Top 10 change management mistakes to avoid

L&D consultant

In business, change is inevitable, particularly in the fast-paced 21st-century commercial world we are all operating in. Technology is advancing exponentially, completion is tighter, and there’s ever-increasing push for more and better innovation.

It is not a case of ‘if’ the need for change arrives, but rather ‘when’ and ‘how are we going to deal with it when it does?’

The prospect of significant change can be intimidating, for both the managers of that change and the employees working through it. It is widely cited, in fact, that around 70% of change processes fail. Whether you believe such statistic or not, the fact is: change does fail. Not always, but it does, and there are a number of common reasons for that. All of them, however, are easily avoidable.          

1. Poor communication

Communication is king when it comes to effective change management, not just at the beginning, but throughout the entire process. Imagine you are the individual employee and your employer tells you huge adjustments are happening, but doesn’t tell you why, or when, or how it might affect you. Or imagine you find out about some big updates that will significantly impact you from somebody in the lunch queue. How would that make you feel?

A lack of communication can put a big dent in morale, which could prevent you from achieving the necessary buy-in and commitment from your staff. So it is vital to keep people updated at every point in the process and let them know what to do if they have any issues or queries. Communicate as much as possible, as soon as possible.

2. A lack of planning

Before the change process begins, or any decisions are made about whether to undergo the change in the first place, certain questions need to be answered. What are the benefits? What are the risks? Are we balancing the two and ensuring the former outweighs the latter? What hurdles are we likely to come up against along the way, and how will we handle them?

Lots of businesses look at what they’d like to change, but not all of them ask why. One of the reasons so many change initiatives are reported as not having worked is that few organisations undertake the necessary level of planning and analysis required before going ahead with the change.

3. Not sharing the vision

You may have a sound understanding of why the change is necessary. You may know the business needs to do something differently in order to become competitive, or else risk heading for disaster. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the company is aware.

Employees are not mind-readers. If you do not provide the positive reasons for implementing the change, they will be left to decide for themselves. And you can’t guarantee they will take a positive view. Give them a good reason for the change, however, and they are much more likely to endure an uncomfortable situation.

4. Not involving the right people

The job of communicating the change vision is often far too large for one person, particularly in larger organisations. It is therefore a good idea to nominate ‘change champions’ throughout the organisation who, as with the senior leaders, can get behind the message and communicate it to the relevant people in their business area.

It is worth noting, though, that one of the biggest misconceptions around nominating change champions is that you should always choose people who already back what you’re trying to do. Sometimes, however, it can pay to do just the opposite. Sceptical people may point out potential problems that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

5. Lacklustre leadership

The path to achieving organisational buy-in for change has to start from the top. Senior leaders need to be vocal and visible champions of the transformation, creating a positive message around it and getting employees on board.

If senior influencers are openly committed to the change, their enthusiasm will inevitably filter down through the rest of the organisation and help remove some of the potential barriers. If they are not perceived as being positively behind the change, however, the opposite effect could occur.

6. Bad timing

Sometimes it is just not the right time to go through a particular change yet. Other times it is already too late. Take Kodak, for example, who spent years resisting the digital revolution until finally realising they didn’t have a choice in the matter if they wanted to survive. By then, of course, it was too late, and things did not end well for them.

Jake Welch, former CEO of General Electric who increased the company’s value by 4000% during his tenure, said, “change before you have to.” This is a good mantra to stick to – just because something doesn’t immediately affect your business, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about it. But it is also important to ensure you’re not jumping the gun before the business is ready. Again, this should be clarified in the planning stage.

7. Not reviewing and adjusting

No matter how much planning you go through, and how sure you are that the update is being done for the right reasons and in the right way, it is still essential to review the progress – what is working? What isn’t? Are we on budget, and what has the impact been?

Measuring success all the way through the transformation process is essential. And if you do find that something isn’t working as it should be, be prepared to flex and adjust as necessary. You can’t predict everything, but if you keep assessing and repositioning you’ll be much less likely to fail as a result of something not quite going to plan.

8. Dragging it out

Sometimes change is welcome, but often it is quite unwelcome and unsettling for those it affects. In the latter case, there is a real risk of disengagement, or even loss, of talented employees. In order to limit any potential damage or disruption caused by the change, it is vital that the change process is completed as quickly as possible.

This all comes down to properly planning and managing the project, as I’ve mentioned in other parts of this post. Sometimes delays will be unavoidable, of course, and in those cases the key is to keep people in the loop: communicate the reasons why the change is taking longer than expected.

9. Not respecting problem-raisers

It is easy to become blinkered when going through a change process. You may be absolutely sure that you are making the change for the right reasons and therefore disregard any criticisms as people simply not wanting to change, or not being ready for it.

But often those problem-raisers can provide vital insight, particularly if they have been with the business a while and have a strong understanding of the organisation and the wider industry. Always take any concerns seriously, and be prepared to act on them if necessary. Flexibility is key here.

10. Giving up too easily

Resilience is such a key part of any change process. Many transformation operations are given up on before they’ve had a chance to succeed. Of course there are going to be many challenges and hiccups along the way, but if the change is happening for the right reasons then it is vital to see it through to completion.

Be aware of any potential hurdles by going through the proper planning process, and have a contingency plan in place to deal with those problems if and when they arise. Once again, this all comes down to effective planning before the process even begins.

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Of course, no change process is the same as another, just as no two organisations are the same, so there is no ‘silver bullet’ methodology that will guarantee change success. That said, if you follow the points above, you can at least avoid some of the most common mistakes that businesses tend to make when going through a significant change.

Mike Davies is a management and leadership L&D consultant with over 10 years operational management experience and 22 years in the learning and development field. His specialist areas include coaching, emotional intelligence and experiential learning.

For more information, please see ‘The Effective Change Manager’s Handbook’.