doing wrong when it comes to change management – and how to fix it.

1. Asking for too much.  Among the biggest obstacles to successful change cited by respondents in the survey is “change fatigue.”  In others words, workers are asked to take on too many changes at one time. This can occur when a change is rolled out with little planning, or rushed along to meet a deadline or pressures from senior leaders. Managers also can cause problems when they eagerly embrace the idea of change – but quickly abandon it when things don’t go smoothly. They begin to blame others, which quickly leads to disillusionment and fatigue among the teams.

The fix:  Culture is critical. The survey finds that even though 84% agree it’s critically important, less than half believe their companies do a good job of managing culture. This underscores the need for a more holistic approach to change. Companies need to find a way to implement change that fits with the existing culture so that it doesn’t overwhelm workers and seem forced or contrived. Before asking workers for too much too soon, leaders need to think carefully about how they drive and sustain change if they want change initiatives to succeed.

2. Managers lack the right skills.  Change efforts often can’t go the distance because those in charge of leading them lack the necessary abilities to reach the finish line. There is often doubt and confusion among employees when faced with new initiatives, and they look to leaders for direction. Management uncertainty can undermine change and slow its momentum. In the survey, 48% of respondents say their companies don’t have the necessary capabilities to ensure that change is sustained. Part of the problem may be that “we’ve allowed managers to outsource change management to HR specialists and consultants instead of taking accountability themselves – an approach that often doesn’t work,” says Ron Ashkenas.

The fix:  Managers only need to look at the best practices of organizational change management to see the most successful leaders draw an emotional connection between the change initiative and the existing company culture. They don’t try and change the way employees think or behave, but instead emphasize how what employees are already doing is connected to the change being promoted. Leaders should continue to spotlight the strengths of a culture and a team and use it keep employees energized as they move toward change.

3. Top leaders lack enthusiasm. Often a lot of effort is put into engaging employees in the change process, but senior leaders don’t get the same consideration. As a result, there isn’t strong support for change in the C-suites, or little agreement on how to go about it. When senior leaders are sending out mixed messages, it can quickly unravel a change initiative.

The fix:  Senior leaders need to work together to develop a change management strategy that everyone agrees on, including the specific language that will be used, how the plan will be rolled out and how they will continue to communicate with one another during the process. They must consistently model the new behaviors from the very beginning so that employees clearly see that change is a reality.

4. Influencers are ignored.  No change initiative will thrive without buy-in from key rank-and-file employees. Leaders can talk themselves blue in the face and spend thousands of dollars on consultants and new technology, but change is going to fail without the complete support of workers such as a long-time receptionist or a well-respected project manager. Ignoring these key employees can cause resentment among workers and erode trust.  In the Strategy& survey, 44% of employees report they didn’t understand the change they were being asked to make, and 38% say they didn’t agree with it.

The fix: Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, says that “we find that bringing employees together in peer groups to discuss change initiatives can create accountability, mutual generosity, a judgment-free attitude and increased pressure on reluctant employees to change.” Peer role models have been shown to successfully lead projects within a change initiative, he adds.

5. There aren’t enough rewards.  Those who mentor or train others during the change process may lose enthusiasm if they aren’t compensated for their efforts. Just offering a “good job” may not be enough for workers who may be putting in overtime to help drive the necessary changes.

The fix: Consider policy changes that will reward those who coach or train other workers during the change initiative. These workers should not be considered volunteers, but rather employees who should be awarded bonuses for their extra efforts.

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