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10 Red Flags That Your Change Management Program is Poor

One of the greatest challenges of helping organizations with Change Management is that they often believe they are already doing it. After all, if you have a good leadership team that communicates with employees, they must be capable of leading change.

But when you dig down and ask the leaders what they are doing to ensure their organization is prepared for and executing change strategies, we often find clear indications either they do not truly grasp Change Management, they do not understand the risks, or their program is not robust enough to handle the change.

Here are some of the top red flags that indicate a poor application of Change Management:

Red Flag #1 – We are doing Change Management, we have a communications plan.

One of the most common red flags, this answer is indicative of two potential issues.

The organization may be mistaking communications for Change Management. True, communications is a primary output (and input) to the process but it does not stand alone. A lot has to happen to ensure it is effective.

  1. Perhaps more importantly, a Change Management communications plan is vastly different than what most communication departments are used to creating. Communications departments, often part of marketing or public relations, are most often used to communicate broad corporate messaging.

  2. Change Management is about driving communications to the individual level. This means coordinating across possibly large numbers of divisions, groups, and functions and rallying the management to aid in the process while ensuring that feedback is being collected and reported back to the Change Management team. This is a plan that communications departments are not typically prepared to develop or staffed to carry out.

Red Flag #2 – We are doing Change Management, we have a training plan.

Another common red flag that will often turn up and indicates the potential for two more issues:

  1. Here again, we have an indication that leadership is mistaking training for Change Management. Training is a part of the process to ensure that people have the knowledge they need to make a change. That does not mean they have agreed to the change or have adopted the change. Change management ensures that people not only are capable of making a change but willing.

  2. Another issue is that the organization is relying on the Change Management team to deliver training. This is a common error that can be catastrophic. In most cases, an SME on the change should deliver the content and ensure it is understood. The role of the change manager is to make sure the training is delivered well, that logistics are managed, and that the training has been effective. Relying on Change Management to be experts in the specific change is too much to ask (unless the change is implementing Change Management).

Red Flag #3 – We have hired a change manager.

This is typically a good sign that shows some enlightenment from leadership, but it also rings a major alarm bell that requires several follow up questions:

  1. Is the change manager experienced? Often, we will find that the change manager is a person who has been reassigned from a department without training or previous experience. This means a huge ramp-up time and a lot of mistakes that could be avoided by hiring an experienced person or consultant.

  2. Is the change manager also the project manager? These are different disciplines requiring different skill sets and with potentially competing aims. Each is also a large amount of work. Only a rare person can manage both simultaneously.

  3. Is the change manager solely responsible for executing Change Management or do they have the authority and resources to implement throughout the organization? If by having a change manager, we think the process is covered, we have a major problem.

  4. How many changes is this change manager in charge of? Often this becomes a role that is quickly overwhelmed and ends up managing reporting rather than actually implementing Change Management. The result is reporting failure to make changes.

  5. All of the above are at issue: This is so often the case and indicates a looming catastrophe.

Red Flag #4 – We have Change Management as part of our project team.

This is not necessarily a problem. It depends on the structure. If the Change Management is subservient to a project leader, then the messages that need to be heard by leadership are often suppressed or watered down. Ideally, Change Management is at least at the same level as the project lead and has direct access to the leadership. The change manager’s role is to ensure that leadership knows the issues and helps coach them on how to mitigate them. They cannot be required to work through a funnel and expected to achieve results.

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Red Flag #5 – Change Management is part of Human Resources (or any functional area).

Where the Change Management function lies is not necessarily the issue here. Since Change Management focuses on the people side of change, HR may seem like a logical fit. It may also be in operations, innovation, or other change related areas where people are the focus. What we would seek to understand is whether the function Change Management reports to is also integral to the part of the organization where the change is happening. Is the functional area engaged in the project planning and implementation, do they have change management training, and do they have access direct to leadership that is sponsoring the change? If the answer to any of these questions is “no” then the structure needs to be reassessed.

Red Flag #6 – Everyone supports the change.

This one always makes me shake my head because it is never true. I remember a particular client who announced that they were doing a system upgrade at their global meeting and the announcement received a standing ovation. The reaction convinced them that everyone was on board. “We don’t need a lot of Change Management,” they said, “Everyone supports the change.”

Two years later they were staring at major implementation issues due to resistance, low adoption, low utilization, and short timelines. Even assuming that people are genuine in their initial support for a future state, resistance can grow over time as people learn more and are affected by the change. Anticipating and monitoring resistance is a key activity of Change Management to make sure that support is maintained.

Red Flag #7 – The change is a small one, we don’t need Change Management.

This can be true if the change is entirely seamless, and no people are affected. In any other case, it is worth the investment even on small changes to assess the change implications, how disruptive it is, and where resistance may occur to scale your change management efforts accordingly. The organization is making an investment and such an assessment is good due diligence.

Red Flag #8 – We have assigned a sponsor.

This answer is one of the scariest I get. There is a lot of research that shows that without proper sponsorship changes will fail to meet objectives. Often, we will find that the leader who conceived of the change is not the sponsor but rather has assigned an underling. This is major red flag for several reasons:

  1. The leader may have decided to distance himself from the change and created an option not to be responsible for results. Even if this is not the case, the perception can be devastating to the process.

  2. The person assigned may not have the traits (influence, knowledge, skills, commitment, etc.) to be a good sponsor. This means a major learning curve is in front of her.

  3. The person assigned must have the standing to lead the change particularly with other leadership, the authority to remove roadblocks to the change, and to adapt the strategy as necessary. If not, the resistance they encounter may be insurmountable.

Red Flag #9 – We have several sponsors.

Oi… this is even worse than assigning a sponsor. Now we assume that a group is leading the change and is cohesive in their level of agreement and approach. While there are strong cases for a coalition of sponsors, driving a change without a primary sponsor, leads down long winding roads of dysfunction, finger pointing, miscommunication and passive resistance.

Red Flag #10 – We will focus on Sustainability at a later stage.

Many practitioners of change will still look at the process as linear and consider how to sustain the change only after the initial phases or even toward the end of the project. Sustainability starts at the outset when creating the change strategy or early in the development of the future state itself.

Determining expected outcomes, understanding how to measure against those outcomes, developing how to report progress to the organization, and identifying the meaning of outcomes at the individuals at all levels are all items that should occur at or near the beginning and should be carried out throughout the change process. If your team has not thought about sustainability early, this is a huge red flag that they do not have a proper understanding of Change Management.

Over the last decade or so, Change Management as a discipline has become an expectation of organizations that want to succeed with their investments. That does not mean, however, that everyone has an equal understanding of how it should be implemented.

By understanding the red flags, leaders can identify if they need specialized or outside assistance from people who have experience driving the change process. Leaders can also look at what they expect of themselves. If you are leading an organizational change and one or more of these red flags rings true to you, it makes sense to take a step back and do a quick assessment of your efforts. The organization is making an investment in the project you are leading. It is your responsibility to see that every effort is made to see the return on investment is realized.

This article was originally published in 2019.

Note: This article focuses on Change Management for a single intervention. All trends indicate that change is now constant and that a sustainable competitive advantage can be had for organizations that make leading change part of their DNA.


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