Leaders: Here's why your change initiative is going to fail

Let’s imagine that, as an organizational leader, you come up with the most fabulous idea ever. This idea is so good it stands to render all references to sliced bread obsolete.

All you have to do is get your peers and the company on board with the changes necessary for the idea to come to life. However, you know the effort will be worth it when the results come rolling in a year or two from now.  

Sadly, the prognosis for this idea is poor. For a new idea or strategy to take root and grow into something meaningful, a lot of things have to go right. Most of those "things" are related to getting people to think and act differently.

In too many instances, leaders sponsoring or proposing big changes under-estimate the complexity of bringing these initiatives life. It pays to understand the obstacles and to develop strategies that mitigate their impact.

4 big blockers to change

Some of the most common barriers to internal adoption of new ideas include:

 

1. Power and politics

Your idea might be brilliant; however, if supporting it means ceding power to you, there are a host of reasons other people might not jump on your bandwagon. In particular, senior leaders in many organizations are engaged in a "Game of Thrones" type of environment where if someone wins, someone else loses. In these settings, the fight is always on when it comes to budgets and resources. Few of your peers are willing to shift their resources to you unless there’s something in it for them.

 

2. Altitude and a steep descent

Top-down change initiatives are fatally flawed when senior leaders fail to descend slowly and give those responsible for the work sufficient time to process, breathe and begin to help. If the effort means a significant disruption to the way things have been done or is dependent upon adding work to already packed days, you'll get lip service but little forward progress.

While top-down pronouncements might have worked in an era of command and control (I’m suspicious), they don’t work in the world we occupy today.

 

3. Time and context

By the time your idea is ready for sharing, you’ve had a long period of processing on it from all angles. When you roll it out to individuals, they may smile and nod their heads and ask a few questions. However, they are most likely thinking, “This too shall pass.” Some will scratch their heads and confess they don't see the need or just don’t understand the idea. 

Attempts to “dumb it down” for easy consumption will backfire, as well. I once observed a well-intentioned CEO roll out a new strategy comparing it to a cheeseburger. Everyone left the meeting wondering if they were the meat, the bun, the cheese or the lettuce. Cue the long-running internal jokes.

 

4. Human challenges with change

Someone once remarked to me with a hint of cynicism, “This job of leading would be easy if it weren’t for the people.” Of course, people are the raw material of greatness in our organizations. It just takes a lot of hard work to get beyond our natural tendencies to resent change imposed on us from above (without context) and to resist ideas that break the routine of what we know. If the shift threatens our view of self or, if it stimulates our highly sensitive fear detectors, we withdraw or resist.

What’s a leader to do?

Back to that new idea from our senior leader, that makes the original notion of slicing bread seem like a slow day at the creativity shop. Understanding the cognitive and various physics challenges described above is important, and developing and deploying tactics to mitigate those concerns is essential.

3 big ideas to improve your odds of success with change

1. Run a systems check on your influence power

In my article "Reframing Your Relationship with Influence, Power, and Office Politics," I suggest it’s naïve to ignore the reality of the political environment in your firm. If culture eats strategy for lunch as is oft described, politics consumes good ideas at the pace of doughnuts disappearing from the office coffee stand.

If you intend on leading change in your organization, the hard work of success starts long before you begin looking for support for your new idea. Ask yourself these questions and, as needed, take action.

  • How strong is your internal network?
  • How connected are you to individuals who can supply you with information and resources?
  • How connected are you to the individuals who decide what gets done and who does what?
  • How hard have you worked at creating a reciprocity debt where you’ve provided support ahead of your own “ask?”

Your influence equity may be the single most significant determinant of your ability to affect change. If you’ve not spent time deliberately developing yours, don’t be surprised when your ideas disappear, much like the previously described doughnuts. 

 

2. Build coalitions and manage the persuasion cycle

I learned early in my career working in a large global corporation that gaining support for investments or significant changes in our unit’s business approach took place outside the meeting rooms, in one-on-one settings. I also learned that gaining support was a process, never an event. Meetings were strictly ceremonies. If you failed to gain support for your idea ahead of the meeting to discuss the idea, you lost.

The work of socializing ideas is important in every culture I’ve encountered. While some may suggest the pre-meeting lobbying reeks of politics, I describe it as strategic relationship building. Your goal is never to manipulate but rather to gain insights into the other party’s perspective and needs for the new initiative. You need and want their help. However, you want the initiative to benefit them as well. 

When approaching individuals and seeking support for your ideas, it’s imperative to do your homework. Strive to jump into their shoes and look at the situation from their vantage point. The better you are at getting them involved and allowing them to make decisions that affect their jobs and teams, the more likely you are to gain their support. Your position is strengthened when you do this at scale -- uniting multiple leaders and groups around shared interests.

 

3. Create an emotional connection to change

The strategy described as a cheeseburger referenced earlier ultimately transformed the market and firm. However, nothing happened until the cheeseburger narrative was tossed into the garbage and replaced with a more cognitively digestible and enticing story.

Things started moving once individuals and teams internalized the tremendous new opportunities to learn, grow and participate in bringing the strategy to life. Part of this process included accepting that their core markets and customer groups wouldn’t be abandoned in the process.

In any group setting, significant change only takes place when the players feel a deep connection to the idea. They must see it as necessary for the greater good and something that benefits them. Unfortunately, for change leaders everywhere, there’s no fast-forward button on building this emotional connection. It takes time, involvement and the uncomfortable issue of giving others the power to do things their way.

Once people see themselves as part of the changing environment and feel empowered to define how the change impacts them, resistance melts.

The bottom line for now

Change is inevitable in our organizations and markets, and guiding change is the singular leadership issue of our time. Whether you are promoting transformation from the top or suggesting a new idea from the middle or from the front lines, it pays to know the obstacles and to have a plan to engage others on their terms. Anything less is an exercise in futility. 

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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