Common change management mistakes

This article was written for Autus Education’s leadership blog in October 2014.  You can read the original version here and visit the leadership blog here.

In an article for Harvard Business Review in 1995 called Leading Change, John Kotter explained why some attempts to change the way organisations work are unsuccessful.

The first mistake many organisations make when seeking to improve the way they work is to lack a sense of urgency. Effective change requires the aggressive cooperation of many individuals and yet, without motivation, these people will not help and the effort will go nowhere. Many organisations fail to establish a sense of urgency because they worry that their staff will become defensive and that morale will drop. They worry that events will spiral out of control and short-term results will be jeopardised.

A sense of urgency is created when a frank discussion is had about some potentially unpleasant or uncomfortable realities: namely, that the organisation’s performance isn’t as good as people think it is and/or that the tectonic plates on which the organisation is built is shifting and sliding at a rapid pace and the organisation is losing its footing. The purpose of such discussions is to make it clear that the status quo is more dangerous than change.

You will know when the sense of urgency is at the right level when over 75% of managers know that operating on a business-as-usual basis is inadvisable, unacceptable and unsustainable.

The second mistake many organisations make when seeking to improve is failing to create a powerful coalition of senior staff. A successful team might only consist of four or five people in the first phase but it needs to grow quickly before real progress can be made.

A guiding coalition develops a shared commitment to improving performance through change. Although not every senior member of staff will buy into the transformation effort to begin with, the coalition must be appropriately powerful in terms of job titles and status, reputations and relationships in order to affect change.

The third mistake is lacking a clear vision – the most successful guiding coalitions develop an image of the future that is easy to communicate and appeals to all its organisation’s stakeholders. The vision clearly articulates the direction of travel the organisation will take in order to become successful. Often the first draft of the vision comes from an individual who drives change but it is later refined by many others.

Without a clear and positive vision for the future of the organisation, impetus can be lost and the purpose of change can become muddy and confused.

A successful vision can be communicated in less than five minutes and can garner a reaction that shows that the audience both understand it and are interested in working towards it.

The fourth mistake is not communicating the vision effectively enough or frequently enough. Without a lot of effective communication, hearts and minds cannot be won. And the vision must be communicated repeatedly, it must be incorporated into everything the organisation says and does. Emails, newsletters, staff meetings, and appraisals are all focused on articulating and achieving the vision.

The vision is communicated in both words and actions, too: no one’s behaviour must undermine the vision and senior staff must behave in a way that is wholly consistent with the vision.

The fifth mistake is failing to remove the barriers that stand in the way of achieving the vision. Although senior staff can empower others to take action simply by communicating the vision, this is not enough on its own. Instead, effective change requires the removal of any barriers to change.

Often, a member of staff understands and agrees with the vision but is prevented from helping to achieve it because there is a road block in their way. Sometimes this block is a process and sometimes it is a person. Sometimes people are fearful for their jobs, and/or appraisal systems make them act out of self-interest rather than in the best interests of the organisation.

The guiding coalition, therefore, need to understand what the barriers to their vision are and then actively work to remove them – this might mean changing policies and procedures and it might mean removing some rogue managers.

The sixth mistake is failing to plan for and create ‘quick wins’. Most people need compelling evidence that change will be successful within a year or less before they will commit to it. Creating short-term ‘wins’, therefore, is important as a means of motivating staff and convincing them that change will work.

Creating quick wins is not the same as simply hoping for a win – a successful transformation effort involves managers actively seeking out ways of improving performance. They establish short-term goals that act as checkpoints on the journey towards achieving the long-term vision, and they work hard to ensure that those goals are scored and, once they are scored, they reward their staff accordingly.

The seventh mistake is to declare victory too soon. It is good to set short-term goals along the way and to celebrate when you achieve them – but never forget that these are small battles in a much bigger war. It is important not to declare the war to be won too soon. Instead, use the credibility afforded by achieving short-term goals as a means of tackling the bigger issues. Start work on abolishing systems and structures that are inconsistent with the vision or that stand in the way of achieving that vision.

The final mistake is failing to reconcile the new vision with the organisation’s established culture. Transformation is only successful and sustainable when it becomes the norm, the accepted culture, ‘the way we do things around here’.

The vision has to become the expected and established way of working. There are two key factors to consider here:

  • You need to signpost for staff how the new ways of working have explicitly led to improvements, make clear that the changes you’ve introduced have been successful in achieving a better performance. If you are not explicit about this, people are likely to make different connections or no connections at all. Communication is the key here: tell a story linking your vision and your changes to the successes you’re subsequently enjoying, and tell that story relentlessly. Dedicate meetings and emails to explaining how success was achieved.
  • You need to make sure that any new appointments, particularly new leaders and managers, are well matched to the vision and model the behaviours you need. A poor appointment at a senior level can undermine the vision and the transformation you have worked hard to achieve.

In conclusion, if we are to learn from these common mistakes, we should infer that an effective change management process follows these eight steps:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Creating a vision
  4. Communicating the vision
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
  8. Institutionalising new approaches

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2 responses to “Common change management mistakes

  1. Pingback: Fast mapping | M J Bromley's Blog·

  2. Pingback: 2014 – The Year in Review: Part Two | M J Bromley's Blog·

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