Back to Blog

3 Reasons Change Management Plans Fail—and How to Avoid Them

By Barry Kayton
15 February 2021

Change Management

For organizational change to take hold effectively, one vital element must be present: reflection. Here's why...



Many people simply don’t understand how change in a workplace takes effect. Too often, leaders underestimate the time needed to create real change in their organizations. They may expect to see
immediate culture or process change. However, for organizational change to take hold effectively, it must be well understood on all levels, well thought out, and well structured. And in order to create a change management plan that accomplishes all these things, one vital element must be present: reflection. 

Reflection is  the foundation for effectively dealing with almost any issue, overcoming almost any obstacle (barring life-threatening situations that demand immediate action). If a factory isn’t operating optimally, reflection on data and ways of working can reveal how to best optimize functions. If a marketing agency’s promotions aren’t converting into sales, reflection will provide insight into how best to alter strategy. 

Far too often, organizations push forward prematurely, without giving people the time for proper reflection on what change needs to occur, why it needs to occur, and how best to activate it. In turn, employee misalignment or noncompliance often derail a transition.

Consider these three common reasons change management plans fail—and how to avoid them:

1. Change involves the new and unfamiliar—and that’s threatening to people.

Humans are hardwired to see change as a threat, so effectively dealing with change requires mental preparation and reflection. 

This is simply a biological fact. Consider how we deal with change from a neuroscience perspective: the amygdala—often referred to as the reptilian brain—releases additional cortisol, a stress hormone, when faced with change. However, we can teach our brain to react more effectively, and more positively, during change situations by preparing for change, rather than rushing headlong into it. This is necessary because, when cortisol levels are high, learning is incredibly difficult.   

So don’t force or rush change—allow it to occur at a reasonable pace as your workforce mentally adjusts. 

Think of the last time you were watching a movie in which the protagonist was constantly worried by a looming threat. Eventually they have to face the threat. Often, they fail the first go at it—but ultimately, they overcome it in a moment of maturity and triumph. For example, in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf is preparing throughout the journey for an inevitable clash with the Balrog, and, in the end, defeats him in a climactic battle.

If you asked Gandalf how he managed to prevail over a massive, fiery, whip-and-sword-wielding demon, he’d likely tell you it was thanks to his mental preparation and focus. In organizational change situations, your company must also be well-prepared and focused if they want to succeed. 

2. Most leaders, and organizations as a whole, have a bias toward action. This usually means that spending time on preparation and reflection is deprioritized.

Unreflective company culture results in a bias toward doing, acting, getting things done—but constantly doing isn’t necessarily the same thing as making progress.

This bias toward action and extroversion is especially prevalent in the Western world and in startups, as noted in Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” As Cain explains, those who speak loudly, forcefully, and persuasively tend to be regarded as intelligent and powerful, whereas quiet, subdued individuals are—often inaccurately—viewed as suspicious, unintelligent, or lacking in value.     

Similarly, in many work cultures, those who forge ahead decisively—even if it’s in the wrong direction—are often valued more than those who spend time thinking and reflecting on the proper course before making decisions. In the context of change management, driving forcefully toward an end goal without allowing for reflection could mean expecting change to happen—for example, adopting new ways of working like OKRs—without giving employees time to reflect on the implications of these changes in their various roles. 


3. An over-reliance on easily available content will lead to a lack of results.

Content—articles, videos, webinars—is a necessary element of any change management plan. After all, awareness about the change at hand needs to improve. 

However, when managers rely too much on content, without considering what the audience already knows and, crucially, how they can contribute productively to conversations about the change, problems quickly arise. 

I’ve seen a trend in the learning and development industry in which, rather than creating opportunities for new kinds of interactions and conversations, organizations simply modify or curate existing content. This is based on an implicit assumption that content is the solution to a problem, an approach you might call “content seduction.”

An organization aiming to adopt OKRs might compile an array of content on the subject, email it to employees, and consider their job done.

But it’s not. 

Realistically, content is only part of the whole equation. The entire process should involve the creation of an experience in which the right content can be properly introduced, then effectively absorbed. 


So, how do you improve a change management plan? 

Schedule time for reflective activities. 

By creating opportunities for reflection within your change management plan, you’ll encourage employees to take ownership of the change, which will also improve their retention of new ideas and new ways of working.  

This is much simpler than you might think. Essentially, all this means is encouraging—or, if necessary, requiring—your people to schedule blocks of time dedicated to reflecting on meaningful questions about the change you're planning to introduce. 

Related Articles

Why Inspiration Is a Great Enabler of Change—and How You Can Inspire

To activate behavior change within a team or organization, you need to enable inspiration to come from anyone, anywhere.


Change Management

5 Lessons Change Managers Can Learn from Seymour Papert

Seymour Papert's constructionist theory has played a key role in learning efforts. What can change managers learn from him?


Change Management

7 Lessons 2020 Taught Us About Change Management

2020 was nothing short of disruptive, but in hindsight, we have gleaned some important lessons. Here are some insights...


Change Management