Why it’s so hard to implement change

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 Jo, a representative of the marketing team. 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.

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