Change Is a Team Sport: We All Play a Role
Issue 118, July 20, 2023
Last week we gave you a case study to demonstrate how critical the human factor (and personalities and our own blind spots) becomes in seeking to innovate, make change and transform. Change is ever-present in daily life. It is also a constant in response to an organization’s market, system, and the needs and wants of customers and workforce. Resistance to innovation, change, and transformation is often unintentional given the failure to recognize that it is indeed a team sport where everyone involved must share knowledge and purpose — and everyone must know their roles and how their roles will evolve.
We are committed to bringing you the stories behind transformational theory and strategy to provide context as well as advice. In this issue, we offer some practical food for thought with our top 11 impediments that influence change and create organizational/cultural resistance.
As a start, we are getting interactive, so please take our pop quiz: Why do you, resist change? Take a mental pause and reflect — don’t react too quickly and think, “Hmmm I relish change, I love to create change.” Even if you are the change agent, do you ever have an undercurrent of anxiety forming in the back of your mind? Is your goal to effect change on others, but not yourself? When you note others’ resistance, do you quickly explain it away or dismiss it because you don’t have the patience to wait until they “get it”?
Now that you have thought about it, pick the top three answers that resonate the most with you based on how you reacted.
- I’m unsure about the unknown.
- I like the way things are and have no need to change.
- Someone else told me to change.
- I don’t know why I should change.
- I might lose something by changing.
- It makes me feel anxious.
- Why would a change be better?
- It’s too hard to change.
- The status quo is so comfortable.
- It’s too much of a risk.
- I’m too old to change.
- Why would I change?
We all have personal, often emotional reactions to change. Any of the reasons listed in our pop quiz are enough to stop change in its tracks. It’s hard to change on a personal level, so imagine what it takes for an organization to change, not to mention manage that change in a transparent, fluid, graceful way that mobilizes an entire workforce, particularly given any organization is comprised of individuals each with their own reasons to resist change.
The 2040 Roadmap to Change Management
We have worked with clients for years helping them manage change. And we have written extensively about it in our book, The Truth About Transformation. If you deconstruct the answers in our quiz and apply them to an organizational pivot or transformation, you can immediately see the barriers emerge that resist change. In fact, if you choose only one answer, it’s enough to derail any change management team and ingrain a deep and influential culture of resistance.
We have culled all the work we have done on change and distilled it to the 11 impediments to change and how each can lead to failure. You can use it as a playbook to identify what might be embedded in your own workplace culture as a predictor of whether you are poised for transformation or stuck in place and becoming irrelevant. Each point is illustrated with a mini case study. Can you relate?
The CEO of a specialty retail store catering to Gen Z was facing the bleak reality that she had to offer customers a channel-free platform to buy the trendy, exclusive apparel her brand was known for. She was also terrified by free shipping and returns based on the 30% return rate of online purchases, most of which end up in landfills because the apparel was worn or damaged. And she had no idea how to build a circularity program with pre-worn merchandise. She has a popular website, but it would have to be redesigned for a robust ecommerce business. She didn’t know how to make the right decision in investing in a tech stack to facilitate ecommerce, inventory management, returns and replenishment. Fear of change was progressively paralyzing her and eroding her business to competitors. This is the chronicle of the death of a brand foretold. Fear of the unknown, fear of your competencies, fear of change itself can cause inertia with predictable results.
A mid-sized media brand was acquired by a collective of investors. The new CEO, put in place by the new owners assured the existing team that business would continue as usual. The CEO had her marching orders from the investors to drive quick and drastic change to increase profitability. So, little by little, the new CEO imposed change to improve the bottom line. The business development goals were increased by 25%. The content budget would decrease by 50% in six months as AI would supplant her writers. And the workforce was reduced by 15%.
