What I have learned from a failed change

20 June 2019
author picture Article written by Anna Balk-Møller

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”, said Thomas Edison, who made one of our time’s greatest changes. There is so much truth in that quote. But seriously – who has the time and money for 10,000 attempts?

Nearly a decade ago, I courageously embarked on an adventure of managing the people side of an organisational turnaround. With little preliminary qualifications besides the eagerness that follows ignorance about the complexity of managing a change, I ventured into a journey that ended exactly where we did not want. Here are three take-aways from that educational experience.


Lesson #1 : You need top management involvement 

Though the transition was demanded by top management, we struggled with lack of executive commitment from the get-go. With little direction about where they would like us to end up. With lack of resource allocation to manage the transition. With lack of willingness to advocate the need of the transition to our organisation. We had to do without. Had I been given those terms today, I would politely decline the task.

Both my personal experience and Prosci’s (market leader in change management) best practice studies have consistently shown that executive sponsorship is key to success in change and transitions. Not only is it the number one reason for success, the lack thereof is also the number one reason for failure. So, without top management engagement, failure was almost inevitable for us.

According to Prosci’s research studies, executive sponsors’ have the following ‘job description’ in transitions – to be maintained throughout the project lifecycle – not just at the beginning:

  1. Be active and visible
  2. Build a coalition of sponsorship (amongst key leaders and stakeholders)
  3. Manage resistance
  4. Communicate directly to employees


Lesson #2: You need a structured approach

The second thing we did wrong was having an extremely flexible approach to the process. We knew the organisation and the people well and thought it best not to plan too far ahead to accommodate for immediate needs. This was an organisation with outspoken antipathy towards management and all that reeked of leadership. An organisation where the average employee age was 58 with a typical seniority of 30 years. Furthermore, it was an organisation with a history of never laying off people. So, basically people had no incentive to engage in the transition, and they had been there for longer than those who dictated the transition (displaying a ‘this too shall pass’ mentality). Also, they knew that not getting on board would have absolutely no consequences for their job security.

With this knowledge, we thought it best to create an open and involving process. But in retrospect, it was too open, too unstructured. We didn’t plan more than 3-4 months ahead, which led us to spend far too much time and energy on present challenges with limited progress. We should have had a high-level approach to keep us attentive on progress, and to ensure that our focus and process were adapted to the specific phases. Years later, when I attended Prosci’s Change Management Certification Programme, I sighed of relief as I was presented to ‘a recipe for change management’ that provided the kind of structure we did not know we needed.


Lesson #3: You need to carefully plan resistance management

The way I have described the organisation’s employees should make any Change Manager foresee a lot of resistance. And there was! We took extraordinary measures to accommodate for that resistance. With the mantra ‘the train is leaving the station – get on board’, we wanted employees to understand that this thing was happening. We invited for countless debates, listened to concerns, accommodated for feedback, involved them and co-created our a… off. We used every tactic available.

In retrospect, the massive energy spent on the resistance took away a lot of constructive energy from moving ahead. This was frustrating for those who had actually boarded the train and waited impatiently for the train to speed up.

What I know now is that we don’t have to get everybody on the train before leaving the platform. The change process is an individual process and people will always adopt at different paces. We should have spent less time getting the ‘late bloomers’ onboard. But as these employees often have the loudest voices, we fell into the trap of giving them far too much attention. We should have focused on the majority who could swing either way. It is not that we did not do it – we just did it far too late.

Having a much deeper understanding of the nature of resistance, makes it quite clear that it is a nuanced field. The way to approach it differs, depending on the individual drivers behind it. And the energy of dealing with it, should be more about planning the right tactics than using all tactics.

This transition turned out to be my entry into the field of change management. And like Thomas Edison, who eventually got it right with the light bulb, I have used the learnings in practically every change process I have been involved in since. And thankfully, it did not take 10,000 attempts.

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