Building a Foundation for Change
by Rick Maurer

Why So Many Changes Fail ... and What to Do About It

A significant number of organizational changes are doomed to fail. Recent surveys reported the following success rates:

  • reengineering efforts: 33% 
  • mergers and acquisitions: 29% 
  • quality improvement efforts: 50% 
  • new software applications: 20%
  • These grim statistics represent a tremendous cost to organizations in terms of money, resources, and time. Failed change initiatives also take a human toll. Employees are left feeling discouraged, distrustful and reluctant to participate in the next round of failures.

    What often goes wrong? Intelligent people develop a plan that includes a sound business reason for the change. The objectives are clear, time lines are spelled out, and budgets and staffing requirements are calculated. Everything seems on target. But, it's what's not in the plan that creates problems. What most plans lack are strategies for building support for the change.

    According to a survey of Fortune 500 executives, the primary reason that changes fail in organizations is resistance. And yet, we seldom figure out ways to transform opposition into support. Face it, resistance is real. No matter how brilliant or needed an idea, resistance will occur. It is a natural reaction to change. It protects people from what they think will harm them. Leaders who close their eyes to resistance are inviting disaster.

    There is a better way: Build a foundation for change. Rather than assuming people will automatically love your idea, add strategies to your plan to build support for the change. To do so, four steps should be part of every plan.

    A Foundation for Change

    1. Conduct a Change Readiness Assessment

    2. Get Others Involved

    3. Plan for the Inevitable

    4. Monitor Support


    Step 1: Conduct a Change Readiness Assessment

    A change readiness assessment answers the question, "Where are we today?" It looks at both past practices and the current situation. Below is a questionnaire that can help you begin that assessment. Ask a cross-section of people in the organization to complete it. Often, your own vantage point allows only you to see a portion of the whole picture; other departments and levels within the organization will give you a more complete view of where things stand.

    1. History of Change:

    What's our track record handling change?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    The past is the best predictor of the future. If your ideas were met with cheers in the past, then it might be reasonable to expect that a new initiative will meet with similar applause. However, if past changes were nothing but headaches -- if you had to fight, manipulate, cajole, and make back room deals to push your ideas through -- then expect much the same this time. Low scores indicate a strong likelihood that this change will be resisted with great force. You will need to demonstrate repeatedly that you are serious -- and that this change is important. People are likely to be very skeptical, you will need to be persistent.

    2. Direction:

    Do people throughout the organization understand and accept the direction the company is moving and the values that fuel that vision?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    Low scores could indicate a conflict over values and overall direction. The people who must support the change may not believe they share much common ground with you. This is a serious problem. It almost guarantees that any major change will be resisted. Without shared values and vision, people lack a context for the change.

    On the other hand, low scores simply may indicate a communication problem. In some organizations, values and visions remain secret. People don't know where the organization is going. Senior management hangs onto these documents as if they were sacred texts that only they, the high priests, can interpret. This is a communication problem that can be easily resolved by getting the word out.

    3. Cooperation and Trust:

    Do people share information and deal with each other openly and with respect?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    Low scores indicate very serious problems. It is difficult, if not impossible, to build support for major change without trust. Since the opposite of trust is fear, a low score almost guarantees strong opposition. When people are afraid, they will either fight or lie low: neither response will give you the commitment you need to be successful.

    4. Culture:

    Is this an organization that supports risk taking and change?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    Mid-range to low scores indicate that it may be difficult for people to carry out the changes even if they support you. Your systems and procedures hinder change. You must examine these deeper structural issues.

    5. Resilience:

    Can people handle more change?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    People in many organizations are simply worn out by the number of changes and transitions they've been asked to weather in recent years. No matter how worthy the change, their opposition to it may stem from a lack of resilience, and not from some objection to the idea being proposed.

    Low to mid-range scores probably indicate that people have lost their capacity to respond to another initiative. Even though workers may see the need for this change, they may have little energy to give to it.

    So, keep two important questions in mind:

    Is this change really necessary at this time? If so, how can you support people so that the change can be implemented with the greatest ease?

    6. Rewards:

    Do people believe this change will benefit them?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    One well-used truism: What gets rewarded gets done. Unfortunately, its counterpart doesn't get as much attention: What gets punished gets avoided. For example, organizations that say they want teamwork but reward individual achievement, shouldn't be surprised when cooperation falters.

    Obviously, low scores indicate strong potential resistance. After all, who would support something they think will harm them? If employees' perceptions are accurate, then you have a difficult challenge: You must find a way to move forward with the change and find ways to make it rewarding for others. If the low scores indicate a misperception, then you must let people know why they are misinformed. Remember, as anxiety increases, our ability to listen diminishes. It is likely that this message will have to be communicated repeatedly (especially if trust is low as well).

    7. Respect, Control, and Saving Face:

    Will people be able to maintain dignity and self-respect?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    Low scores probably indicate concern over loss of respect, status or face. You must find ways to make this a situation in which all can win.

