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How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Change Management

Why some change efforts succeed when many fail.


​Although frequent culture shifts and restructurings have become the norm at most organizations, many leaders still haven’t gotten change initiatives right, according to numerous studies.

Hopefully, that will change, as the number and pace of such efforts won’t be letting up anytime soon, according to the results of a global survey scheduled to be released in February by Prosci, which provides change management training. Roughly 86 percent of 1,778 change leaders surveyed expect the number of change initiatives in their organizations to increase over the next two years. About 55 percent anticipate that the number of those transformations will increase significantly.

Rapid and repeated change is already overwhelming many employees, warns Susie Patterson, director of research and development at Prosci, based in Fort Collins, Colo. Some 73 percent of those surveyed said their organizations are near, at or past the point of “change saturation,” when they can’t absorb any more, says Patterson, whose organization has been doing bi-annual benchmark studies on change management since 1998. That’s up from 59 percent a decade ago.

When leaders take a more studied, deliberate approach, their efforts are more likely to achieve their goals, bringing greater benefits to their companies and higher employee engagement, Patterson says.

Stay Involved

Here are some tips for helping your strategies succeed:

Don’t announce the project and then disappear. “The No. 1 mistake that sponsors make is to not stay active and visible throughout the life of the project,” Patterson says. “They will kick off the project and then move on to something else.”

Research shows that having a strong and effective sponsor can make or break any program. In fact, it’s the top contributor to change initiatives’ success, according to Prosci research over two decades. 

“Senior leaders can’t abdicate that responsibility or delegate it down, even though it’s very tempting because they don’t have a lot of time,” she says.

Address the emotional impact of the proposed changes. Executives tend to talk about these efforts using cold, hard facts and figures. What’s the impact on the bottom line? How much revenue growth can the organization expect?  

But those things mean little to employees tasked with implementing the changes. “Too often [leaders are] communicating internally the way they would to investors … and that just doesn’t work,” says Micah Alpern, senior principal in the leadership, change and organization practice at A.T. Kearney in Chicago.

Discuss the emotional components as well. Will the adjustments being put forward make employees’ jobs easier? Will workers be able to learn new things?

About 86 percent of 1,778 change leaders surveyed expect the number of change initiatives in their organizations to increase over the next two years.

“You have to think about what’s important to employees, and if you can do that, you will get more people on board [and] the change will move faster because there won’t be as much friction, as much resistance from employees against the change,” Alpern says.

Explain why the change is needed. Leaders often communicate the “what” and “how” of change but neglect to share the rationale behind it. “It’s easy to jump over the ‘why,’ ” Patterson says. “The why is essential. It’s the first step in understanding the change process for any individual.” 

Indeed, people want to know the organizational reasons for the change—and they want to hear them from senior leaders directly, according to Prosci research.

“It’s common for organizations to try to jump straight to training,” Patterson says. But if employees don’t first understand the reason for the change, they’ll sit in the back of the training room and tune out. 

“The remedy to that is spending the time upfront, communicating and sharing those reasons why … and also equipping managers to help people build their desire for a change.” 

Model the Change

Don’t expect others to change if you don’t. In other words, model the behavior you want to see others exhibit. If you want to build a culture based on innovation, “your leaders better be doing that 24/7 because all eyes are on the leaders. That’s how people know how to behave,” says Dean Anderson, CEO and founder of Being First Inc., a change strategy consultancy in Durango, Colo. “If you’re going to move toward openness and collaboration, you better make sure that people are seeing that in your executives.” That may require a significant effort by executives because they have been operating in a different style for so many years. 

Before helping a corporate client embark on a major culture change, Anderson requires senior leaders to participate in a four-day offsite training session on leadership modeling. 

“They need to be aware of what they’re doing before they can change behavior. It’s the first step in the personal change process,” he says. “If they don’t go through the personal change, then under stress, they’ll default to the old way of doing things,” and employees will follow suit.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Change]

Communicate early and often. Leaders often rely on one-way, top-down communication, approaching employees only after key decisions have been made. But while members of the senior team may have had months to digest the information before accepting it, they frequently fail to give employees time to do the same. 

“The earlier you engage them, the earlier they work through it. So, by the time you get to implementation stage, they’re on board,” Anderson says.

A 2016 McKinsey Global Survey found that failure to involve front-line employees and their managers was a main reason that some transformations failed and others succeeded.

Be Realistic

​Don’t try to do too much. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of work it takes to conduct change initiatives. Make sure you plan out how employees will be able to maintain day-to-day operations while implementing new products or processes. 

“The same people who keep the trains running are trying to get out in front of the train to lay down new track,” Anderson says.

To protect against change saturation, a small but growing number of organizations are taking a companywide approach and coordinating all the changes taking place, using portfolio management techniques. The first step, which is more difficult than it sounds, is to record the initiatives already under way, Patterson says. Are they affecting the same employees? What are their implementation deadlines? 

Then, prioritize. Can you stagger the rollouts so the same groups won’t be hit at the same time? Or eliminate some programs to free up time for more pressing projects? Finally, build a process for determining which proposed efforts the organization will commit to in the future, Patterson advises.

While 73 percent of change leaders say they are near, at or past saturation, only 41 percent are following the holistic strategy and managing change within portfolios as experts recommend, according to the Prosci survey results. So, there’s a huge gap. But those who do approach the issue broadly are getting better results.

“Senior leaders have the ability and the responsibility to look at the whole picture,” Patterson says.  

For deeper learning on how to lead a successful change initiative, join us in an upcoming Leading Successful Transformations live online or in-person program.