What to Do if Your Change Project Begins to Stall

Every change initiative hits bumps in the road so it’s smart to be prepared for both wins and losses. Whether you are changing organization culture, implementing a new strategy, merging organizations, adopting a new IT system, or even going through bankruptcy, you need to take decisive action if momentum starts to slip. Here are tactics to address some of the more common causes:

  1. Redouble leadership of the change
    When energy and momentum drain away it’s usually because the leadership needs to be stronger. For major change initiatives, the leader must align key sponsors of the change early and make sure they know their accountabilities for success of the change. Ongoing communication and weekly progress sessions will be needed to get the change back on track. This doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but no one can substitute for the leader when it comes legitimizing the change and making sure that it is making good progress. If the change effort is flagging, check the leadership.
  2. Strengthen change sponsorship throughout the organization
    It’s not enough to align sponsors; the leader needs to make sure that those sponsors are supporting the change both publicly and privately, and ensuring that their groups are effectively moving the change forward. If they do not do this, there will be resistance to the change. A large gas and electric utility I worked with was failing in their ERP implementation because people were very resistant to the new system. The primary problem wasn’t the employee resistance, but rather senior executives treated the change as an IT project—and told their own groups it wasn’t a priority. Once the senior group understood the importance of their sponsorship throughout the organization, and learned how to be strong sponsors, the initiative recovered and was completed on time and under budget. Sponsors have the power to make or break a change initiative—make sure they are doing their jobs.
  3. Ensure that exemplars (role models) are effective
    An important element of change is to have people in important positions throughout the organization be role models for the change. This particularly important when behavioral change is a core part of the effort, such as with culture change. Nothing is as powerful in changing behaviors as having people in such positions acting in the new way. If they don’t, then you cannot expect anyone else to either. People tend to believe what they see, more so than what they are told. This was a serious problem for an 800-employee transportation system I worked with. The first behavioral change has to be demonstrated at the top—to their attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes it takes extra attention to get past this stage.
  4. Improve communications of the change
    Managers are usually very good at breaking-down a change initiative into segments and assigning responsibilities and timelines. And while that is an important part of moving change forward, it is simply not enough. The organization needs to understand the change, how it’s progressing, what to expect next, and when it will be completed for a change effort to be successful. A retail bank I worked with spent months putting together highly detailed project plans and committees for a major change only to find that while they had programmed the structure of the change, they were devoid of the energy and heart needed to move the change successfully because they were not communicating nearly enough.
  5. Heighten the focus on accountabilities
    The opposite problem can also be problematic for a change initiative: Too much communications and not enough plans and accountabilities. Kick-off meetings, strategy communications, slogans, banners, t-shirts, and pizza can help get a change off the ground, but they must be accompanied by the accountability needed to make pragmatic progress. Several mergers and acquisitions I’ve seen have had this problem—they had the financial green light and lots of communications, but required much more management attention, project structure and accountability to be successful.
  6. Discontinue inappropriate change models (see how people are reacting)
    Finally, I have seen cases where misapplied or erroneous change management tactics have backfired. In one case, the management team moved ahead on the assumption that major change required a “burning platform” and “pain management”—that is, people needed to feel pain or they would not change. What actually happened was a revolt where people didn’t want anything to do with the change after being treated in that way. While such an approach may be appropriate in certain cases, other approaches can be far more effective for moving an entire organization in concert with a major change. The key is to begin with an effective approach, but maintain regular feedback from the organization on how it is working.

In Summary
If your change initiative begins to fall-off, you need to diagnose the cause and take appropriate action. Often times the cause is not readily apparent. Make sure you’re not treating symptoms.