6 Common Failures We Make When Leading Change

By: Josh

Leaders change and make change. We are in the business of making people and organizations better, which requires change, both of us and of our organizations. It is one of the defining obligations of leadership, separating it from common management.

Although envisioning a hero-leader leading a dramatic, yet powerful change effort is inspiring, the truth is that organizational change is really hard. It’s messy. It’s emotional. Change takes a lot more energy than simply maintaining the status quo. It sends a subtle message to employees and team members that what they have been doing for so long isn’t good enough anymore, and that really sucks to hear. Change can generate anxiety due to an unknown, unclear, and unsure new future where people don’t quite know what their role in that future will be.

So, how leaders approach change must be structured, thoughtful, and well-developed. We have researched and proven models available to help us lead change well. The most popular (and my preferred) model is John Kotter’s 8 Steps, which he outlines in his book, Leading Change (here is a good summary of the 8-step model for a quick education if you don’t want to dive into the book).

However, despite how simple and neat the steps appear at first glance, actually putting them into action is a lot harder than it may seem. The steps can feel like a simple checklist that we can easily put into action and then check off as we accomplish each step, feeling the satisfaction of progress. But in reality, these steps are ugly, messy, and require a ton of leaders’ time, energy, and involvement.

So, let’s explore six common failures leaders make when trying to lead change. I hope that by raising awareness and understanding of these failures, we can help you and your team avoid these pitfalls, ultimately setting conditions for a less dramatic, more efficient, and successful result in the end.

But First, What is Change?

A complete definition of organizational change is the process of implementing new strategies, structures, processes, or technologies to improve performance, adapt to environmental shifts, or capitalize on new opportunities. Change often involves adjusting operating procedures, culture, and how employees work together.

More simply, it is altering one or multiple aspects of how a group does business to improve impact, results, efficiencies, or sustainability. It’s the process to make something and/or someone better.

But when we talk about change, what are we talking about? Change can be massive, strategic shifts from the senior executive level on down, such as culture. But not all change occurs on such a grand, sweeping scale. Change can also include simple adjustments in processes or rhythms, like the introduction of a new meeting. It can be shifting a process from one digital platform to a new dashboard, or even just the inclusion of a new team feedback loop like peer evaluations.

All leaders enact change, regardless of the echelon we serve in within the broader organization. We just do what we can with the sphere of influence we have to make people and the team better.

Now, on to the six failures.

Failure 1: We Don’t Establish and Communicate a Compelling Need for Change

Leaders don’t lead change merely for the sake of leading change. Why are we changing? We need to clarify the need for change and communicate it in a way that connects with and matters to our team.

First, leaders need to determine the need for change. One common early problem is that leaders, with a natural bias for action, often default to enacting change without taking the time and effort to define the need for others first. Our team members do not see the same things we do up, out, and beyond our immediate circumstances. If we start changing things without telling them why, we create conditions for resentment and resistance to fester.

Second, a change to improve efficiency, increase impact, seize opportunity, or for mere survival are all valid reasons. However, as an employee, when I hear reasons packaged in that type of language, I’m still left asking, “Ok, so what?”

Shareholder value, data and statistics, and some vague goal like “improve operating efficiency by 15% to up the company’s quarterly growth metrics” don’t move me to care. Stories move me. Connecting the change to my work, my perspective, my values, and my life moves me.

So, to create compelling messages for why we are changing, consider a few ideas:

  • Use stories to communicate the purpose of the change. Stories can be personal, hypothetical, or from the perspective of someone else, but all of them bring relatable experiences and emotions to the purpose.
  • Use the “5 whys.” When aiming to clarify the purpose, ask “why that” iteratively until the crafted purpose hits the core of the organization’s and our peoples’ needs. It might take 5 times; it might only take 3. But keep asking “why?” to get to the heart of the issue.
  • Create dialogue over why. Communicating the reason for change is often less about a single statement and more about facilitating dialogue with our people about it. So, instead of planning to only state why we are changing, consider sharing what we know (background on the situation, environment, driving forces, etc.) and then talking to people about it. Let them ask questions and share concerns. Listen. Help them to see behind the curtain so they better understand and let them be heard through the process.
  • Keep the message simple. The longer it takes for us to describe the need for change, the more complicated it is for others to understand, and the less interested they become in understanding. Keep it short, keep it simple. Try to fit the message on a 3x5 card.

