How to Fail at Change Management

On May 11, 1996, 34 people attempted to summit Mt. Everest. In what came to be the deadliest single day on Mt. Everest, eight people lost their lives. Numerous factors led to the tragedy – most notably a late-day storm that trapped many on the peak. One of the climbers, a journalist by the name of Jon Krakauer, captured his experience that day in his book “Into Thin Air” and in it identified another more subtle, but just as significant factor in the tragedy. Krakauer was one of the first climbers to reach the summit on that day and during the descent he became increasingly concerned about the other climbers' singular focus on reaching the summit. The basis for his concern was his knowledge that reaching the summit was only half the challenge. The descent from the peak is as difficult and exhausting as the ascent. By focusing so much effort on reaching the summit, the climbers risked not reserving both time and energy to make the demanding descent. When the storm hit, any remaining margin of safety was eliminated and eight climbers never made it off the mountain.

Fortunately, our challenges are rarely this extreme or the consequences this severe. In the challenges we do face, the fundamental lesson of the risks of focusing on only half of the journey applies. When planning for a change, the temptation is to focus on the technical solution and investing the majority of our time, energy and resources on developing the most technically correct solution – i.e., the ‘right’ answer. Designing the solution, however, is only half of the challenge. The other half is execution – getting people to embrace the strategy, implement the processes and use the technology. Without planning for the people side of the change, we risk leaving our team stranded on the mountain.

It is a common occurrence in organizational changes to underestimate the effort required to get people to let go of the current ways and embrace new ones. To borrow from “Field of Dreams”, we like to believe “If we build it, they will come” when reality is closer to “If you build it, they will admire it from afar.” As leaders and managers in our organizations, it is important that in addition to the technical side of the change, we also plan effectively for the people changes including:

  • Resistance to change – One can expect resistance to change approximately 100% of the time. Change is difficult and there are a number of physiological and psychological reasons for this. In fact, resistance to change is not in itself a problem. It means that people are facing the reality of making the changes. Our job is to be prepared to manage the resistance and assist our people in making the transition.
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Research has shown that people process change in stages and have selective hearing as change is introduced. This means that no matter how hard you work on creating the ‘perfect’ communication, only part of the message will be heard. To really understand the entire message, people must hear it multiple times – five to seven times is considered optimal. (Note – this does not mean write an email and hit send six times! Be creative and mix it up a little!)
  • Listen – During change, no news is not good news. No news means that good information is not being discovered. Actively plan to ‘go see’ how the change is progressing and talk to the people who are making the changes. Asking open-ended questions such as “How do you see the changes helping you?”, “What are the major obstacles you see?”, “What are the risks of not changing?” will provide you with valuable insight into avoidable or removable barriers to the change.

Over the past 20 years, transformational change efforts have a notoriously low success rate with most surveys and studies showing up to 70% of change efforts fail to meet objectives – and most of these failures can be directly linked to ineffective management of the people issues related to change. When managing for change, expect and plan for resistance, communicate more than seems necessary, and actively listen to those who are making the change – your success depends on it.

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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