There’s no way around it: Organizational change can go off the rails in many different ways. You have a duty to your organization and your employees to anticipate potential obstacles to successful change initiatives and work to mitigate them before they threaten the entire enterprise.
This is easier said than done. After all, each change management process is unique, with distinct stakeholders, process owners, objectives, and timeframes.
Yet, however different they might be, organizational change initiatives often fail for similar reasons. Learning to recognize the signs of trouble ahead could make the difference between a manageable hiccup and something much more serious.
With that in mind, here’s what to watch out for — and avoid — amid high-stakes organizational change.
- You Don’t Think It’s Important for Leadership to Buy Into the Change
This is one of the most common causes of change process failure. It’s also one of the most preventable.
We know intuitively that leadership modeling — leading by example, as the cliche goes — is a hallmark of strong organizations. Leaders who enthusiastically and consistently adopt their own initiatives and follow through on their own guidance are far more effective at generating buy-in down the chain of command.
Leadership modeling begins wherever the change does. When the change is limited to a specific team or division, the process owner is the leader of that team or division, and buy-in flows downstream from there.
But whole-organization change begins at the very top, with C-level leadership. Even if it’s much more important from a practical perspective for director- and manager-level employees (and their direct reports) to adopt and implement specific change objectives, senior leadership needs to show that they’re fully onboard. Saying one thing and doing another is a recipe for confusion and low adoption down the chain of command — and, ultimately, failure.
- You’re Not Giving Your Team the Whole Story
Total transparency is not necessary or even advisable in a complex change scenario involving multiple departments and dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees. But effective organizational change can’t run on a strictly “need-to-know” basis either. Those charged with implementing the change, from the direct reports of the executives responsible to the junior-level employees tasked with carrying out the minutiae, need to understand why they need to do what they’re being asked.
In other words, change leaders can’t simply dictate that the change must occur and expect their teams to blindly carry it out. They need to cultivate buy-in and inform tactical decision-making by making the case for the change. And they need to explain the stakes of failure: If the change is necessitated by a sustained fall in sales, the consequences of a continued slide need to be made explicit.
- You’re Abandoning Projects Midstream Without Communicating Strategic Changes (Or Allowing This to Take Place)
This is another significant cause of failed change processes, one rooted in poor or incomplete communication.
It’s normal for major initiatives to evolve over time as their early results come into focus. It’s also normal for change process owners to dictate strategic or tactical shifts on the fly without first getting buy-in from those responsible for those shifts.
The first condition is fine. The second is not. Just as it’s vital to tell the full story of the change and clarify the stakes upfront, it’s critical for change leaders to clearly communicate the “what” and “why” behind strategic shifts once the initiative is in motion. Simply saying “We’re not going to do x any longer; let’s do y instead,” is at best a recipe for confusion and more likely for apathy. Instead, explain what’s not working, what needs to happen to remedy the issue, and who is responsible for seeing that through.
- You’re Not Taking Precautions to Limit Burnout and Turnover
Even well-managed change processes ask a lot of employees, raising aggregate stress levels and increasing the risk of burnout — a key contributor to turnover. Poorly managed change processes beset by the issues described above are much more likely to burn out employees and result in quantifiable losses to the organization (i.e., turnover that results in a loss of institutional knowledge and saps the change process’s momentum or even forces its abandonment).
Change leaders must anticipate this outcome and take affirmative steps early on to limit burnout. That means recognizing the three hallmarks of burnout in employees: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. These conditions are all reversible when recognized and redirected early, but that’s often easier said than done in the midst of a high-stakes organizational change. True change leaders must be ready to subordinate the hard goals of the change process to the overall health and well-being of the organization and be willing to shift milestones and completion timelines accordingly.
- You Expect Your Team to Know What to Do, When It Needs to Be Done
This is a common issue in organizations that lionize “self-starters” and shun micromanagers. Not that micromanagement is essential to effective change — quite the contrary. But the employees responsible for implementing change aren’t miracle workers. They need to have a clear road map for the change, complete with guideposts and guardrails and waypoints.
This is not quite the same as giving teams the “full story” of a change process. That’s the “why” of the change; this is the “how.” And it’s best delivered in two ways: upfront in a comprehensive change management document and periodically during the change process via direct-report check-ins and coaching sessions.
- You Don’t Make the Scope of Change Clear Upfront
A successful change process requires a clear scope modeling the nature and extent of the initiative and its expected results. This scope needs to be communicated early, often, and fulsomely, especially when it involves significant organizational changes like departmental restructurings or layoffs, or when the change process involves reworking the organizational culture itself.
Making it clear who can expect to have a new boss when the change process is complete, who may need to begin looking for a new job sooner rather than later, and who needs to break old habits now, is vital to executing what McKinsey calls “reorganization without tears.”
Change, the Right Way
Armed with these six takeaways, you’re well on your way to executing a smooth organizational change initiative that realizes its objectives on schedule and on budget.
Perhaps more importantly, avoiding these common change management pitfalls increases the chances that your change initiative will actually “stick” — that the people you entrusted with the process itself won’t simply revert to their old ways when it’s done.
Call it change, the right way.