Failure 2: We Don’t Communicate the Change Vision Nearly Enough

I once led a small team (about 25 people) where a lot of our work was done asynchronously. Our schedules were often competing, and it was hard to regularly gather everyone for meetings and collaboration sessions, let alone for anything extra like professional development. So, I attempted to create a digital discussion forum to share developmental resources and allow team members to engage with one another on thoughts and questions. I introduced the initiative to the team via email and then held my breath for the great discussions to begin! But nothing happened. Few people engaged with the content and in discussions. Later I asked why, and one person stated, “I saw the email, but then we never really talked about it after that. So, I forgot about it unfortunately.” I found that I did not communicate the change in how we would approach professional development enough.

One email, one speech, or one statement from a leader in a meeting rarely changes people’s thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors. Communicating the change once is never enough. When leading change, leaders must communicate the vision for change often and over as many platforms and venues as possible. We saturate our communication with it. We reinforce it over email, when engaging with team members as we wander through the office, during meetings, with speeches, and so on. We communicate the change and our vision for that change at the start to prepare people for it, throughout the change effort to remind them why we are doing it, and iteratively to celebrate small wins and our progress as it takes effect.

Leaders are always communicating. One message will not change hearts and minds. And I believe no one quits a job because they were communicated with too much. So, continue to communicate change over and over. And a final reminder: when we feel sick and tired of communicating the change, like we’ve done it enough and we’ve reached our requirement, in reality we are probably only halfway there.

Failure 3: We Don’t Enable Others by Removing Big Obstacles

Sometimes, leading change looks like setting conditions to enable others to act and create results. We use our authority and capital as leaders to remove obstacles to facilitate change. Or, if an obstacle is bigger than the authority we have to remove it, we use our influence to get those who can do something about it to take action. Consider that our role in change is not always about us as the leader doing all the work, but also about us setting conditions to enable others to act too (think delegation and getting others to care).

One way we set conditions is by solving problems. Leaders solve problems at echelon; the bigger the problem, the higher it goes for leaders to solve. This is one way leaders enable those below them to act. As we encounter problems during the change journey, leaders inject to solve them and allow everyone to continue progress. For example:

  • Is there an organizational policy in place that counters our change effort? Leaders determine what it takes to alter the policy or seek an exception to it.
  • Does the team lack the necessary resources to continue working toward the new change? Leaders use influence to secure the additional resources the team needs.
  • What if there is a stubborn staff member who we need to act on something but they are unwilling? The leader steps in to negotiate.
  • Maybe there’s a conflicting process used by an adjacent department that is preventing our desired improvement. The leader works up and out to adjust those external processes to create the necessary conditions for success.

Change should be less about the leader being and doing all things to drive the change, and more about the leader working to enable others to act. We work with and through our team by setting conditions and removing obstacles for them. Leaders use our power, authority, and capital to do so.

Failure 4: We Don’t Build a Guiding Coalition

A guiding coalition consists of a group of influential individuals who become the social leaders for change initiatives. They bring expertise, energy, and perspective from different areas and various echelons across the organization. A coalition creates buy-in among these stakeholders, so they become champions for the desired change. Through this approach, change is no longer just something only the leader cares about and drives but is our thing that we care about and commit to. Guiding coalitions contribute to change, communicate it, and increase the change “stickiness” within their sphere of influence. 

The chain of command is not a guiding coalition. They can be part of it, but working solely through the formal chain of leaders and managers alone is not using a guiding coalition. It fails to include key stakeholders and informal leaders with social capital in the organization who can help champion our change effort. Leaders need guiding coalitions to create change, and leaders build these coalitions as part of the change effort. 

Consider two approaches to building a guiding coalition. These are not singular options that are mutually exclusive, but instead two methods that can work in harmony to reinforce one another.

