Why is it so hard to implement change?

Why is it so hard to implement change?

I’m going to share a story that shows why it’s so difficult to implement changes at a startup, especially once it’s past the stage of 50+ people. That’s usually when specialized teams exist and a middle layer of management is in place. While this specific story and the players mentioned are fictional, this type of event happens daily. I’m sure every manager that has attempted to implement changes can relate:

A meeting between the marketing team and the retention team was proceeding. It was to discuss progress on a change to our website: The retention team had started selling several new services to our clients, and had wanted the marketing team’s help to update our website to showcase the new offerings.

A couple weeks before this meeting, the retention team had communicated their desired requirements and specifications to a representative of the marketing team (let’s call this person Jo). Together, they agreed on a blueprint for the new site based on mockups that Jo made.

Jo was not present at the current meeting. Instead, the Director of Marketing was sitting in. When the meeting started, the retention team representative asked the Director of Marketing to provide a progress report, along with whether screenshots of the new page were available for review. The Director of Marketing obliged and proudly showed their work.

To the retention team’s surprise, it was nothing like the mockups they had agreed upon two weeks ago with Jo. Instead, it was the exact same web page that exists today, with a new section at the bottom showcasing some of the new services offered.

When asked about what had happened to designs that were agreed upon two weeks ago, the Director of Marketing said that she was not aware of any agreement, nor has she seen the mockups. She also went ahead to communicate that this was all her team could do, as they had more important priorities to focus on. The retention team had to choose between what they saw today or no changes at all.

Frustrated, the retention team’s project lead walked out of the room.

Scenarios like this happen across organizations of all sizes, making changes difficult to implement. They may be more frequent at large organizations, where it’s difficult to communicate between teams, and where teams may have competing priorities. Yet these situations hurt startups most, as they create conflict between teams when we can’t afford any, in addition to setting a bad culture. In our example, the retention team is bound to lose trust in the marketing team, hurting their ability to collaborate in the future.

So let’s take a moment to try and understand how this situation came to be: How could a change that was agreed upon two weeks ago fail to materialize? Simply from the top of my head, I can identify a couple of elements that could have contributed to the issue:

  • Jo, the original marketing representative that did the mockups, may not have the authority to make a decision on what changes to make to the website;
  • The VP of Marketing may have refused Jo’s changes;
  • The retention team may not have gotten written agreement on the website changes, hence have nothing to fall back on when presented with a different set of changes. It’s their word against that of the Director of Marketing.

Fact is, implementing changes that require the collaboration of multiple teams is difficult, no matter how small. Change agents can have challenges communicating effectively, justifying urgency, competing against other initiatives, getting the right decision makers involved, fighting against resistance, proving the need to change, etc. HBR has a whole article on why changes fail.

Yet no matter how hard, it’s our duty as leaders to push for changes that we judge necessary, to bring the company closer to its goal, and to innovate.

To this effect, I’m going to share a series of questions that have helped me prepare for change management, minimize resistance, and save time. For context, let’s assume that we’re in the middle of an innovation project that necessitates the participation of multiple teams, or that we’ve proven the effectiveness of a new idea and need to implement the change across the organization.

Are we ready to change?

What exactly is changing? First of all, we need to accurately describe the change in question and set clear expectations around the end results that we’re looking for. We need to be as specific and detailed as possible. If we’re vague in our description, we’re opening the door to interpretation by other people and won’t have much to fall back on when we don’t get what we want.

What’s the foreseen impact? If we’re ready to make a change, then we better have an idea on the outcome of this change. Let’s describe in detail what we foresee happening, what results we’re expecting, and who will be affected. I highly recommend a scenario planning approach to this exercise, for we know things never go accordingly to plan.

Who needs to participate? It’s important to loop in anyone and any team that may be impacted by the change and/or plays a role in its implementation. Should we forget anyone, we’re bound to meet resistance during implementation, when it’s costly to stall.

