3 Pitfalls Along the Journey to Change and How to Avoid Them

September 21, 2023 Ken Blanchard

As Mark Twain famously commented, “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” But Twain, who was born in 1835, had it easy. Back in the nineteenth century, people could count on a certain amount of routine in their lives. Changes happened, of course, but they did so gradually.

Today, advances in technology and communication have speeded up the pace of change. These days we’re likely to be adapting to some kind of change at least monthly, rather than once every year or two.

Change isn’t comfortable. Have you ever finally learned how to use a computer program, only to have to adapt to a newer version? Or how about when the bank you’ve used for years is bought by a bigger bank, and you have to learn all new account numbers, policies, and procedures?

Like us, organizations must adapt to change, or else they risk becoming obsolete and failing. But the journey of leading people through change has many pitfalls, and change efforts often don’t succeed. In Leading at a Higher Level, Pat Zigarmi and Judd Hoekstra found no less than fifteen predictable reasons why change efforts fail. Let’s look at three of these pitfalls—and how to avoid them.

Pitfall #1: Announcing the Change without Getting Input

When leaders become aware that a change needs to be made in an organization, they often neglect to talk about it with all the people who will be carrying out the change. In these leaders’ minds, the business case for the change is clear. They are so convinced the change must occur that they don’t think a discussion with a broader group is necessary. They simply announce the change at an all-company meeting and expect everyone else to implement it.

Not surprisingly, announcing the change without getting input from those who will be implementing the change often fails. When a change initiative is imposed on them, people tend to resist it rather than act on it. The change gets derailed, and things return to the status quo—which can cause the organization to stagnate and, in some cases, fail.

By involving people in decision making about the change, leaders significantly increase the probability that the change will be embraced rather than resisted.

Pitfall #2: Ignoring People’s Concerns about the Change

Once leaders have introduced a proposed change, they need to stop and listen, because people will have thoughts and feelings about it. The leader’s job is to surface and address their concerns, which will fall into five categories:

  • Information concerns: What is this change all about?
  • Personal concerns: How will this change impact me personally?
  • Implementation concerns: What do I do, and where do I go for help?
  • Impact concerns: Is the change worth it?
  • Collaboration concerns: Who else is involved, and how do I coordinate with them?

Years ago, I worked with AT&T back when they were breaking the organization up into smaller companies. We conducted mourning sessions, so people could grieve what would be lost due to the change. People had concerns about their status, their relationships with colleagues, and how the change would affect their jobs. Once these concerns were addressed, people were able to take interest in how the change might benefit them.

So, rather than jumping right into selling people on the change, first find out what people are thinking. Only after you surface and address everyone’s concerns about the change can you get people excited about its benefits.

Pitfall #3: Planning the Change Without Involving Those Who Will Implement the Change

Just as it’s important to involve people in early decision-making about the change, it’s equally important to involve them in planning the implementation of the change. Those who will be carrying out the change on a day-to-day basis are more likely than C-level leaders to know what obstacles may arise and how to overcome them. By soliciting their input and feedback, you not only will make people feel heard, but you also will gain important information.

When people have no voice or involvement in how change is implemented, they feel devalued and controlled. On the other hand, when you invite people to help plan the change, they are much more likely to embrace it and encourage their coworkers to participate in it. As the saying goes:

Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.

Don’t forget to catch people doing things right during the implementation phase by acknowledging the contributions of individuals and teams. And be sure to celebrate important milestones along the journey to change!

Like leadership, change is something you do with people, not to people. As you lead people through change, remember that while the change is important, the people involved in it are even more important. Their buy-in will make the difference between failure and success.

About the Author

Ken Blanchard

Dr. Ken Blanchard is the cofounder and Chief Spiritual Officer of Blanchard®, an international management training and consulting firm. Ken is the coauthor of The One Minute Manager, as well as 65 other books with combined sales totaling more than 21 million copies.

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