Communications about these changes were sporadic and inconsistent and no one knew who might be next on the chopping block. Morale sunk to the bottom of the sea and productivity went along with it like an anchor hitting bottom. Silent resistance took shape infused with significant passive-aggressive behavior. The media brand’s management team and the workforce became increasingly discouraged, and they lost the energy and creativity that made them a successful and viable target for the new investors. Only the CEO seemed to be marching forward to some vision that only she and the investors knew about.
The toxicity of mistrust became pervasive. One by one, the key players abandoned ship and quit. The CEO quickly replaced them with lower-level individuals with no legacy skillsets or deep brand knowledge but expressed faith in them to the investors. The quality of the content began to decline despite what AI seemingly promised would be more efficient and more in line with what customers wanted. Subscribers reacted as the quality of content decreased. Over 18 months as myriad changes were made, the investors were left with a shell of a brand; a CEO who had lost power and control and the loss of a talented workforce. Arrogance imposing change, and hubris are change killers.
The marketing VP of a professional association with a niche audience was hellbent on being named the next CEO. She jockeyed for position, made endless suggestions for better systems and marketing programs, and believed she had the current CEO’s attention and trust. A level of trust and attention that she sought to manipulate at every turn and opportunity for her own purposes.
The marketing VP served on the executive team with the leaders of the other practice areas. She invested in an expensive new member acquisition software system that was developed by a friend of hers, which initially showed promise in conversions and renewals, but was unproven long-term. She believed the new system and its initial successes and the promise of increasing revenue over time would easily secure her the CEO role when the board of directors met next spring to review the current CEO’s contract.
The VP was very vocal in executive meetings overpromising its success and overcommitting to ever-higher results ensuring attention remained on her and her team and that she alone was and would be the sole reason revenue stabilized and once again began to grow.
Her fellow team members did their best not to roll their eyes or take defensive positions in meetings. Each was astute in determining her true intentions. With that recognition they became subversive. They began to slowly and silently manipulate the situation to preserve and protect their own roles while seeking to thwart her plans. They didn’t see her as a competent CEO, they didn’t see her as a team player, and they surely didn’t want her as their boss. So, they began directing their teams to work around her and isolate their areas from her influence.
In a word, the management team was committed to making her change effort fail out of political spite and to protect their roles and turf. No one involved seemed concerned about what was right, wrong, or productive for the organization and its customers. It was Machiavelli political gamesmanship on steroids.
A young founder of an equally young tech startup was brilliant and mercurial. From one day to the next his team never knew exactly what direction they were headed as it all depended on what idea or direction the founder would communicate via a morning text that was often cryptic at best.
The engineers, dedicated to bringing their software to life, attempted to remain heads down in their work to meet the founder’s deadline. The software solution would provide companies with new ways to reach prospective customers using interactive videos (the mechanisms of which were kept completely secret until launch). The launch deadline was approaching when the CEO suddenly announced, via another cryptic text, that their new plan was to develop image recognition software so that customers could source any product in real life and online by capturing its image, which would lead them via a QR code to places to purchase the coveted sneaker, woven leather tote, vintage BMW, or whatever they desired at that moment.
This pivot threw the entire engineering team into a freefall as it represented a complete 180 from what they had dedicated so much time and effort in creating. Worse, none had the expertise or skill to even begin designing, let alone coding what the entrepreneur demanded. Over the next several weeks, the leader wondered why the team wasn’t reaching out to show him a prototype of what he wanted. As he tried to contact them, he received either no response or arcane responses. He couldn’t figure out what happened to his enthusiastic team. Soon, team members resigned without explanation.
Systematic, clear communication is the foundation of any change. Communications must recognize what receivers (the team) need to know, help them understand the change, explain how their roles and efforts will change, and identify the steps required for the path ahead. Without that clarity, the workforce has no personal stake in the process, is set adrift and eventually will devolve into resisting change, or even worse, subverting it. Plus, changing directions on a dime without any warning is not only an example of poor communication but a clueless change management strategy, not justified by inexperience.