  • A closed group approach: Here, we establish a well-defined, hand-picked, closed group of influential members to champion the change effort. This group serves as the primary driving force for the change by advising leaders, collecting data, tracking progress, and spreading the message of change. Leaders prioritize the effort, communicate it, and enable it by removing obstacles, but the coalition is the primary working force to make it happen.
  • An open group approach: Leaders also continue to grow the community of bought in teammates who care about the change and commit to it as well. I once watched a leader who was leading a large-scale organizational culture change effort who conducted monthly workshops. During these, he would gather a new group of 30 employees every month. The members came from all levels and all subordinate departments for a one-day session. In the workshop, the leader would introduce the concept of culture, communicate what he was trying to change and why, and then spend a large part of the day allowing the newly formed coalition to collaborate on ideas on how they can continue to support the change effort. Discussions allowed team members to be more informed, bring new ideas, and identify problems from their perspective. By the end of these workshops, not only was the leader more informed about the organization, but a new coalition of informed teammates was formed and returned to the organization to help champion the culture change.

Failure 5: We Don’t Anchor the Change for Long-Term Impact

When initiating change, we tend to subconsciously make the effort leader centric, where it is based on the particular leader’s unique skills (their charisma, their commitment to a specific initiative, or a bias for a specific approach, etc.). But when we do that, the change’s success becomes dependent on the leader remaining in position to sustain it. If the leader moves on to a different position, the now-normalized initiative falls apart and cannot survive.

We tend to anchor change to the leader and not to our team’s enduring culture, systems, or routine processes to ensure its long-term impact.

To prevent this, consider a few recommendations:

  • Assign responsibilities for the change to titles and positions, not specific people based on their individual abilities, preferences, or interests.
  • As much as feasible, aim to have those involved in the change effort to remain in position for at least a year afterward so the new requirements are simply normal aspects of their job. This way, when transitioning the job to a new member, it’s a natural component of their responsibilities.
  • Don’t create conditions for a single point of failure. Life happens, people take leaves of absence, people get sick. Don’t focus change responsibilities on a single position. Ensure others are equipped and prepared to champion the effort if the “primary” is ever absent.

Failure 6: We are Unable to be Patient, Unwilling to Take a Long-View, and Fail to Recognize That Change Takes a Long Time

Lastly, meaningful change that sticks takes time. The unit of time in which we should measure change is not days, weeks, or even months; it is in years.

Too often, leaders want results quickly or at least indicators that their change effort is working. We want a timely return on investment. We don’t afford the appropriate amount of time needed to start the adjustments, let the new practices percolate down and across, allow them to stick, and then finally begin to report improvements made. Then, if we fail to allocate sufficient time and the effort is not reflecting improvements as quickly as we want, we make premature adjustments or altogether abandon it, eventually spinning our organization into some other frenzy to get quicker results.  

Conversely, leaders may be inclined to declare victory too early. We get some initial results and become excited by the improvements made. So, we message success to the team, which inherently signals that the change is over, and everyone can return to their normal work lives. What ends up happening then, is either opportunity lost (we didn’t afford the time for the big impacts to occur) or the change effort devolves back to the original status quo.

In either case, leaders fail to demonstrate the patience and resolve required for change to actually take effect. As we look to lead change and are considering a time horizon for how long it should take, start with the mindset of years. Depending on the scale of the desired change, a safe starting point for it to work and stick could be two years down the road.

Also, remember that resistance is a natural part of change. Just because we face resistance does not mean we are off track or missing the mark. Be open to the resistance and engage it (dialog, hearing concerns, etc.), but don’t fold to it as soon as it arises.

Parting Thoughts

Change is one of the most important responsibilities of leadership. It’s also arguably the hardest. Leaders not only need to ensure we employ a clear, deliberate, structured, and well-prepared change initiative, but also avoid the common failures explored here. By placing emphasis to avoid these pitfalls, leaders drastically improve the chances of change success and it’s lasting impacts.

What one or two failures outlined here speak to you the most, maybe in areas that you struggle in personally? What mitigations can you create and put into place to prevent falling victim to these undesired circumstances?

Look back at past change efforts you tried to lead. How would you assess the success of the change? Why? Were any of these common problems at play? If you could go back, how could you lead that change in a different way to create better conditions for success?

What problem do you need to emphasize in a current change effort or one coming up? Who can help? Who will create your guiding coalition?


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