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Barriers to a successful change process

The Management Centre

What most holds back a successful change process?

There’s lots of stuff published about organisational change and how to do it. But there’s less about why change processes don’t work or fail to gain traction. And this is a big problem both in business and in the world of charities. In a recent survey by =mc of charities trying to instigate major change we found that 50% of change processes instigated haven’t worked.

Let’s start with what should work and should happen. Perhaps the best-known change model approach is the 8-Step model developed by US management consultant and Harvard Professor John Kotter.

The model, in case you’re not familiar with it, is outlined below.


Implication and action

Step 1 

Establish a sense of urgency

Make sure that key stakeholders are aware there is a problem and that they agree on what the problem is  otherwise you’ll have no momentum for change.

Step 2 

Create the guiding coalition

To steer the organisation through the change you need a group with the authority to design the approach. This might involve a small change team, a mix of the board and SMT or even the whole staff. But you need to be clear on change mandate.

Step 3 

Develop a vision and strategy

You know from Step 1 what you don’t want. But you need to move beyond that and develop a positive and engaging vision of what the changed organisation will look like. Then you need  with your guiding coalition  to establish what steps and stages will help you achieve that.

Step 4 

Communicate the change vision

To get key stakeholders on board you need to communicate the change vision – a mix of where you want to get to and how you’ll get there. This communication needs to be constant and consistent to ensure it arrives and is re-enforced.

Step 5 

Empower broad-based action

If the change is to happen then it’s not enough to have the guiding coalition on-board  you need to have smaller groups and individuals contributing to the change. This broad based action  involving board, senior staff, front liners and perhaps even volunteers  is essential.

Step 6 

Generate short-term wins

It’s possible for the individuals involved in the change to lose heart – and even revert to the pervious unhelpful approaches. You need to build into your change programme an acceptance that the process can be long and difficult. So you need some successes. These needn’t be huge victories but they do need to be public and recognisable successes. A significant new donor coming on board to support your programme is an example.

Step 7 

Consolidate gains and produce more change

Your change processes now has that key ingredient  momentum. But you need to build on that momentum and use it to leverage greater progress. As you create more momentum so more people come on board. You have almost finished

Step 8 

Anchor new approaches in the corporate culture

It’s not enough to change structures, processes, or even people. To create sticky permanent change you need to change culture. You need to find symbolic and practical ways to ensure that the change you want is so deeply routed that there is no chance of things rolling back.

The Kotter process seems pretty straightforward. So why doesn’t that work? Where are the big challenges that derail the 8 steps?

During a recent =mc Thought Leadership event on Change, we asked 12 of the top organisational development and HR professionals in the UK charity sector what they thought most held back successful change. Their analysis was based on Kotter’s 8-step model. Each person was asked to allocate points to the steps according to the degree to which they can or do hold back or disrupt change. The results are below and may be quite surprising… (The size of the bar represented the largest challenge.)

Our thought leader group also added some specific comments. The responses are outlined below

Views were quite varied but 4 stood out as strong factors, getting 65% of the total vote:

19 points (17%) – Consolidate gains and produce more change

The comments relating to this included:

  • The change process went on too long and success was not built on – so the project ran out of steam
  • The change process wasn’t followed through – so the changes were never fully implemented

19 points (17%) – Communicate the change vision

The comments relating to this included:

  • The vision was communicated in the wrong way or was poorly communicated to one or more stakeholder groups – so there was a lack of support for the change
  • The vision didn’t identify how the change would benefit key stakeholders in the organisation – so they weren’t committed to it

18 points (16%) – Generate short-term wins

The comments relating to this included:

  • Momentum was lost – so key groups couldn’t see progress being made or any payoff for them
  • Morale fell among one or more key stakeholder groups – so that led to the change programme faltering

17 points (15%) – Anchor new approaches in the culture

The comments relating to this included:

  • The change project seemed to work for a while but old behaviour and attitudes crept back in – so the change didn’t stick
  • While there was lip service paid to the change programme actual behaviour or systems didn’t change – so stakeholders were not really committed to the change

Two were considered as quite strong factors with 25% of the total vote

14 points (13%) – Establish a sense of urgency

The comments relating to this included:

  • There was a change initiative but no real sense that the change HAD to happen – so stakeholders didn’t drive through the change
  • The change driver was not widely understood across the organisation but only by a few – board/SMT – so barriers were there due to lack of commitment

13 points (12%) – Enable broad-based action

The comments relating to this included:

  • The vision was communicated in the wrong way or was poorly communicated to one or more stakeholder groups – so people didn’t support it as its rationale was unclear
  • The vision didn’t identify how the change would benefit key stakeholders in the organisation – so they didn’t get behind it

Two were considered as weaker factors with 10% of the total vote:

6 points (5%) – Create the guiding coalition

The comments relating to this included:

  • It was not clear who was in charge or there were competing groups – so stakeholders didn’t know who to go to for help
  • The wrong people were in charge of the process – so they were unable to engage all of the key stakeholders

5 points (5%) – Develop a vision and strategy

The comments relating to this included:

  • There was no clear vision or end point that people could orientate themselves towards – so they weren’t motivated to change
  • The strategy was wrong or the way the strategy was rolled out or implemented was wrong – so it failed to progress


Our team of 12 experts seemed petty agreed about where change goes wrong.

  • Respondents generally agreed that change processes are in general well set up well, with Developing a vision and strategy and Creating a guiding coalition seen as the least significant barriers to change.
  • It seems that change is less likely to come unstuck in Developing the vision and strategy than in Communicating the change vision. So we can often get the senior people together to decide on the new business model- but harder to sell it simply.
  • Getting the right people in charge – Creating the guiding coalition – was less challenging than getting people to act – Enabling broad-based action. But it’s clear that making the ideas stick and gain traction is the key to success.

So how does this fit with your experience? Has your change been derailed in the same way? We’d love to hear how change has worked (or not) for you.

What’s next?

If you’re interested in transforming your organisation’s approach to change further take a look at our Leading and Managing Change in-house programme or get in touch with us online or call 020 7978 1516.

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Charlotte Scott

About Charlie Scott

Charlie specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlie worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc ten years ago, she created and...