Eight Common Mistakes Change Management Leaders Make


More and more organizations will be pushed to reduce costs, improve quality of products and services, locate new opportunities for growth, increase productivity.  Major change efforts have helped many organizations adapt significantly to shifting conditions, have improved competitive standing of others and others have positioned a few for a far better future. But in too many situations the improvements have been disappointing and the carnage has been appalling, with wasted resources and burned-out, scared, or frustrated employees.

To some degree, the downside of change is inevitable. Whenever human communities are forced to adjust to shifting conditions, pain is ever present. But a significant amount of waste and anguish is avoidable to due to some common but fundamental errors in change management.

No# 1: Allowing Too Much Complacency

Biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations it to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees. This error is fatal because transformation always fail to achieve their objectives when complacency levels are high.

Smart individuals fail who spearhead change in organizations fail to create sufficient urgency at the beginning of a business transformation for many  different interrelated reasons. They overestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones. They don’t recognise how their own actions can be inadvertently reinforce the status quo. They lack patience. They become paralysed by the downside possibilities associated with reducing complacency; people become defensive, more and short term results slip. Or even worse, confuse urgency with anxiety, and by driving up the latter, they push people even deeper into their foxholes and create even more resistance to change.

Without a sense of urgency, people won’t give that extra effort that is often essential. They won’t make the needed sacrifices. Instead they cling to the status quo and resist initiatives from above. As a result new strategies fail to be implemented well, quality programs become more surface bureaucratic talk than real business substance. Change initiatives fail.

No#2: Failing to create a Sufficiently Powerful Guiding Coalition.

Major change is often said to be impossible unless the head of the organization is an active supporter. No it goes beyond that. In order for the change to be successful, the CEO, division manager or department head plus other five, fifteen or fifty people with a commitment to improved performance pull together as a team… Individuals alone, no matter how competent or charismatic, never have all the assets needed to overcome tradition and inertia except in very small organizations.  Efforts that lack a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition can make apparent progress for a while. But sooner or later, countervailing forces undermine the initiatives.  No matter how capable or dedicated the staff head, guiding the coalition without line leadership never seem to achieve power that is required to overcome what are often massive sources of inertia.

No3#: Underestimating the Power of Vision

Urgency and a strong guiding team are necessary but insufficient condition for major change. Of the  remaining elements that are always found in a successful transformation, none is more important than a sensible vision.

Vision plays a key role in producing useful change by helping to direct, align, and inspire actions on the part of large numbers of people. Without an appropriate vision, a transforming effort can be easily dissolving into a list of confusing, incompatible, and time-consuming projects that go in the wrong directions or nowhere at all.

Sensing the difficulty in producing change, some people try to manipulate events quietly behind the scenes and purposefully avoid any public discussion of future direction. But without a vision to guide decision making, each and every choice employee face can dissolve into an interminable debate. The smallest of decisions can generate heated conflict that saps energy and destroys morale. Insignificant tactical choices can dominate discussions and waste hours of precious time.

In many failed organizations, plans and programs trying to play the role of vision. Books can spell out procedures, goals, methods, and deadlines. But nowhere there is a clear and compelling statement of where all these is heading.

In unsuccessful transformation efforts, management sometimes does have a sense of direction, but it is too complicated or blurry to be useful.

A  useful rule of thumb : Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving an change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.

No# 4: Under communicating the Vision

Major change is usually impossible unless most employees are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. But people will not make the sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they think the potential benefits of change are attractive and unless they really believe that a transformation is possible. Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employee’s hearts and minds are never captured.

Communication comes in both words and deeds. The latter is generally more powerful form. Nothing undermines change more than behaviour by important individuals that is inconsistent with the verbal communication. And yet it happens all the time.

No# 5: Permitting Obstacles to Block the New Vision.

The implementation of any kind of major change requires action from a large number of people. New initiatives fail far too often when employees, even though they embrace a new vision, feel disempowered by huge obstacles in their paths. Occasionally, the roadblocks are only in people’s heads and the challenge is to convince them that no external barriers exist. But in many cases, the blockers very real.

This includes things such as

  • Obstacle in the organizational structure
  • Narrow job categories
  • Compensation or performance appraisal systems can force people to choose between the new vision and their self-interest.
  • Worst of all are supervisors who to adapt to new circumstances and who make demands that are inconsistent with the transformation.

One well placed blocker can stop and entire change effort. Whenever smart and well-intentioned people avoid confronting obstacles, they disempower employees and undermine change.

No # 6: Failing to Create Short-Term Wins

Real transformation takes time. Complex efforts to change strategies or restructure business risk losing momentum. If there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate. Most people won’t go on a long march unless they see compelling evidence within six to eighteen months that the journey is producing expected results. Without short-term wins, too many employees give up or actively join the resistance.

Creating short-term wins is different from hoping for a short term wins. The latter is passive, and former is active. In a successful transformation, managers actively look for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, establish goals in the yearly planning system, achieve these objectives, and reward the people involved with recognition, promotions or money. In change initiatives that fail, systematic effort to gurantee unambiguous wins within six to eighteen months is much less common. Managers must either just assume that good things will happen or become so caught up with a grand vision that they don’t worry much about the short term.

Commitments to produce short term wins can keep complacency down and encourage the detailed analytical thinking that can usefully clarify or revise transformational visions.

No# Declaring Victory Too Soon.

After a few years of hard work, people can be templated to declare victory in a major change effort with the first major performance improvement. Until changes sink down deeply into the entire culture which for an entire company can take three to ten years, new approaches are fragile and subject to regression.

The urgency level is not intense enough, the guiding coalition is not powerful enough,  the vision is not clear enough. But  the premature victory stops all momentum. And then powerful forces associated with tradition take over.

Declaring victory too soon is like stumbling into a sinkhole on  the road to meaningful change.

No#8: Neglecting to Anchor Changes Firmly in the Corporate Culture.

Change becomes sticky when  it becomes “the way we do things around here” when it seeps into the very bloodstream of the work unit or corporate body.  Two factors are important for this:

  • A conscious attempt to show people how specific behaviours and attitudes have helped improve performance. When people are left on their own to make connections, as if often the case, they can easily create inaccurate links.
  • Anchoring change also requires that sufficient time is taken to ensure the next generation of management really does personify the new approach. If promotion criteria are not reshaped, another common error, transformations rarely last. One bad succession decision at the top of an organization can undermine a decade of hard work.

Smart people miss the mark here when they are insensitive to cultural issues. Economically oriented finance people and analytically oriented engineers can find topic of social norms and values too soft for their tastes. So, they ignore culture-at their peril.

Source: Book, Leading Change by John P. Kotter