Why are we changing? Changing without a valid reason is stupid and irresponsible. And assuming that we know why the change is desired, do others know why? We are all more motivated to change if we understand how it helps us. So every participating team needs to understand why the change makes sense, and how they stand to benefit from it. 

How can we combat resistance to change? Based on the different scenarios that we foresee happening from our change, we can envision the type of resistance and potential concerns that other teams may have. Let’s thus think about how to address all these issues. Doing so will earn our colleagues’ trust by showing that we understand their perspectives, and that we’ve diligently prepared for this change.

Has everyone voiced their concerns? Before we go ahead with the change, let’s make sure that all parties involved and impacted have had a chance to review change details and voice any concerns.

Have we solved all concerns and conflicts? Should there be resistance that arise (very likely), it will be important to understand the root cause of the problem from others’ perspectives. In other words, why they are uncomfortable with the change and what pain it may cause them. From there, we need to find common ground (e.g. Both of us want to get more clients for this company…), and then address how to achieve our mutual priorities (e.g. For me, I need to change X to improve Y. In your team’s case, changing X may impact Z, which could be detrimental. In my opinion, we could safeguard against changes to Z by…) I highly recommend a book titled Getting More to help practice negotiation and conflict resolution.

Who’s the executive on this project? It can often help to have an executive sponsor on the project (VP or C-level executive) that can make final call when there is disagreement.

Do we agree? Assuming that all questions and issues above have been resolved, it’s time to get a formal agreement of the change from all involved parties. I highly recommend recording the agreement in a written format (email, change management doc, etc.) to prevent people from debating their agreement later in time.

Answering the above questions will help us prevent change from stalling. If we do our job right, people will have a hard time debating details of the change, going back on their words, or de-prioritizing the change.

As human beings, we are creatures of routine that dislike change in general. We see change as threats on our ability to survive. So we need to mentally plan and prepare.

Are we changing too often?

I can’t preach change without a word of caution…

I’ve definitely made the mistake of changing too often. Process changes would change before I finished evaluating them. Guidelines would get revamped before I completed a first draft. Product features would be sent to the backlog right after a prototype was ready.

A few factors that contributed to this include:

  • Not confident that the change will achieve desired results;
  • Changes in strategy or priorities midway through a change;
  • Getting distracted by new ideas and thoughts.

Is changing too often bad? It can be. Changing too often can result in a loss of momentum in growth. For strategies to succeed, we need sustained effort. It can also make the life of team members very miserable, as they have to constantly adapt and buy into new ideas. If my team starts thinking “What are we actually trying to do?” or “I have no clue what our goal is,” then I know that change has become destructive rather than innovative.

On the other hand, when we do have new intel demonstrating that our current initiative won’t achieve the desired results, or needs to be tweaked for maximal effect, teams do need to change direction. In such situations, I make sure to communicate why we’re changing again. Lets all recognize that being able to rapidly change direction is one of the competitive advantages of startups versus established companies.

So what’s the optimal pace of change? That depends on the situation and the context. For example…

  • If we’re not confident that a change will achieve the desired results, then we need to let it run its way and get the data to back it up. We can A/B test different ideas and compare results.
  • If we have accurate information showing that the current change will not achieve the desired outcome, then we need to consider whether there is a better alternative or if this is still the best thing for the moment.
  • If our overall goal has shifted, making the current change irrelevant, then we need to consider whether we should stop the change or if we can tweak it to achieve the new goal. Note that changing goals too often is highly undesired as it’s an indicator that we don’t know what we want – if that’s the case, then don’t do anything until a goal is set.

So let’s be cautious about changing, but not afraid to do it when it’s the right move.

If you’re interested in learning more about change, here are a couple additional resources that I’ve found valuable:

Recommended exercise

Let’s pick a process change that we are working on, identify all people that may be impacted and ask them: “Are you aware that this change is coming?”

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