In August 2003, Chris De Wolfe and Tom Anderson founded Myspace, a social network they envisioned would allow ordinary music buffs to communicate with their favorite musicians. Its success was undeniable—the popularity of Myspace skyrocketed year after year following its inception. It became something far greater than just fans sharing music and messaging their favorite bands; it was a cultural phenomenon. In 2005, News Corp’s chairman Rupert Murdoch bet big on the burgeoning young social media site–acquiring it for the whopping price of $580 million. Myspace’s popularity only grew, outperforming even Yahoo! and Google in website traffic, becoming the most visited U.S. website in 2006.
Not long after, though, Facebook surpassed Myspace in web traffic, dominating the internet for years to come (and still ranks #3 today!). The age of Myspace ended as quickly as it began, its online relevance vanishing more as each month passed. By 2011, News Corp was forced to cut its losses and sold Myspace to Specific Media for $35 million, a mere fraction of what they paid for it. The impact of the bungled merger was felt throughout every level of the corporation. More than half of Myspace’s 500-strong workforce was eventually laid off.
There are countless other stories like this—no organization, no matter how large or small, is safe from missteps in their efforts to progress and evolve. Mergers and acquisitions are the largest and loftiest of all change efforts a company can set out to achieve, with roughly 70 to 90 percent of them failing abysmally according to the Harvard Business Review. Failure isn’t limited to large-scale change pursuits, though. HBR cites studies that indicate a staggering 60-70 percent rate of failure for all organizational change projects (this statistic was identified in the 1970s and has remained constant until the present). These studies reveal a pattern of poor corporate change management—improper dedication and oversight have disrupted the realization of thousands, if not millions, of businesses’ envisioned transformations.
This much is clear: change objectives of all scales have the odds against them and face distressing rates of failure. The issue, though, is that change is more necessary now than ever. With no notice, COVID-19 has dramatically ushered in a new status quo for all businesses—the environment employers and employees must operate in is constantly evolving and ever-volatile. Remaining competitive and agile in this erratic corporate setting is imperative. However, attempting to introduce changes of any size in this tumultuous business environment and unpredictable economic conditions, may be more ambitious and challenging than any other time in recent history. In this blog, we will discuss the common obstacles that stifle change management success and provide best practices for overcoming them.
What is Change Management?
Change management refers to a set of tools, strategies and planning used to support adoption of a new idea, new process, new technology, new workspace, new anything within an organization. This concept, as a discipline, has existed since the 1980s, but has evolved and matured into a practice that can be approached in a structured, deliberate manner to achieve consistent success in organizational change. While there are a myriad of different change management methodologies to adopt, all of them have the same end goal: to increase the likelihood of organizational adoption of a change and minimize business disruption.
Organizational changes can occur in response to both internal and external developments, from upgrading systems to shifting leadership to market disturbances (e.g., industry demand, competitor capability breakthroughs). No matter the reason for an organization’s transformational needs, choosing to make a change without planning for the responses and needs of individuals affected is akin to playing pool blindfolded. We simply cannot expect to successfully transition beyond the change without identifying and reacting to its effects, head-on. Each change initiative, from big to small, is unique and requires a tailored response that takes the context of the change into account. Effective change management involves customized tools for everyone impacted by the initiative—as individuals across the organization will have varying needs for support.
Most companies are in a constant state of flux, needing to rapidly evolve to keep up with the competitive market environment. Organizational change is necessary for the growth of companies, and managing the change with a proven methodology increases the likelihood that culture, operational efficiency and productivity don’t flounder as a result.
Common Change Management Challenges and Their Solutions
Listed below are several of the most prevalent challenges that organizations face during their transformation journey, along with their proposed solutions.
Inadequate Change Management Plan
“The Devil is in the details,” or in this case—the lack thereof. While a change management plan does not need to be overly complicated, it does need to be comprehensive. The more detailed a change management plan is, the greater the chance it has of succeeding. If an organization cannot create a thorough plan for the change management of a transformational objective, successful implementation and sustainment of this objective is unlikely.
There is no one perfect way for an organization to devise a robust, all-inclusive change management plan, but some best practices include:
- Strategy alignment – A good change management plan is created by aligning the needs of all stakeholder groups, identifying what kinds of support will best aid each group in their piece of the change management puzzle. Improper change management often fails to consult the individual stakeholders to understand their perspective. Understanding the change context and aligning incentives across leadership levels will improve the quality of a strategic plan.
- Continuous improvement – A change management plan should not be a rigid, fixed document. Rather, a change management plan should constantly consider new feedback from stakeholders and results from measured metrics to provide the most effective and adaptable solution for optimal user adoption.
If an organization has competing and overlapping change objectives, employees impacted the most by the changes will naturally burn out. Having to juggle excessive change initiatives concurrently causes poorly prioritized projects and creates change fatigue, making the quality of work lower all around. Employees are human and can only handle so much change on top of their day-to-day workload.
Every organization is unique, but the following best practices can help mitigate change oversaturation and change fatigue:
- Conduct an assessment of change initiatives – An assessment of both employees and change initiatives should be conducted to understand what other demands are already on the table. Consider assessing the importance of all projects taking place within your organization. Less important projects can be temporarily pushed to the side, placing key initiatives front and center they reach the final phases to maximize their chance for success.
- Allow the change to be gradual – If a particular change is too swift, there will be resistance. Employees need time to learn and get used to the new changes before fully embracing it. Additionally, we need to pace strategic projects in general. Humans can only sprint for so long—physically and mentally.
- Allocate dedicated resources – This refers to individuals as well as funding. Do not make the mistake of assigning employees with day-to-day responsibilities the additional responsibility of owning huge aspects of change management activities, as this will only contribute to change fatigue in the workforce. Employees involved in strategic programs should have a certain percentage of their daily workload allocated to change management activities for the duration of the initiative. Alternatively, hire external consultants to bolster execution of the change plan.
- Provide impacted groups with detailed instructions and technical documentation – Employees should receive an overabundance of training if new processes or technology are involved, ideally with different modes of delivery to address a variety of learning styles. Live training sessions with qualified trainers and/or business leaders, combined with self-paced training materials, can boost rates of change adoption. In addition, good technical documentation in this area enhances employees’ ability to comply with new guidelines via standardized reference documents.
- Highlight incentives – Emphasize the “What is in it for Me?” factor. People will resist change; it is human nature. Get in the habit of reminding stakeholders how the change will benefit them and their team. Even if the benefit is abstract or indirect, people who are part of a community will see value in something that supports the greater good.
Leaders often take for granted that everything they share in meetings and email is internalized by their teams. But we live in an information-saturated environment, so we must work extra hard to make sure our teammates realize when a change is happening. Nothing undermines a change initiative more than surprise.
Communications have both a push and pull. While getting the news about a change out in the open is important, it is only half of the story. Creativity is needed to figure out if the information is getting to the people who need to hear it. And there must be time built in for listening. Employees are more likely to accept changes if they feel like they are a part of what is happening, and they know what to expect. All staff impacted by a change within an organization should be informed of any relevant, up-to-date information. Letting all impacted members of an organization know why the change is necessary and how it will affect them, their workflow, and their work environment is critical. Establishing multiple channels of communication (i.e., e-mail, informal instant messaging platforms, video conferences, in-person meetings) to meet people where they like to consume information is essential.
Low Employee Motivation
Even with good communication protocols in place, we cannot control how employees will react. And to the motivation to adopt a change will vary widely.
Humans are social beings and they take their cues from their peers. This is especially true in the face of crisis,or change. The influencer concept that is all the rage in social media marketing has been fundamental to change management strategies for decades. Top-performing and well-connected employees come in should be carefully selected by executive sponsors with input from all department heads to carry out change efforts. These appointed leaders, or “change champions”, should possess essential interpersonal skills, while also being results oriented; making them the perfect candidates to motivate those less-than-inspired employees with the nudge they need to become active in change efforts.
The caveat here, though, is that dedicating top performers to change management can distract from daily responsibilities. Organizations should be discerning in allocating resource time to change management activities so that the return on effort invested is as high as possible.
COVID-19 has precipitated a paradigm shift in both operations and the overall business environment. In this challenging environment, businesses have to exert additional caution when undergoing organizational transformations of any scale; change management must be especially agile, intentional and adaptive to avoid the increasing number of factors mounted against successful change implementation.
An integrated approach, where changes are paced and made part of business-as-usual, is necessary. An organization’s evolution is never complete; it needs constant growth and progress to survive. Managing change well and holistically across the business will minimize the disruption of ongoing strategic developments on culture, operational efficiency and productivity.
Not all companies are equipped to handle organizational transformations alone. No matter the scale, from a change as small as an alteration to a standard operating procedure to as large as acquiring a new entity, many companies need additional help to ensure the success of their change initiatives. If your organization doesn’t have in-house expertise in change management, consider an external consulting a team that can help you ensure you get the systematic, comprehensive results you need for the next stage in your business’s evolution.