Woodrow Wilson famously said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
Anyone who has ever tried to oversee any meaningful change in a business will understand the sentiment — it’s rarely easy to get people to abandon the familiar and embrace a new way of doing things, even if the change will ultimately be a good thing for everyone.
However, change isn’t just essential; it’s also unavoidable. Business leaders need to know how to successfully drive change in a way that doesn’t alienate their team members or fail to gain traction. Unfortunately, achieving this is no mean feat.
In this article, we’ll dive into what change management actually means, why it’s important, and why it so often fails. Then we’ll show you how to drive successful change management in your organisation.
What is change management?
Change management refers to the process of implementing and managing change within your business, both internally and externally. It could mean a small change like bringing in a new office seating plan or a major change like transitioning to a hybrid or even fully remote work model.
Change management can sometimes be easy, but more often than not, it comes with challenges. This depends on factors like the scope of the change, reskilling needs, the company culture, and budget, amongst many others. To deal with these challenges, many companies choose to bring in external talent for the change management project, either for its total length or specific timeframes, instead of relying solely on their internal teams.
Why is change management important?
Change is inevitable in every area of life, and businesses that fail to change tend to get left behind.
Example: In 1888, a company was founded that would go on to change the world by making it possible for ordinary people to take their own photographs. For the first time, people were able to carry around their own small cameras, snapping shots of their families, friends, and the world around them.
The company — which you’ve almost certainly heard of — was called Kodak, and by the late 20th century, it was a household name. In 1981 alone, it made $10 billion in sales.
In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. What went wrong? The answer is simple. Kodak failed to change. As digital cameras and smartphones became more affordable and accessible, the public demand shifted to this more convenient and modern way to take photos. However, Kodak insisted on focusing primarily on analogue cameras, ignoring consumer behaviour and underestimating industry competitors.
Driving change in a company is hard work. It requires you to overcome people’s deep-seated habits and patterns, pushing your employees out of their comfort zone and beyond their familiarity level. This is something people are inherently opposed to and which almost always generates resistance.
If change management is done right, your teams will find it easy to implement new changes and fulfil their new roles and even relish the opportunity. Do it wrong, and you risk creating a divided, stressful, and unhappy work environment and failing to effectively change.
8 reasons why change management fails
1. You don’t overcome resistance to change
Resistance is usually inevitable whenever you try to implement any significant change in an organisation. People are hardwired to like routine and predictability, and asking them to make a major shift away from that typically results in some friction.
If you want to successfully implement change in your company, you need to overcome this resistance and encourage your teams to embrace the change. If you can’t do this, the process of change will become a brutal uphill battle and could seriously damage company morale.
There are several things you can do to overcome this resistance. One important step is to frame the change in a way that shows specific benefits for each person or team. Show them what they personally stand to gain instead of simply outlining the overall benefits for the company.
Additionally, it’s important to be realistic about individual wants. If you are curating a team for a transformation project, you can select specific people based on their personality or career ambitions to work on or champion change.
2. Poor communication
Effective change requires strong communication. You need to make a compelling and persuasive case for change, clearly showing everyone in your organisation why it needs to happen and emphasising the benefits.
Companies that fail to communicate the need for change will find it extremely difficult to win the support of their teams. If people don’t see a powerful reason to change, they will be unwilling to abandon the old, comfortable ways of doing things — and your attempts to drive change will fail before they’ve even started.
The need for good communication doesn’t end after you’ve built support for change. It’s necessary throughout the process to keep your teams aligned and connected, maintain support for the project, deal with any confusion or issues, and share updates and achievements.
3. You have a poor strategy
It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic your teams are about the prospect of change. If your strategy isn’t solid, you’re going to face serious challenges. Companies that fail to build a comprehensive, well-researched, and realistic strategy for change management run the risk of lacking direction, encountering unexpected setbacks, and being unprepared for pushback from team members. Without a clear strategy, your communication will also suffer and lack clarity, making it even harder to align your teams and build support for the change you need to drive.