    In my book on building support for change, Beyond the Wall of Resistance, I explore various levels of resistance. Leaders often hope that all resistance will be Level 1: opposition simply because people don't have all the facts. Unfortunately, most resistance to major change is Level 2. This deeper resistance stems from a fear of loss. Our slick Powerpoint presentations cannot deal with these deeper and more emotional issues. You must engage wary people in conversation. Be open and listen to their concerns.

    8. Impact on Status Quo:

    How disruptive will this change be to the status quo?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    High scores indicate that people view this change as very disruptive and stressful. Get people involved because when they have some control over changes that affect them, the less likely they are to resist.

    9. Skill at Managing Change:

    How adept are leaders at planning and implementing change?

    Low 1______2______3______4______5______6______7 High

    The people leading change need to be adept at such things as:

  • creating alignment among diverse interests; 
  • listening: getting concerns, fears and interests on the table; 
  • articulating a compelling vision (or working with others to create a shared vision); 
  • anticipating and responding appropriately to resistance; 
  • communicating: keeping people informed.
  • If scores are low in this category, consider how you can develop change management skills as you proceed with the change. There is no shortage of books on the market that cover the needed skills. Consider working with mentors, men and women who have a proven track record, to learn their secrets. Training may be beneficial as well, but choose courses that demand you practice using change management skills.

    Interpreting The Overall Results

    High scores:
    Indicate that you are in good shape for this change and suggest that your organization knows how to work well with its people.

    Mid-range scores: 
    Reveal potential danger and signify the need to look into what is behind these scores. For example, mid-range scores on a category such as Cooperation and Trust might indicate a problem that is slowly developing. Take these scores seriously. You have an opportunity to tilt the balance in your favor by addressing these issues.

    Low scores:
    Point to serious trouble. The lower scores, the more likely it is that you will face intense resistance. But even a single low score can pose a problem. Treat any low score seriously because raising low scores helps to build stronger relationships with other individuals and groups.

    In interpreting the results, remember that the actual scores are less important than the reasons people chose the scores they did. Responses to the questionnaire should act as a springboard for conversation about change and resistance. Conversations should focus on the experiences and feelings that accompany these scores. For example, if the CEO rated everything a seven (high), middle managers scored in the three to five range, and non-management staff rated everything low, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. In doing so, consider the following questions:

  • What interests you about the scores? 
  • Where do you see patterns? 
  • Where are the points of greatest agreement? 
  • Where are the points of greatest disagreement?
  • Step 2: Get Others Involved

    Everyone who has a stake in the outcome needs to be deeply involved in the change and should have an opportunity to explore and influence the goals and/or their part in the implementation. Anything less and you risk failure or delay.

    Change strategies that get people very involved tend to do better than the more traditional methods that rely on raw use of power, manipulation, or overriding opposition. It is counter-productive to look at resistance as a wall that must be destroyed --- doing so may even make the gap between you and the resisters bigger.

    Sure, you have probably used at least one of these tactics when faced with resistance --- everyone has. But, overpowering or destroying resistance implies that your way of doing things is right and others must be persuaded or forced to go along. Tension is created and resisters believe that for you to win, they must lose. Naturally, they fight back. So, while you might think these traditional battle tactics will destroy the wall, they actually reinforce it.

    To move beyond the wall of resistance, don't battle it --- embrace it. You may fear that getting everyone involved and openly talking about resistance will only invite trouble. That's not the case. Applying the principles or touchstones listed below will not create problems; instead, the process will allow you to engage in relationships and strengthen support for your ideas.

    Using Touchstones to Involve Everyone

    The most successful strategies to move beyond resistance and build support for change have six principles in common; I call these principles the "touchstones."

    1. Build strong working relationships.

    Most resistance is linked directly to the quality of the working relationship: the better the relationship, the less resistance. HR professionals are busy; but, you must take the time to create relationships that are strong and based on mutual respect and understanding.

    2. Maintain a clear focus.

    When resistance emerges and others attack your ideas, it's easy to lose sight of your original goals. Be careful to keep your goal in mind while simultaneously paying attention to the concerns of those who have a stake in the outcome. If you only focus on your goal, you will miss mounting resistance. If you only concentrate on the opposition, you will never know when you have enough support to move ahead.

    3. Embrace resistance.

    You cannot move beyond resistance unless you let down your guard and open yourself up to those opposing change. Embracing resistance encourages employees to talk about their concerns and why they feel that way. When you are open to learning more about another person's view of the situation, you can find common ground and discover ways to transform the negative energy of resistance into positive support for change.

    4. Listen with an open mind.

    People who fear they have something to lose are naturally reluctant to share their questions and concerns. By creating a climate of trust and openness, resisters will see your commitment to listening to them with an open mind and heart --- and they will tell the truth. I have seen resistance melt simply because the person implementing the change was always honest and forthright with people.

    5. Stay calm to stay engaged.

    It is difficult to open yourself up to a flood of criticism. That's one reason why we may avoid those who resist us. They key is to stay calm and relaxed --- and centered on the issue at hand. As people raise questions about the changes, listen attentively and draw them out. Do not attack nor give in to them. Instead, use what you have learned to begin seeking common ground.

