Challenging change management: The way out is through

Change Management literature often mentions how important people are to its success. Specifically, success is couched as employee acceptance, or even empowerment, as a result of changes initiated by managers. We all love success stories but how do we go from a place which “needs improvement” to success? When you Google “change management” and success, you get 14.7 million results. When you Google “change management” and challenges, you get 16 million hits. Clearly, there is more to the story than simply success.

There are the oft-quoted statistics from management and consulting companies that “70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support” (McKinsey and Co.) and that “only 25% of change management initiatives are successful over the long term” (Towers Watson). Both refer to the challenges of maintaining success during and after change management programs.

Let’s take a look at five common challenges in change management:

1. Not acknowledging challenges (also known as ‘No one dies at Disneyland’)

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Success stories frequently omit or gloss over the parts that didn’t work so well, or perhaps not at all. But how can we measure success if we don’t account for failures? How can we learn from our mistakes if we do not acknowledge them? A key lesson is that “Employees cannot be blamed when they “screw up.” Managers will need to take responsibility in these situations” according to Ali and Ivanov[1].

There needs to be communication about the reasons for change and support for employees such as information and resources. Deming’s Fourteen Principles of Management cited in Ali and Ivanov implies this in the first point: “to create a constant purpose toward improvement”. This means not just settling for a management mandated idea of success but having a feedback process where employees can safely and honestly identify where things are not working — to really strive to make things better, not just to look good. Urban myths like the one this trope is named after have been proven untrue but they persist. Even though there may have been challenges, if it isn’t published or communicated somehow, it is much like perpetuating an urban myth.

2. Management is out of touch (aka ‘Rolled-up-sleeves CEO’)

There are two sides to this trope borrowed from Lipman’s article in Forbes exploring why change management fails. If there is constant pressure to make the change work, then employees may feel that they have to give good news or pull the punches — leaving management out of touch. There is also the case of senior management who refuses to listen. As Lipman writes, “[The] chief executive needs to be genuinely and highly visibly committed to the initiative — something he or she really believes in”. Part of this commitment is making themselves available to explain why the change was necessarily in the first place.

3. No context (aka ‘The rescue remedy’)

The new transformative program fixes everything and anything! This problem occurs both in top-down communication and in the process of rolling out change initiatives. The first especially applies to change for the sake of making things feel fresh again. The latter applies to the difference between a vision and reality. Gibbings states that “Where people fall [down] is where they apply [change management theory] with no context. They expect change to unroll step-by-step. Theory makes change look sequential and a series of things to get through to an ultimate outcome”. One way to avoid this problem to examine the reason for the change — start with the problem, not with a solution looking for a problem.

4. Unrealistic goals (aka ‘Find the last unicorn’)

Is it too good to be true? Are you trying to do more with less? How about halving the staff to serve double the amount of clients with a new Customer Management Program! It sounds absurd but when couched in terms of ‘improving customer service’ and ‘increased staff efficiency’, unrealistic goals can be masked by a beautifully-worded vision. Meeting goals comes down to resources — both in terms of capacity and skills. Or to paraphrase Lipman, Google may be the current model everyone wants to emulate, but is it realistic or necessary for your organisation? Dea notes that large scale-organisational change is complex and to make it work, you need to invest time and money. You can’t cut off all the corners and expect to make a square from a circle. It’s not impossible to make a smaller square…but you may have lead yourself back to square one, except with less.

5. New problems (aka ‘Same sh*t, different way’)

Change can lead to a new set of problems. For example, a new knowledge management system may work faster and do more things but may not be compatible with older computers or even older file types. How are these new problems addressed? For success to occur, there needs to be “ongoing, two-way communication between those responsible for leading the change and those responsible for making the change happen” (Longenecker and Longenecker, 2014)[2]. Longenecker and Longenecker mention that needs to be support offered in terms of additional time, training and resources. Without support, your change initiative may be followed by “frustration and failure”.

The simple truth

All of these problems boil down to a lack of honest communication. (And honest communication cannot occur in culture of fear). It is not news to anyone that no system is perfect — so why are we hesitant to admit that no change program is perfect? Let’s admit it: change can be stressful and unrewarding. It does not always bring along the vision as promised, particularly if the vision belonged to management and employees are left with more problems and less staff and time to deal with them. It would take a miracle or a change of heart to reduce turnover. Management needs to be able to admit that change is not always for the better. Sometimes, you have to take two steps forward and one step back. Let’s start by talking about what isn’t working.

Image source: change by m.a.r.c. is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0.


  1. Ali, A & Ivanov, S. (2015). Change Management Issues in a Large Multinational Corporation: A Study of People and Systems. International Journal of Organizational Innovation (Online), 8(1), 24.
  2. Longenecker, P. D., & Longenecker, C. O. (2014). Why hospital improvement efforts fail: a view from the front line. Journal Of Healthcare Management, 59(2), 147.

Originally published at RealKM.