Most change projects fail. In fact, according to Harvard Business School, 70% of all change projects miss their targets. In my experience, these failures are because change leaders are reactive rather than proactive. When making reactive change, people are not ready to adapt. The culture isn’t prepared for change. Employee satisfaction levels fall, and productivity follows.
Effective change is determined by both change leadership and change management.
Here I look at five reasons why change leadership fails and what effective change leaders do every day.
Five reasons why change leaders fail
Effective change leadership anticipates the problems that a change project will face and then takes proactive steps to combat those problems. When these problems are understood, strategizing and planning for them becomes a proactive chain of events: a chain that is actioned on a daily basis to ensure your change project doesn’t fail. Here are the five most common problems that affect change projects at the big picture level, and how change leadership can successfully tackle these issues every day.
1) Tackling Failing change sponsorship
Too often, change sponsors start with great enthusiasm and a vocal and visual presence that creates impetus for change but then simply disappear. Getting them to stay on board with the change project can be difficult when their daily duties take over.
The first job of change leadership is to identify and on-board change sponsors. The change sponsor must understand the value of the change project, and change leadership will keep the sponsor fully involved with regular meetings and updates.
Effective change leadership will also look for sponsors (or influencers) at all levels throughout the organisation.
Communication with change sponsors should be a daily event:
- Confirm the sponsor’s roles and responsibilities
- Confirm change as part of business strategy
- Provide examples of good sponsorship practice (and praise when these practices are employed)
- Keep sponsorship visibility high
2) Ineffective communication fails change projects
In the big picture, strategy is the overriding business case for change. Too often I see this strategy held tightly at senior executive level, and employees are left wondering what is happening. They immediately become disengaged. This is most commonly a communicative issue. Here’s how to tackle this on a daily basis:
- Be positive about the change every day and in every team meeting
- Discuss the reasons for change and its benefits to all: individuals, teams, and the organisation
- Use all appropriate communication channels – email, intranet, notice boards, team and one-on-one meetings, etc.
3) Insufficient resources deployed destroys change project success
The bigger the project, the larger the resource needed to lead effective change. Resource requirements need to be defined at the outset, and then monitored on a daily basis. Change is fluid, and so resource is also likely to be:
- Undertake analysis of the organisation and change project progress
- Assess the effects on all stakeholders, and identify the early adapters that will promoter change
- Identify the people required to design and coordinate the steps required to implant the new behaviours required: your change managers
4) Change reverts back to the norm with a lack of long-term follow through
More than half of all change projects meet their initial goals, and yet 70% of all projects fail. This is because change leadership often stops when the project has been ‘completed’. The trouble is that change is never finished, and a project needs to be embedded as the way of doing things. Old habits are hard to break, as are old working practices:
- Support change managers and all stakeholders in the long-term
- Ensure project sponsors also take this long-term view
- Instigate a package of training and coaching
- Reinforce coaching with regular one-on-one and team sessions
- Take an open and honest approach to communicating the ongoing change, and discussing concerns
5) Unchecked resistance and change project failure
Resistance to change grows the further down the organisation you travel. A Towers Watson survey in 2013 showed that nearly three quarters of senior managers understood the need for and benefits of change, but this had eroded to just 40% by the time the message had travelled to team leaders and line-supervisors. No wonder resistance increases on the frontline.
Correcting this is, of course, a prime aim of your communication policies, but you should also seek to identify, employ, and energise your change managers.
Be proactive every day for effective change leadership
Change leaders will analyse their current situation and visualise the future. But that isn’t enough to make effective and lasting change. With a change project, anticipate the problems that will be faced and communicate the need and benefits often. Great change leaders plan for problems and put those plans into action every day. And they also employ great change managers who work tirelessly every day to ensure change leadership effectiveness trickles down the line.