The 5 Fatal Flaws that Will Kill Your Change Initiative

Change does not come naturally, but identifying and building a strategy around potential pitfalls early on can make the process as painless as possible.

As the workplace continues to evolve and employee expectations shift, HR and internal communications teams are rapidly adopting new initiatives to better integrate, retain, and inspire employees. Change management teams spend a lot of time figuring out how to implement the “soft side” of organizational changes, going over the goals and objectives, strategy and tactics, and basic changes to roles and processes.

However, several internal system and structural challenges can make it impossible for even the simplest change initiative to be successful. According to McKinsey, a whopping 70 percent of change programs don’t reach their stated goals. Here are five key elements organizations often ignore that can doom a change initiative before it even starts. 

1. Communication

The importance of communication cannot be overemphasized yet often is overlooked. A study from Robert Half Management Resources found that lack of communication—not so much strategy, funding, or other reasons you might expect—is a top reason change initiatives fail, far outdistancing the second leading factor of managing expectations.

When approaching a major organizational change, it is crucial to have all employees and stakeholders on the same page. This comes down to effectively communicating what the change will be, why the change is necessary, and the impact both within and outside of the organization. Rather than keeping employees in the dark, leaders need to be transparent about why the change is essential and how it will affect employees’ roles and lives.

When crafting the message, a good rule to follow is to always consider the employees’ viewpoint, or the “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). Thinking through the unique perspectives of impacted roles is critical, as the WIIFM may be different for each one.Getting both employees and stakeholders to see the WIIFM during a change goes a long way in securing buy-in. 

This is where two-way communication would be beneficial. It is not just about communicating out but also listening to employees about their change pain points. A good opportunity here comes when developing the WIIFM. Focus groups, employee surveys, etc., can help drive the development of that message and be based more in reality than what change agents believe is the WIIFM message.

Giving employees feedback mechanisms or the ability to ask questions goes a long way toward alleviating change fears. Even if you don’t have all the answers right now, simply hearing and noting the question can help employees feel more like they are part of the change as opposed to having the change forced upon them.

2. Infrastructure

Communicating clearly and often makes all the difference in a successful change initiative. But some organizations are not even set up to be able to deliver the message of change in the first place. They spend a lot of time crafting the message but fail to think of how it will be delivered or how to verify it was even received.

Before any change can take place, channels of communications must be established across all levels of an organization, systems, and types of employees. HR and communications teams must ask themselves: Can we get a message to all employees and confirm it was delivered? Can we target a message to a specific subset of employees (e.g., managers or users of a certain system)? 

A successful communications strategy today looks vastly different than one of a decade ago. Many organizations today still rely solely on company intranets or other outdated tools to get information to their employees. Instead, communications teams should take a 360-degree, multi-channel approach that reaches employees on all the tools they already use—mobile, tablets, and other convenient devices. This ensures all employees and stakeholders can be closely updated throughout the change process no matter where they are and what technology they use.

3. Leadership Alignment

Any change initiative requires both strong support from leadership and united, consistent messaging across all leaders. But while leaders may be generally supportive, in today’s business environment, it can be difficult to keep them abreast of the latest information and align them on specifics in real time. 

This is especially important in the critical days and weeks of a broad change initiative, where the change team must get feedback, adapt, and respond as the change is rolled out across the organization. If there is no way to keep leaders aligned, change initiatives can quickly go off the tracks with no hope of bringing them back.

Consider a company facing an upcoming regulatory change that will profoundly affect its standard operations. In the face of what feels like a politically motivated change, the organization must not only provide leaders with talking points and a unified perspective, but also engage employees as advocates on its position and share real-time information regarding the rapidly evolving positions of both sides. This close alignment would be impossible without establishing the right internal structure and communication mechanisms for leaders to engage, raise issues, and get and share the latest updates.

4. Contractual Commitments

In some cases, certain aspects of a change may be significantly limited by the customer, supplier, employee, or union commitments that are already in place. These contract changes often go overlooked until the final hour, when little can be done to avoid any fallout in contractual commitments. 

Consider a company that changed its go-to-market strategy, transitioning several sales channels. But immediately before the launch of the new approach, the team realizes they cannot make the desired changes to their direct sales force as it impacts contractual commission plans. They’re locked into multi-year resale contracts with several resellers that limit their ability to change the product mix.

Any change requires a thorough review of the relevant contracts for all impacted parties. Organizations in this situation must assign a qualified team to specifically find and review all contracts to ensure the desired change is possible. 

5. Financial Costs

Independent of the financial impact of the change (ideally beneficial), the actual change program can accrue significant costs. This typically plays out with initial “launch big” ideas such as onsite events, huge signs and banners at all locations, overproduced videos, and lots of swag.

But once the actual costs are calculated—often very late in the process—that approach is deemed unfeasible, despite the fact that much of the success of the change program has been dependent on the big launch. Then, a much smaller launch or communication plan is deployed, limiting the success of the initiative. 

It is paramount to plan according to the budget allotted for the change and ensure the most important aspects receive the backing they need. Organizations should start with a minimal launch budget and assume all communication and messaging will occur through existing channels, versus one-time events or activities.

The Bottom Line

Change does not come naturally, but identifying and building a strategy around potential pitfalls early on can make the process as painless as possible. By calculating and defining the risk involved at the outset, the steps to address become clear and organizations give the change initiative the best chance to succeed.

BrianMcDowellis the VP of Worldwide Sales at SocialChorus, and leads a team that provides insight and expertise to customers as they transform their communication function. He joined SocialChorus after 15 years as a change management and organizational transformation consultant. Prior to that, he held strategic consulting and sales leadership roles at several start-ups and Hewlett-Packard.

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