    6. Join with the resistance.

    It is important to seek a neutral zone that attempts to include the interests of everyone. Asking three questions will help you do this:
  • What's in it for me? 
  • What's in it for you? 
  • What's in it for us?
  • Listen for common fears and anxieties in the answers. Build on those similarities to find a solution that addresses the concerns of all parties. By doing so, you can transform opposition into support.

    Step 3: Plan for the Inevitable

    You've gotten people deeply involved in the new plan and they are enthralled with its potential. And then something happens that rocks the boat. Perhaps it's a disagreement over which department will get to control the project, or perhaps someone fails to live up to an agreement. Old animosities flare.

    This scenerio can be avoided with a little planning for the inevitable. Asking a variety of "What if?" questions will help you address things that could go wrong. It's easier to devise a solid approach to a problem before it surfaces than when it is staring you in the face. "What If?" scenarios allow you to step back and calmly play with possibilities without the risk.

    Here are some ideas to consider:

    A. If the groups have worked together before, identify times when they were in conflict. If they are new, ask people to draw on their own experience to identify potential conflicts that might occur during the change. Do not assign blame. The goal is to identify issues that could come up during the current change, not dissect past events.

    B. Form mixed groups that contain representatives from a cross-section of departments and levels of the organizations involved. Have those groups take on the issues identified in Step 1 and develop strategies to address these problems should they occur.

    Consider the five touchstones as you develop strategies. Groups should address the following questions:

  • How can we keep our focus on the goal if this issue occurs? (Maintain focus) 
  • How will we summon the courage to stick with it, even if the going gets extremely tough? (Maintain Focus) 
  • What can we do to ensure mutual respect in the midst of this issue? (Respect) 
  • What can we do to ensure that all the critical issues get out on the table? (Embrace Resistance) 
  • How can we stay relaxed in the midst of this conflict? (Relax) 
  • How can we promote the development of common values? (Join Resistance)
  • C. Have subgroups report to the entire group all questions, comments, and suggested changes.

    D. Encourage the entire group to decide together which of these strategies it can fully support. By addressing potential resistance before it occurs, you often preempt it. People get the critical issues out on the table and make agreements before anyone feels a need to put up a wall or attack others.

    Step 4: Keep It Alive

    Although planning for the inevitable should reduce a significant number of problems, the unexpected will still occur. To be prepared, an effective plan should include the following:

    (1) A Way to Include Those Who Were Inadvertently Left out in the Early Stages

    One organization did a fine job of getting various interested parties involved, but after the proposal was well into implementation stage, the folks in the mailroom balked. The mailroom! The leaders had never thought about the mailroom when they planned for this change. Those things happen. But, when they do, you have two options. You can keep on moving, crying "Tough luck, Charlie" as you forge ahead. Or, you can apologize for the oversight, and try to gain the support of those you overlooked.

    (2) A Way to Engage Those Who Have a Change of Heart

    Often people will agree to a change during the early stages, only to discover that they aren't too wild about the idea later on. While it is easy to get angry with these people, this will do nothing to build support for your plan. People often change their minds once they see how much the new program will cost in time and resources.

    (3) A Way to Monitor Progress

    Your plan will no doubt include a way to gauge progress versus deadlines and budgets. But it is equally important to have a way to monitor whether support for the change is building. Some questions to ask include:

  • How will we know that support is building for the plan? 
  • What will support look like? 
  • What level of commitment will we need at each stage of the project? 
  • How will we measure active commitment?
  • Finally, Pay Attention

    Most plans for change are linear: A leads to B, followed by C. It all seems so rational and sane. Unfortunately, support and resistance are ruled by intangibles such as enthusiasm, commitment, energy, fear and threat. These emotional issues don't lend themselves to neat A + B + C plans. Be prepared to work with resistance at every stage of planning and implementation. And, be prepared for support that comes as a gift out of the blue. Good things do happen. Paying attention to what's going on today is the most important thing you can do.

    Attending to these four steps will not only help you build support for this change, but will enable you to begin to develop stronger working relationships with those who must support you. In other words, the next change should be easier, since you will have already begun to build bridges between departments and with key individuals.

    The Israeli statesman, Abba Eban, once said, "Men and nations may behave wisely once they've exhausted all other alternatives." Applying these four steps allows you to begin to behave wisely before you've run through all the approaches to change that don't work.


    Rick Maurer consults to the leaders in organizations and their teams on how to implement change while paying attention to people. He offers tools to handle change effectively. His books, Building Capacity for Change Sourcebook, Beyond the Wall of Resistance, Caught in the Middle, and The Feedback Toolkit, offer practical tools that enable people to improve management practices. Rick's articles on change and management have appeared in numerous magazines, trade publications and professional journals. Since publication of Beyond the Wall of Resistance, he has appeared on CNBC, NBC Nightly News, and been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, USA Today and IndustryWeek Magazine.

    For more information, contact Maurer & Associates via: Phone: 703-525-7074;
    Fax: 703-525-0183; e-mail: info@beyondresistance.com , and visit: www.beyondresistance.com/ .

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