4. Lack of vision
Vision is incredibly important when it comes to driving any kind of change. Your vision is what breathes life into your plans — it gives you something concrete to aim for, helps you set clear and consistent goals, and allows you to build a compelling and confident narrative to rally your teams around.
Without a clear, inspiring vision, you’ll struggle to get people on board and find it even harder to keep them engaged. When people don’t know what they’re aiming for, motivation quickly fizzles away, and people start to ask, “what’s the point?” Your vision is what unites your company and keeps them tightly focused on delivering change — without it, things can fall apart fast.
5. Insufficient infrastructure or tools
Today, leaders have an impressive array of tools to help them successfully drive change in their organisations. From simple things like flowcharts and culture mapping to more sophisticated software solutions, the right tools can make the difference between a successful change attempt and a miserable failure.
Infrastructure also makes it possible to communicate better, bring teams together, and coordinate (especially over large geographical distances). And tools can also be useful for review and reflection after the project is finished, helping you identify what worked, what was a challenge, and what to do differently in future.
Without the right tools and infrastructure in place from the start, implementing change becomes much harder and more stressful.
6. Poor leadership
At its heart, change management is a test of good leadership. It relies on your ability to win the support of everyone in your organisation and guide them through the change management process, ensuring everyone is focused on the same goal and has everything they need to get there.
Poor leadership results in a lack of alignment, goals, and structure. Without competent leaders driving change forward, teams can quickly lose focus and fall out of sync, dooming the project to failure.
7. Inability to track progress and course-correct
Your ability to stay true to your vision throughout the change management process is a critical factor in your eventual success (or failure). For this reason, it’s essential to constantly monitor your progress and track the right metrics so you can make adjustments to ensure you stay on track.
If you don’t know which metrics to track, pick the wrong ones, don’t track regularly enough, or don’t make the right changes quickly enough, your change management attempt could easily become confused and fall apart.
8. Failure to change the company culture
Many change management projects have failed because cultural acceptance was underestimated. If you want to drive real, lasting change in a company, you need to change the company culture itself. This isn’t a quick or easy process, and if you’re not careful, it can lead to a lot of backlash and resistance.
Let’s imagine you want to change a company’s customer service policy to serve digital customers more effectively. Superficial changes like asking staff to run through a checklist of questions on each call or developing a new chatbot might yield decent short-term results, but if you want lasting success, you need to go deeper. Instil this new vision into your entire organisation, and work hard over time to ensure everyone is bought in.
How to avoid failure with change management
Change management is rarely easy, but the good news is there are many leaders can do to avoid failure and deliver lasting, effective change that drives your company forward. It starts with being aware of all the common roadblocks we’ve discussed and being aware of the hallmarks of a successful change management strategy.
Make communication a constant priority. Do everything you can to communicate the need for change to everyone in the organisation, and keep reminding them. Be sure to clearly outline the benefits and spend time making sure everyone is on board with the mission. Encourage people to share their objections and misgivings, and invest time in addressing any doubts people might have. This may mean making tweaks to your overall plan.
Build a strong and united leadership. Leaders need to be capable of sticking to a consistent vision and sharing this throughout the entire company. Leaders should ensure all teams are always aligned, clear on what needs to be done, and have all the resources necessary to achieve the objective.
Think about the big picture. Change management is a marathon, not a sprint. Short-term fixes and successes can feel good — and they’re still important — but it’s important to focus on the major cultural shifts that will endure for a long time and result in a lasting change to the entire organization, helping achieve your ultimate goals and bring your vision to life.
Consider working with a change management consultant. Bringing in external talent can be a great way to tap into expert knowledge and deep experience, and consultants can bring functional knowledge to guide the change management process in the right direction. They’ll have expertise on how to engage and navigate stakeholders, manage budgets and resources, and assist with the overall implementation of your strategy.
Change management is a necessary part of growing a successful company and maintaining your success in a rapidly changing business landscape and world. Working with a team of experts is one way to ensure your change management project has the best possible chances of success.
At Freshminds, we connect companies looking to drive change with talented, experienced consultants, helping them avoid mistakes and make their goals become a reality. Contact us to find out more.