Level5 Roundtable: The art of successful change management | Avoiding change failure (Part 2)

Change management failure is a reality for many organizations. Yet transformation efforts are often out of sync with best practices. It’s time to rethink your change strategy.


In Part 2 of this two-part Roundtable Series, Level5 Strategy’s Managing Partner Claude Ricks, Principal Jordan Shapiro and Senior Consultant Joseph Smith, continue their earlier discussion and reveal mistakes companies make when implementing change. They also share solutions that help organizations capitalize on disruption instead of being hindered by it.


Why do so many companies fail to successfully implement change?

Because they don’t design a clear narrative that:

  • Bridges the gap between strategy and implementation.
  • Clarifies the direction of change.
  • Provides the permission for change.
  • Acts as a change playbook.

Joseph: Most organizations treat change management as part of the implementation phase, instead of the strategy phase. But by waiting to apply change until the implementation stage, it may already be too late. This is when people become upset because they haven’t been properly engaged throughout the change management process. At Level5 Strategy, we embed change management principles early on, as we’re helping clients build their strategy. It clarifies the direction of change so everyone is properly brought into the fold and knows where the change is heading.

I should also add that, sometimes, people procrastinate to apply change in a timely way because they’re resistant to it. It’s natural to want things to stay the way they are – it’s familiar, comfortable and things are often “good enough” for the time being.

Jordan: Companies often fail at navigating change because they’re not effective at bridging strategy and execution. They may build some frameworks and tools but, as the strategy comes together,questions get raised, such as “Are we ready for change?”.Organizations only then begin to examine whether this is the right moment for change and which stakeholders are on board. These are great questions to be asking, but it’s much more important they be asked alongside the development of the strategy, and not after directions have already been set. Every team differs in their ability, willingness and flexibility to absorb change. So, to make sure companies aren’t risking the delivery of business outcomes due to poor change management, it’s important to understand the “readiness” of the organization to change. Once this is deeply understood, and gaps to close are built into the early stages of the plan, it becomes easier for the C-suite to give permission for change that resonates across the organization.

This preparedness for change is even more complex today because we’ve all adopted a different work mode over the past 18-months, which has been a major game changer. People have effectively been trying to embrace non-stop change almost every day and adapt their habits to remain engaged, connected and productive. On a micro level, things have been rapidly transforming. When you add the layer of strategic change on a macro level, it risks becoming an even more complicated roadmap to navigate.

Claude: We worked with a client that embraced a paradigm-shifting strategic plan four years ago. These were very, very significant shifts that changed the organization’s underlying principles. Fast-forward three years, the organization now considers that paradigm shift as table stakes. In other words, organizations need to come up with a change playbook, underpinned by a vision of where they’re going. With the right playbook, they won’t force the change until smaller pieces of the puzzle start coming into place. To make the change in one step would be impossible for any company. They can’t go from zero to a 100. They need to make the change over 20, 30 baby steps. But then it becomes baked into their business as usual.


“To make sure companies aren’t risking the delivery of business outcomes due to poor change management, it’s important to understand the “readiness” of the organization to change. Once this is deeply understood, and gaps to close are built into the early stages of the plan, it becomes easier for the C-suite to give permission for change that resonates across the organization.”


What are the pitfalls that hinder organizational change management?

  • Lack of clarity regarding new behaviours and processes.
  • Ineffective strategy for dealing with change detractors.
  • Over-thinking change and having a low tolerance for mistakes.  

Jordan: Clarity of vision and unified leadership is critical for gaining alignment across the organization and rallying support for the change. But the vision on a macro level means little if there’s no clarity around expected behaviours and ways of working on a micro level. People need to know how their role is going to change and what’s expected of them as the changes are being implemented. There needs to be a clear orchestration of the thousand steps – not only the five big leaps.

