Managing Change – Why Change Management Fails


The most common reason cited for the failure of a change management effort is resistance.  That’s a cop out.  There is always going to be resistance, and it’s a natural part of every change management program, successful or not.  The degree to which resistance wins out is determined by other factors.


Five Factors

I believe there are five major reasons why change management efforts fail.

Indecisive Leadership — Unless the leader of a change management program is supremely confident, and a subject matter expert in all aspects of the process to be changed, they are going to need help.  There will be a planning phase for the change, during which the leader will engage others in assessing risks, engaging stakeholders, addressing concerns and more until a plan is mapped out.

Once the plan is in place, the leader must shift from this participative style to one that is much more directive.  The discussion period is over.  The change process is underway.  It is time to get on board or get out of the way.

Directive Without Support — When the leader has made clear what the organization is expected to do, they need to have the insight to separate legitimate issues from whining.  There is no need to devote time to the latter, but there needs to be a support structure for the former.

Responses like “figure it out” are not appropriate for people who have already tried and reached a frustration point.  Walk around, watch the stress levels.  Stress is normal, but you can’t let people get to the point where they give up and lose faith.

Cracks in Leadership Resolve — If there are two or more organizational leaders involved in a change management program, look for people to exploit any inconsistencies in their messages and their behaviors.  Leaders need to act in lock step with one another.

Support in principle is the kiss of death, as in “I support my fellow leader in principle, though I reserve the right to adjust the implementation plans as necessary”.  Leaders need to hold one another accountable, not just their own teams.

Inappropriate Use of Consultants — It is a good idea to bring in outside help, especially if your organization is going through a major change program, if you are unaccustomed to the rate of growth you are experiencing, or if you need to downsize.  The consultants should consult, as in coach, assess, challenge, etc.  You must not allow anyone to delegate the change activities to consultants while they “get their job done”.

A good test for appropriate use of consultants would be to look at how many you have engaged from your consulting partner.  More than one or two consultants for each involved organization should be a red flag.

The Devil In The Details — Before you pull the trigger on implementing a change management plan, make sure the plan is sufficiently detailed.  Set up a structure that allows for comprehensive plan reviews with a process for raising issues and getting them addressed.

Even after you’ve planned everything as well as you possibly can, count on something going wrong.  Set up the support structure to react and adjust plans if necessary.  Make sure you have subject matter experts ready to respond to surprises when they occur.

Resistance to change is natural.  Allowing the resistance to overcome the change strategy is a result of other failures, usually in one or more of the above areas.


About the Author:

Tom O’Dea has over 30 years of IT experience, with 20 years of senior leadership in IT and Professional Services with multibillion dollar corporations.

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