Summary of : How Leaders Get in the Way of Organizational Change by Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review, April 30, 2021.
This article states that transformational change, change that touches all of the organization, is difficult. It takes individuals like the author, with an extensive career leading organizational change, to tell leaders how it really is. Transformational change fails most of the time. Leaders are often naïve to the struggles that the organization will face attempting to transform. The author cites three common reasons. I want to focus on two and then add another from my experience.
Small incremental change does not get to transformational change.
Few leaders have backgrounds in change management; therefore, the first error is from a lack of knowledge rather than judgment. Organizations may think they are doing their employees a favor by making minor incremental changes, but ultimately, they are not. These incremental changes are often disconnected from the major transformational change, even though the benefits of the transformational change are over communicated. Employees do not easily realize the value of the minor changes; thus, they get little time and attention, or worse, are altogether ignored or abandoned. Leaders oftentimes believe that a small snowball can grow into a large snowball simply by giving it a push.
However, leaders need to focus on the overall transformational change that is needed rather than disguise it into minor, more palatable ones. This merely confuses employees as to why they are doing it. It is only by connecting everyone in the organization to the major transformational change that employees focus on that change. Leaders also need to recognize that transformational change is never easy, and they must be willing to communicate this openly. Employees can read through the high-gloss, video production that sells the benefits of the change. They will often think what a waste of time and money that video was.
People have day jobs
Organizations that implement big-scale change often underestimate what it will take from a variety of people across the organization to make it happen. They can appoint a team to do the heavy lifting; yet, it still requires employees in every department to be involved in creating the change. Currently, organizations are lean. Ask most employees, and they will likely say there is not enough time in the day to complete all their daily responsibilities.
Another common error leaders make is to under-resource the project. They may hire consultants to lead the effort; however, consultants can only go so far. Employees who know the organization and their operations are the ones who have to ultimately create the change. No consultant can fill this role.
Employees have their day jobs that keep them fully occupied. Leaders falsely believe they can add a major change initiative to this mix. These same leaders will also emphasize that the change is a priority. Employees know that their role is their priority. It is what their paycheck and a bonus are based upon. Leaders need to evaluate whether or not the project is properly resourced throughout the change initiative.
Leaders step too far away from the change.
It is common for leaders to delegate the change to a team to implement. This automatically misaligns the leaders to the change initiative, and is the third error top leaders make when implementing a change in their organization. While the top leaders should not get mired in the details, they still need to be actively involved.
When top leaders step away from the change, they lose the perspective of where the organization is in implementing the change. They may assume another change can be introduced; in reality, the organization may be slowly moving through the first one.
Top leaders may not accurately see what is happening, and instead focus on what is not happening. They then likely would respond with messages to speed up. This message will backfire and make employees feel the message is about their laziness.
Finally, decisions made by the change implementing team may not align to how top leaders would make that same decision. Top leaders have more information about the organization’s future than any other group. As a result, the change implementation team may make a decision that will greatly impact the organization in the long term. It is more difficult to undo or change something in the future than it is to deal with it in the present.
Transformational change is never easy. Leaders can make the effort challenging when they under scope and under resource the change project. Additionally, when leaders delegate too much of the change work to a dedicated team, misalignment will almost always occur.
By being aware of these common leader pitfalls, transformational change in the organization has a greater chance of making it to the finish line.