Claude: Not everyone is going to be a cheerleader of change. But if there are detractors, our job is to neutralize their impact. This means having one-on-one conversations with detractors. These aren’t training courses but neither are they email conversations or an occasional meeting. It’s a genuine, human interaction to gain understanding of their perspective and ensure that they can see a mutually agreeable way forward. Let’s not forget that change detractors are influencers; they’re instrumental in bringing other mid-managers into the process where they can exert influence, have a voice and help us to get their peers embrace change.

Joseph: It’s healthy to question organizational direction but when leaders overthink it, they may fall into analysis paralysis. So, instead of advancing with the focus on the bigger picture, they freeze by scrutinizing every little decision, verifying every figure and reconsidering every move. Another pitfall is leadership’s low tolerance for mistakes. When change is being implemented, there are going to be mistakes along the way. If leaders aren’t comfortable with mistakes, it usually means that they’re playing too safe by not taking enough risks. Leaders who take risks view mistakes as growth opportunities and wake up calls for further change initiatives.


“When change is being implemented, there are going to be mistakes along the way. If leaders aren’t comfortable with mistakes, it usually means that they’re playing too safe by not taking enough risks. Leaders who take risks view mistakes as growth opportunities and wake up calls for further change initiatives.”


What should organizations do to ensure success?

  • Periodically reassess the direction of change.
  • Reinforce the guiding principles of change.
  • Manage processes, resources and objectives with agility.

Joseph: It isn’t enough for companies to have a long-term horizon that they strive for. Because, by the time they get there, the world could change; suddenly they may find themselves following a strategy they created for a world that looks very different than it did when they started. Companies on a change journey must develop mechanisms that enable them to be sensitive and amenable to shifting external forces. As a result, they’ll be able to make the appropriate internal adaptations that can allow them to adjust course and continue heading in the right direction. That’s why they should build reassessment points into their change plan – to ensure that the world hasn’t moved in a different direction since they embarked on their change journey. To read about a real example of how to put this into practice for enterprise transformations, click here to an insightful interview with Kathleen Kresky, VP Transformation at Gore Mutual.

Jordan: We’ve talked a great deal about how organizations need to become more customer-centric; in the context of change management the same concepts apply, just that in this case, the ‘customer’ is primarily inside the organization. Once organizations decide to undertake a significant change effort, we help them remain focused on the promise by continuously assessing whether the teams leading the change are consistently keeping those promises and ensuring ongoing support and engagement. Just because a company has adopted a great plan, it shouldn’t assume that it’s going to work without continuous reinforcement of the guiding principles for change, re-affirming the end-game they’re aiming for and demonstrating progress against those goals. This is accomplished by staying connected and continuing to communicate change by asking questions such as “How are we doing?” “Where do we need to do more?” and “Where are we doing great?”

Claude: Companies need to exercise agility with processes, resources and objectives. To be able to achieve that, they need to instill and cultivate an agile culture. But their ability to respond quickly and effectively is more than just a statement of culture – it’s a source of their competitive advantage. They have to be comfortable with a degree of ambiguity in order to drive successful change. Companies that say “Okay, we’ll go down this path and pivot when necessary” is a measure of a culture that’s prepared to change. Also, a successful culture is one that is comfortable with the notion that organizational change, while messy, is best handled at the front end where ideas are being shared and options considered versus at the back end where the “cake is baked” and the focus is on execution. Bridging the gap between strategy and execution by bringing the team into the strategy & planning phase is a great way to begin building that culture.


“Companies need to exercise agility with processes, resources and objectives. To be able to achieve that, they need to instill and cultivate an agile culture.”


In closing

To avoid change management failure, organizations need to consistently articulate the narrative that demystifies where the change is heading, gives the green light for the transformation and acts as a change playbook. They must also define new behaviours and processes and neutralize detractors of change – while accepting that mistakes will happen along the way. These initiatives will ensure that the companies avoid failure when adopting change so they can drive desired outcomes and minimize turbulence.

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