A small data dashboarding company worked hard to convince its customers to use new features on its cloud-based platform. The company’s mission was to increase customer immersion and have them see the value of using even more complex charts and graphs. The new features and functions, to no one’s surprise, were offered at an additional cost. The thought was that if customers saw the value, they would be open to new cost features and functions to their subscriptions. Voila! The company would then make more revenue from its existing customers, following the marketing upsell tenet that milking existing customers comes at less expense than acquiring new customers.
What the company didn’t anticipate was that the customers had already learned how to use the existing features and functions to generate what they needed for their dashboards and reports. They had created templates and had very little desire to change what they had already created, even though their templates were more complicated and time-consuming than the new platform company’s sales team presented. You could call it laziness and resistance to change by maintaining the comfortable status quo.
For individuals, the sheer force of habit (muscle memory) impacts how they behave as customers. And that translates into doing “what we’re used to” over and over again. We can see it all the time in consumer behavior. It’s not because of brand affinity that some people still use Apple Safari instead of Google Chrome, which is superior. Resistance to change comes out of inertia, the effort it takes to learn something new and anxiety about the unknown.
The CFO of a small consulting agency was inspired to change credit card companies for the management team from AMEX to a new fintech innovation from Visa. The CFO made the decision because the organization would save money from lower interest fees. The fintech innovation is designed so that each charge is automatically logged into everyone’s account with a real-time alert on the mobile device or laptop with instructions on how to review, approve and submit each charge. No more expense reports or cumbersome ledgers. On the surface, it looks like a great move. However, the co-founders of the agency are in their late 70s and admittedly tech challenged. They have become beyond frustrated because even after three training sessions, they still don’t get it. For the CFO, the system is completely intuitive.
The moral? First, training is in the eye of the beholder. Second, top-down, unilateral decisions made for a workforce, with the belief and perception that everyone can and will change, without adequate training, direction, and buy-in are a disaster in the making. So many seemingly smart decisions are impossible to introduce and sustain without training, and that training needs to be customized to individual needs with the full recognition of matching knowledge, skills and abilities. Without appropriate training, silent resistance develops, and in this case, those involved are simply too frustrated to see the benefits of the change.
A first-time CEO was gung-ho about running her real estate organization the right way. She created an ESOP model with every employee benefiting from profit sharing. She elevated the brand to be purpose-driven to become the go-to resource to transform the industry with innovative thinking and a community focus. Then she brought her senior team together in a rebranding exercise led by an outsourced marketing agency. She and the CEO of the marketing group had devised a workshop for her team to rigorously articulate the brand traits that would lead to rebranding. The senior team was suspicious because they had been working for their organization for more than a decade, and the new CEO was acting as though she knew more about their brand than they did. She repeatedly said she was not going to blow things up until they went through the paces of agreeing on the rebranding principles. But she couldn’t help herself. The rebranding exercise was presented as a team sport, but the CEO bounced out of her chair so often to start spewing strategies and a vision of a reimagined business model that it was more like an individual figure skating competition. Apparently, she had it all figured out and the rebranding was beginning to feel like a charade to the team. She was an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a “cognitive human bias that causes us to overestimate our abilities in domains where we have low competence. The less they know about a topic, the more confident their tone” (Scott Galloway). Her imposition of strident opinion and unequivocal stance on her own vision of changing the organization built a wall of mistrust that eventually trickled down throughout the entire workforce, and adoption of change came to a screeching halt. How long do you think the new CEO will last in an environment of mistrust?
The CEO of a small architectural firm with a specialty in affordable housing was seeing its practice shrinking as 3D printing was becoming the rage as a quick and cost-efficient solution to low-income housing design. He had the radical idea to pivot his firm to an online marketplace for contractors and architects to source construction materials, fittings and finishings. He envisioned a game-changing shift that had the potential to transform the building industry (a vision in his mind with little connection to the existing marketplace). Unfortunately, he got out ahead of himself and got in his own way by not recognizing that his star team was trained architects, not software developers, coders, and digital marketers.
