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Implementing Change in a Difficult Environment:
Stay Alert for Early Indicators of Failure
by Craig A. Anderson
March 2006


Whenever you attempt to implement change in your organization, you are
vulnerable to failure. It is the nature of complex systems that problems will emerge.
Key people will leave. Strategies and priorities will become muddled. Resources
will be diverted. Attention will wane.

It is OK to falter. There is no smooth path to transformation and growth. There is a
point, however, when a faltering change effort begins to cross the line into a failed
change effort. Our obligation is to identify this shift and make tough choices.
Simply pouring resources into a dysfunctional change process is not an option.

What indicators tell us that we are in trouble? How do we know when it is time to
pull the plug? Our experience is that there are several early indicators of failure,
any one of which is a cause for alarm. More than one signal indicates it may be
time to step back and reassess the program.

Five Early Indicator of Failures:

Lack of Honesty
Honesty is the bedrock foundation of change. Transformation must begin with a
clear view of the current state. The leaders of the change effort must understand
the level of performance today, to develop a baseline for testing and implementing
systematic improvements over time. Achieving this understanding demands
honesty in how information is collected, analyzed, and distributed. An early
indicator of failure for us is when we see organizational politics restrict the fair and
accurate measurement of current performance. Systematic dishonesty invalidates
the entire self-assessment concept and is a large red flag for any change effort.

Lack of Joint Agreement
Alignment is the key to progress. All parties must work together to achieve results.
It is vital to reach joint agreement on all major actions. Organizations often shortcut
this vital step to “save time”, moving from planning to implementation without
allowing for reflection, debate, and disagreement. In fact, time spent working
towards joint agreement on the front end will be repaid in spades throughout the
course of the implementation. The consequences of a lack of joint agreement, on
the other hand, will hinder progress throughout the implementation.

Lack of Direct Communication
The message of change must be communicated directly and consistently across
the organization, free from filtering and dilution, regardless of the anxieties and
disruption that it causes. We have found that it is a bad sign indeed when a
creeping bureaucracy starts “managing” the communications process. There is no
way around the fact that change will be painful, as the implementation plan by
definition targets gaps and weaknesses in the current state. The pain of change,
however, cannot be an excuse to weaken the direct communication of the purpose
and impact of the change effort.

Lack of Flexibility
It is impossible to “control” a change initiative. Once we "push away from the wharf
of safety into the sea of chance” (Maya Angelou), we lose our ability to control the
future. Flexibility is the key to staying on course, as the leadership of the change
effort must constantly assess results against plans and make adjustments.  
Unfortunately, many organizations fool themselves into thinking they can “manage”
change; this illusion leads to overly rigid and detailed plans, unrealistic
assumptions, and, eventually, an unraveling of the entire change initiative.

Lack of Will
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the organization and its leaders must
possess the will to change. This sense of will must be unshakeable and empower
the entire organization to stay the course even when the going gets tough. It is not
too much of a stretch to say that if the organizational will is intact, nothing else
matters, and if the will fails, nothing else matters.

Change is hard even in the best of circumstances. If the situation turns against you
and your team, play it smart. Assess your options, make a crisp decision on if and
how to proceed, and take action. Lethargy is not a solution, and will only make it
tougher for any future organizational renewal to take root.