Three Sins to Derail Successful Change

Layers of Change

Lately, in the change management initiatives I’ve worked on, I’ve noticed more and more leaders who feel anguished and anxious because they believe they should be at a certain point in the change process—a point they still haven’t reached yet.

So I’ve found myself more and more having to explain that the change process is a progression, and that we have to complete one stage before moving on to the next.

That’s gotten me thinking.

I’ve realized that all decisions and communication in any change initiative require dissemination in layers.

What does that mean, exactly?

It means that you can’t take people to a point of change that they’re not ready for.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be ready for it or they’re incapable of being ready for it. It just means, as of right now, they haven’t yet received what they need in order to move to that next change level.

Think of it like learning. Teaching math in school, we take kids through a progression and at each level—each layer—they’re taught something they need to know so they can do the work at the next level. We start them with numbers and counting. Once they know the numbers, we teach them to add, then to subtract, then to multiply, and then to divide. At each layer in the process, they master the associated skills and develop proficiency to get them ready for the next—we don’t start them with algebra and expect them to figure out all the skills at once and “get on board.”

The same is true with organizational change.

With this thinking, I turned to the Association of Change Management Professionals Standard for Change Management (ACMP Standard).

And just like school math, I found the ACMP Standard has a layered structure. From the highest conceptual level of thought all the way down to day-to day tactical steps for implementation, it rather neatly maps out to layers that are not only sequential, but that align nicely to most organizational hierarchy charts.

“Tabetha, what does that mean for our discussion today?” you’re asking.

What I’m going to begin here, and discuss in the next post as well, are the things that can impede change, the different layers in the usual change process, and how those layers map to the various levels of a typical organization so that, for your own change initiative, you can clearly identify:

  • Which layer you’re in
  • What you should be doing in each level
  • What must be accomplished in each level before you move on to the next
  • Whether your change initiative is on the right track

Let’s get started.

Three Sins to Derail Successful Change

Over and over, in organizations going through a change initiative, I consistently see three mistakes that push the effort off track and result in employees who are uncertain, unconfident, and grumbling.

man taking too big of a bite of a burger, while holding a handful of fries

The First Sin: Biting off more than anyone can chew

The first sin is one of ambition. Leadership decides to do everything all at once. They create a super-broad plan that that rolls everything up into one giant initiative that—at the executive level—looks like a single push.

Yet as you step down through it, it has twenty or more smaller pieces, each with its own messaging associated with it.

From up above, it’s one smooth unified path. But to the staff down at the street level, it’s just a clutter of instructions, a pile of twenty tasks, each with its own directions and messaging, some of which need to be performed in a specific sequence, but none of which indicate where in the sequence they fall.

It’s overwhelming and confusing.

So when rolling out an initiative, don’t think like a manager.

Think like a marketer.

Define your audience and define your message—and make sure that message includes a call to action! You wouldn’t send out marketing communications with multiple and even conflicting calls to action, would you?

Make sure you know all the parts of the plan and how they fit together, and craft your call to action from that.

Keep it simple. Keep it clear.

feet standing next to arrows all pointing in different directions

The Second Sin: Too many chiefs and no direction

The second sin I see frequently is one of failing to lead at the start. In the name of collaboration, leadership engages lots of people at lots of levels across the organization, gathering input and opinions through surveys and meetings.

Then at some point, somebody just shouts “GO!”

Everybody scatters, rushing off to get started on what they discussed—particularly what they suggested themselves.

With no direction. With no clarity.

With no sense of how all those opinions weave together for the solution.

Would you send a mob of people out with tools and wood and bricks and paint to put up a house—without a plan? How long do you think it would be for it to be finished (if ever?), and how do you think it would turn out?

Not a house you’d want to live in.

You have to provide them a plan. You have to draw it up, and you have to organize who does what, where they do it, and in what order.

You have to lead. You have to provide the vision and the plan for them all to follow.

man jumping between two cliffs over a sunset

The Third Sin: Skipping and jumping

The third sin I see frequently is one of impatience. Leadership is eager to get to the next step in the change initiative—or even worse, get to a step that’s three or four or five steps away—and they begin skipping critical steps in the process.

There’s a variety of reasons for why they do this. Sometimes it’s financial pressure, and they feel they have to get to a certain point in the process sooner to realize economic savings. Sometimes it’s internal politics, and another leader is maneuvering for position based on how soon a certain step can be achieved. Sometimes, it’s fear of being wrong that drives a leader to try to prove himself or herself right at a certain step that’s otherwise still ahead. And sometimes it’s just the impatience of excitement, like skipping ahead in a movie to get to the “good part.”

And I’m not even saying in some situations you can’t sometimes skip steps in the process to save some time and money.

But if you do, you better document it.

If you elect to skip a step in the ACMP Standard, write it down—at the beginning! Note in your plan that you’re skipping the step, and include the reasons why. This way, if you run into trouble later in the initiative, you’ll be able to see if it’s because of the step you elected to skip. This will not only provide you insight into the current problem—maybe you can fix it by going back and completing the step—but it will also help you document the importance of that step when the impulse to skip it arises again in a future initiative.

For example, people like to skip the “assessing organization readiness” and “stakeholder analysis” steps

Usually, I’ve found this is for one of three reasons:

  • Leadership believes it has a firm grasp of the people and the organization and doesn’t think it’s necessary
  • Leadership suspects it has a less firm grasp of the people and the organization than they’d like to admit and doesn’t want their error documented this way and brought to light
  • Leadership is fully aware of issues in the organization and doesn’t want to shine a light on them (for example, a department head who’s certain to be resistant and won’t cooperate in the change initiative but possesses too much tribal knowledge to be let go—Rather than put a plan in place to address the department head, the plan just squishes the issues around that person into a closet, with the hope no one opens the door

Avoid these sins if you want your initiative to be a success. Think about these three change management sins. How have you seen them disrupt past change initiatives? How could they stifle or even derail a change initiative?

Click here to read about the Layers of Change: