Overcoming Roadblocks to Successful Change

By Ron Rosenberg

Mar. 1, 1999

If we know where to go, why is change so difficult?
There are a variety of obstacles that companies may need to overcome and that may hinder their efforts to achieve successful change. These roadblocks are as diverse as the companies they come from.

The following roadblocks are representative of some of the issues individuals are facing today when trying to implement organizational change. As you read each of the descriptions, decide if the roadblock is affecting your progress.

Roadblock: A group that reports to someone else
It is very difficult to be responsible for improvement initiatives for a group that does not directly report to you. Even if you have the best intentions, the group may perceive that you are interfering where you do not belong. As an outsider, you appear to know little about the real issues and how they can best be solved. This will make it difficult for you to gain support from the group.

Roadblock: Without support there can be no change
Among people with functions like corporate quality director, change agent, and vice president of human resources, there is a great debate over the best way to achieve significant results from change initiatives.

One widely held belief is that to achieve tangible change, the support of senior management is needed. This belief makes sense for a variety of reasons and is frequently used as a lever to get senior managers on board. Just as frequently, however, it is used as justification by middle managers to abdicate responsibility for ownership of their functions or as an excuse for a well-intentioned—but unsuccessful—change initiative.

The important thing to keep in perspective is that while it is important to have senior leadership support, how you define senior leadership makes the difference between success and failure. Leadership occurs at many levels, and similarly, change can occur at many levels.

Roadblock: Function versus process organization
Many organizations still face the problem that they are organized along silo-like functions, instead of along cross-functional lines. These groups are focused solely on their own functional area without any interaction with the groups that are upstream or downstream in the overall process.

This type of organization prevents individual groups from playing a part in the end-to-end processes that directly serve the customer base. This traditional, hierarchical system can promote a culture in which competing groups battle against each other—sometimes for the sake of competition—instead of working together to initiate improvement efforts that will meet the needs and expectations of their customers.

Roadblock: Rewards based on individual versus team performance
From the time we entered kindergarten, through high school and college, the instructions were always the same: keep your eyes on your own paper; do your own assignment; do not get help from your friends.

When we start our careers, eager to make an impact, we are told about the importance of working in teams. Although this is contradictory to everything we have been taught up to this point, it somehow makes sense, so we become hopeful and optimistic.

Unfortunately, this euphoria is short-lived. In most organizations, when it comes time for compensation and recognition, everything is based on individual—not team—performance. How can we expect people to invest the effort and energy that are needed in a team environment when we reward them based on the success of their individual efforts?

Roadblock: Rewards based on short-term performance
At lower levels in an organization—the levels where the more noticeable work actually takes place—it is appropriate for performance to be measured on short-term accomplishment: closing the books at the end of the period, correcting a missed shipment, or completing a development project on time.

Unfortunately, this short-term mentality frequently remains with managers as they progress farther and farther up the ladder. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that, in many organizations, short-term efforts are the only ones that are routinely rewarded.

This makes for an extremely difficult environment in which to attempt change because many approaches to change and improvement require an investment of funds, resources and time. If the organization is too focused on short-term outcomes, it will be virtually impossible to gain the commitment necessary to make significant and lasting change.

Roadblock: Rewarding effort instead of results
A surprising number of organizations reward effort rather than results. For example, the raise, bonus, and promotion, as well as the glory, may go to the employee who successfully deals with a major customer crisis—even if he was the one who caused it in the first place!

The way to determine an organization’s values—its real values which may or may not be the same ones posted on the wall in the boardroom—is to look at who gets rewarded and take note of that person’s activities.

Roadblock: Change blockers
In almost every organization, as in most personal situations, there are some people who will resist change. They may simply be apprehensive about an unknown future. They may be comfortable with the status quo. Or they may have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It may also be the fact that people tend to be naturally resistant to change. For whatever reason, these individuals who resist change will have a negative impact and will seriously impede the organization’s efforts to change.

Roadblock: The “do more with less” approach
Frequently, organizations reduce staffing to minimum levels and expect employees to produce the same level of output. This “do more with less” approach burns people out so that they do not have the energy to attack improvement with the level of enthusiasm that is needed.

Too often, we form unreasonable expectations about what our teams are capable of and then expect them to fulfill these expectations. Often, the managers in these organizations do not realize that they have pushed their people too far. I have a very clear recollection early in my career of a director of engineering telling our team that it was okay to burn out engineers. You can see how this would demoralize even the most enthusiastic group.

Roadblock: No training—just get better!
Sometimes, the organization takes a more severe approach to change. There is no training, no investment in resources, and no commitment of time. There is only a mandate to “Do better!” Curiously, these organizations, when confronted with employees’ perceptions of this situation, will insist that this is a work smarter—not harder approach, not the “do more with less approach” that it generally is.

Roadblock: Too busy
“I’m too busy,” can be a valid explanation for deferring a change initiative. There can be a sudden burst of sales that requires the focus of everyone involved. Or there might be an important market opportunity that requires immediate attention.

The problem is that very often, as in our personal lives, the things that people are too busy with are often not really important—just urgent. A flurry of activity can make us feel like we are really contributing to the success of the company.

If, however, there are major changes that need to be addressed and everyone is too busy to get to them, then the activities that could really help the organization are ignored and never fully addressed.

Roadblock: There is not enough money in the budget
Organizations in the early stages of maturity tend to operate more from a tactical approach rather than from a strategic approach. This often means that decisions about investing in new programs, methodologies, tools, and training are made more often because of budgetary issues rather than by the actual needs of the organization.

Many organizations seem to run out of money, with frightening predictability, at the same time every year and put into place across-the-board cost-cutting measures like travel, hiring, and training freezes.

This seasonal approach to spending can have a dramatic impact on change and improvement initiatives because the best-laid plans will lose momentum and come to a grinding halt. When funding is cut, the attention of employees will be diverted back to the real world crisis mode.

Roadblock: Change as an event—not a process
Change initiatives frequently happen in response to a major crisis. For example, a serious situation may arise in which a customer threatens action if the situation is not remedied quickly. Special teams are formed with key employees who must identify the problem and fix the root cause. Unfortunately, when the immediate crisis is solved, it is back to business as usual. For change to be effective, it must be sustainable, not a discrete event.

Roadblock: Success
One of the most potent roadblocks to change is success! People in several companies have complained, “We really need to improve in the ‘X’ area, but we are so successful that we cannot get anyone’s attention.”

Why do they need to change if they are so successful? The answer invariably is that the success may be a result of a lack of competition or a limited market advantage. If the company does not start making improvements now, it could be left behind when the environment changes and the company cannot match the competition.

Roadblock: Flavor of the month approach with competing initiatives
Many times, a major roadblock to successful change is an organization’s previous attempts at change. Although usually done with the best of intentions, too many groups roll out one improvement model after another in a seemingly endless sequence.

This flavor of the month approach only makes people more and more cynical over time. Besides the actual failure of the initiative, a failed roll-out almost always discourages future attempts at change.

Roadblock: Premature training
In an attempt to get everyone involved, and under the good intention of “establishing a common language” or “defining a common process,” many organizations try to launch their change initiatives by putting all employees through a standardized training program.

Unfortunately, if the organization is not at a high enough level of readiness, this approach can be a huge waste of time, energy and resources. Typically, the effectiveness of change programs deployed under this approach is measured by the number of people trained and the number of teams formed. Unfortunately, most people in the organization will recognize that these metrics are meaningless.

Roadblock: Fear of working oneself out of a job
Some of the reluctance towards improvement and change initiatives comes from a fear of being so successful that one will actually work oneself out of a job. In many cases, this is an unfounded fear. Individuals who can effect change in an organization are in high demand these days—both inside and outside their own organization.

Unfortunately, in many cases, reengineering has become a euphemism for downsizing. Organizations have reengineered employees out of their jobs. In many cases, this was necessary. But there continue to be stories of cases where this was just a facade for cuts that were already planned.

Roadblock: It will never work here—our organization is different
Businesses have the constant pressures of product deadlines, bottom-line results, regulatory issues, and increasing competition. One would expect that addressing these issues would drive companies to find ways to become more efficient and effective, but often they become paralyzed to the point where they do nothing but flounder.

And this is not limited to the corporate environment. Educational institutions have their own set of issues. Budget cuts, changing requirements and needs, and alternative approaches to traditional methods keep things in a constant state of flux.

In the public sector, staffing levels—right down to the individual position—are frequently set by state or local legislators. The entire leadership of the organization is potentially changed every few years, meaning that any progress that has been made may be lost.

Whenever a cookie-cutter approach to improvement is introduced, there are always the naysayers who claim that, “It won’t work here because our organization is different.” And it is hard to separate the resistance from the truth. Some people in an organization look for any excuse to dismiss an effort that will require them to change their behavior.

There is a lot of validity in saying that a one-size-fits-all approach to change will not work. In fact, that is the whole point. You need to tailor your approach to change to meet the needs of your organization.

It is time to make change happen
If you are trying to make improvements in your organization, it may seem as if you are trying to move a large object by tying a rope to it and pushing on the rope. It gets really frustrating, and brings to mind an apt statement: “The only good thing about banging your head against the wall is that it feels good when you stop.”

So, stop banging your head against the wall. Recognize that change is difficult. Recognize that you will not always get the level of support you want—or need. On the brighter side, recognize that step-by-step you can begin to make progress in your change efforts by understanding the capability of your organization to support its change initiatives.

What is important for you to remember is that organizations at all levels of readiness can successfully initiate change—it is simply a matter of doing the following.

  • Identify the level of readiness and select an appropriate approach to implementing change.
  • Recognize that in the real world, change usually happens from the inside out, not from the top down.
  • Remember, your organization is very different from any other organization; and because of that, your strategy for initiating change will be unique to your organization. That is why it is important to select a program that meets the specific needs of the particular group, not because another company had great success with it.

Your level of readiness is probably different from the other company’s and, therefore, your approach should be different as well. In fact, as you already know, this issue is at the heart of the entire Organizational Maturity (TM) model!

SOURCE: Excerpted from Breaking Out of the Change Trap by Ron Rosenberg.

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