Why Leading Change is Hard and What You Need to Win

Change is an inevitable part of life, particularly in business. But studies have trended for over a decade indicating that upwards of 60–70 percent of all change efforts fail to deliver upon their intended result of bringing about a transformation or improving performance. The artful craft of communicating vision and change is arguably the most important skill set for leaders across all sectors. If this is true, then why do leaders have so much trouble executing successfully and seeing their plans come to fruition?

why leading change is hard

The answer, in part, has to do with a lack of self-awareness. Often, the visionary leader paints a big picture of the horizon but isn’t aware that in order to move the needle and truly bring about transformational change, they have to make the path forward feel safe for everyone else on the team who will be following behind. They need to build a bridge, in other words.

Followers tend to be more present-oriented and have an innate need to understand the details involved in making changes. They usually have lots of questions about the way forward, and without solid answers, an undercurrent of doubt and fear results, which ultimately leads to resistance. Of course leaders want their followers to be responsive and not resistant, and they can create a culture of responsiveness by being prepared to answer three kinds of questions that provide the critical details followers need to cross the bridge to the new frontier:

  • What – The question behind the stuff in the organization that needs to change, such as structure, systems, processes, technology, products, and/or services.
  • Who – The question behind the human dynamics of change, including individual mindset and behavior, as well as the macro and micro organizational cultures that exist. Key elements include point of view, emotions, values, motivations, commitments, communications, engagement, politics, development, and readiness.
  • How – The question behind the way the “what” and “who” changes will be planned, designed, and implemented. The change process includes all the change-related actions and decisions from the moment of conceiving the felt need to change to the full realization of the intended organizational and cultural outcomes.

Leaders often and swiftly move to common ground around the “what” solutions because that is where most of us live and put our focus. Unfortunately, results do not come simply from the new structure, program, or technology. Desired outcomes get produced only when the “who” embrace those solutions, emotionally own them, and maximize their utilization. Underperformance, breakdown, and failure in transformation nearly always occur in the areas of people and the change process – the who and the how.

Call It

  1. What percentage of intentional leadership attention do you place on the following?
  • The What – The stuff needing to be changed
  • The Who – Those who will eventually be responsible to carry out the what
  • The How – The operational plan that builds the bridge from current reality to your preferred future.
  1. What percentage of your executive team’s total leadership attention goes toward the three factors above?
  2. What can you own in terms of misalignment among the three and how might you respond with a better-balanced approach?

Want to go deeper? My next post will help you better understand the types of organizational change and strategies upon which your success rate can quickly progress toward 100 percent.


Image credit: Louis Llerena