The CEO was convinced this was the future: Go digital or go home. He never bothered to build consensus with his team, nor did he reach out to experts who might offer him opinions and advice on such a pivot. Instead, he sunk all the firm’s capital into building his online dream as he replaced his architects with young, affordable engineers. He quickly found that leading and managing a team of engineers was very different than leading a team of architects. Call it hubris or insanity, there was never any intention of building consensus with the team or via those that would provide contextual counsel.
The CEO sidestepped any resistance to change by firing everyone. This may sound like fiction, but it’s a true story.
An interior design publisher serving a niche industry was transforming its certification program to take it online at the same time as updating its annual course handbook. The content team was small but committed. The reputation of the publisher depended on its educational offerings and its credibility in the niche market. The publisher hired a consulting firm to oversee the online transition while the publisher updated the handbook. As part of the project, a freelance editor was brought on to proof the material. Time and resources were not on the side of the publisher to complete the projects. With a skeleton team, the repurposing of the content was rushed to an online platform and there was not enough time to doublecheck all the material. The freelance editor was tasked with aligning the online content with the updated book without a style guide. But deadlines and a small, distracted staff made it nearly impossible to implement the changes, let alone identify those changes that needed to be made for a quality outcome.
Expectations stemming from business decisions and initiatives need to be matched with the appropriate skilled resources to support them. Too often a disconnect exists between a new capability and the capacity to realize it. Resources in the organization (personnel, skill and financial) need to be matched to the desired results. Without the match hamstrung by limited budgets and resources, the delivery will yield limited results, all of which prevent meaningful and necessary change.
The business development team at a B2B sports-based promotional agency wanted to introduce new sponsorships to sell to clients. They came up with a list of innovative ideas … outside the agency’s current scope of work. The CEO, under pressure to improve the bottom line, needed additional revenues and was intrigued by the team’s recommendations. She didn’t have any new and fresh ideas of her own.
The marketing team, on the other hand, was stunned by the ideas that had nothing to do with the agency’s skillset or client list. Developing and succeeding with these new programs would require entering new sports categories and identifying a new set of customers. And no one on the team seemed to know who their competitors would be in these new categories.
A push-and-pull battle began with the CEO and sales advocating for the new products and the marketing team pushing back based on a realistic understanding of what this pivot would require in time, energy, and resources. The marketing team was stressed as they were already overly committed to managing the current amount of work. They would be the team to take on the new initiatives and bring them to life.
The marketing team also thought the new ideas were solutions looking for a problem. They would either fail or never produce the expected new revenue streams. The new direction is misaligned with the agency’s market orientation, shared purpose, and customer base. The obvious question: Has the CEO changed the mission, purpose and orientation of the organization without telling anyone?
Bonus Point: Loss
This one’s not a story. It is possibly the most significant reason there is resistance to change. It is about personal loss, perceived or real. Change can shift existing power dynamics within an organization. Individuals or departments that stand to lose authority or control may resist the change and sidetrack forward movement. Most employees identify personally with their work. Individuals need to be involved in change; if they are not, they lose personal agency, and therefore control. “What’s in it for me” or “How am I impacted” leads all responses to change.
Individuals need to know what they may lose, and what they may gain – and whether one outweighs the other. They may not control the circumstances of their job situation, but they can control how they deal with it. So, any sense of personal loss can tarnish any great transformation or pivot.
Change is hard. Many individuals are stuck and lazy. Organizations are ecosystems comprised of a workforce that is typically resistant to change because of entropy and misunderstanding of the benefits of change. The formula is a perfect storm for any innovator and change agent to effect change. But resistance doesn’t necessarily have to be overcome; it’s a sign that things are going off the rails and better work needs to be done to look deeper at why there is resistance. It is a warning sign of poor communications, purpose, and alignment.
So, not only is change hard, change management is hard work. It is a team sport, and managing a team requires a great coach. Level up your game by learning from your own and others’ mistakes and create your own playbook to envision an aspirational future that you can actually achieve.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.