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Why most change management efforts fail (and 4 ways to help them succeed)

Author: Dr. Donnie Horner
Editor: Rachel Bryars

Maybe your organization is transitioning to a new technology and team members are digging in their heels.  Maybe there is an important organization-wide initiative that is floundering.

Why do most change efforts fail? Often, because they require a change to some aspect of an organization’s culture.

What is Culture?

Culture refers to the basic pattern of assumptions and behaviors learned by members of a group or organization as the proper way to think and behave and includes a general sense of “how things work” in the group or organization.

Culture is relational, learned, transmitted, patterned, and perception-based.  It’s the way we think, the way we behave, and how things “work.”  It’s what’s seen as “normal.”

Now imagine trying to change some aspect of how things are done, how people think, how people behave, or how work gets done.  Change of this sort is hard.  Really hard.

The good news is that culture is learned; therefore, culture can be taught and managed.  Read on for insights into effective change management.

Why is Change So Difficult?

Change Is Disruptive

Change management best practices are informed by strong scientific research.  Rooted in Kurt Lewin’s theories of change and learning, change management is built on the premise that “changing” is resisted because it involves unlearning – or “unfreezing” – what was already learned and thought to be true.

For Lewin, change is a cognitive process – it is mental.  Further, change involves work and is a risky disruption of what was previously thought to be true and correct.

MIT’s Edgar Schein expanded Lewin’s conceptions into the realm of organizational culture, noting that collective change amounted to “disequilibrium” which disrupts the status quo.  Schein posits that change challenges the existing, tried-and-true organizational culture, and the normal way of doing business – the very thought of which is often resisted at all costs.

Change Is Uncomfortable

Change makes people wonder if they will survive in the organization’s new way of doing things.  Change also makes people question if they have the capacity to learn the new way of doing business.  In cognitive terms, change creates both survival anxiety and learning anxiety.

Work, survival, unlearning, and re-learning — change involves all four.  Keeping things the same is far easier than changing – and people will fight to maintain this status quo.

Resisting change is less work, simpler, more certain, and much less stressful than embracing change.  Change is threatening.

How to Motivate Employees to Embrace Disruption

Resistance research shows that the best way to motivate employees to embrace change is to reduce learning anxiety through training, education, and communication regarding the “new” way of doing business.  Doing so provides psychological safety for employees, permitting them to see themselves surviving change and thriving in the new organization.

This is essentially the work for change managers at any level in any organization:  communicate to employees that they will survive the change while providing training and education so they can learn the new ways of doing business.  Communication, messaging, training, and education may sound “touchy-feely,” but it is a powerful approach to help create the conditions for change essential for employees to embrace the disruption.

4 Leadership Tips for Successful Change Management: 

  1. Understand Change. Leaders and managers typically do not understand the concept of change – what it means, what it entails, why it’s hard.  Understanding change is foundational to implementing change.  Without a full understanding of how and why change generates resistance, leaders are doomed to implementing change initiatives based on faulty assumptions and practices.
  2. Resist the Urge to Declare Premature Victory. Since change is hard work, it makes sense that change takes a long time to implement, sometimes much longer than leaders wish.  Because of this, change efforts often fail because leaders declare victory prematurely.  Proper change implementation takes time – typically much more time than leaders are willing to invest.  This is especially true given requirements for quarterly earnings reports and our American predilection to chalk-up successes quickly.  A short-term mindset is the enemy of successful organizational change management.  While celebrating short term successes is highly encouraged and necessary, beware of declaring victory too soon.
  3. Fully Commit. The commitment of senior organizational leaders is essential for the success of any change project.  This commitment must be visible, vocal, and consistent throughout the change implementation process.  Many change efforts fail because of the lack of senior leader commitment.
  4. Form a Strong Guiding Coalition. In practical terms, change begins when the need for change is realized, the vision for change is created and communicated, and a coalition of well placed, highly regarded employees join the organizational leader to support the change.  This group of like-minded, well placed subordinates is referred to as the guiding coalition.  No leader can implement change alone.  A guiding coalition has the commitment, social, and political power to see the change through.  Members of the guiding coalition are team players, trustworthy, loyal, and committed to improving the organization.  They are not necessarily the highest-ranking officials in the organization.  However, they have informal social power, legitimacy, and idiosyncratic credit due to their exceptional knowledge and expertise.  These members are universally recognized as experts who know what they are doing.  Change management efforts sometimes fail because leaders do not form a strong guiding coalition.   

Ready, set, go

Are you ready to tackle change in your organization?  Transitioning from an older, established, but less efficient technology to a new system?  Reorganizing the hierarchy and reporting structures?  Establishing a new business unit?  Initiatives like these involve major change – and, this change must be managed.

Our team at Higher Echelon can help.  No matter how big the institution or how small the team, our organizational change management experts can assist you to effect real, lasting, meaningful change.

Learn more about HigherEchelon’s change management services and how we guide organizations through successful change initiatives.

We’d love to discuss your needs. Call us at 866-488-9228, email us at Solutions@higherechelon.com, or fill out this form for a complimentary consultation.

Dr. Donnie Horner is HigherEchelon’s Senior Vice President of Human Capital Services.  He recently served as Provost Emeritus and Professor of Management at Jacksonville University. He holds a B.S. in General Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point, an M.S. in Transportation Systems from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University, with doctoral field exams in Organizational Theory and Social Psychology. As an Army officer, Horner commanded units at the Platoon, Company, and Battalion levels and served extensively overseas. He was appointed by Ambassador David Abshire to serve on the Advisory Council of the National Consortium for Character-Based Leadership Education.​

Read more of our articles about culture and change management:

You can’t change work ‘culture’ until you understand it

Crucial characteristics of strong cultures

Effective change management with the ADKAR Model