Overcoming Barriers to Change

One of the highest barriers to effecting change is getting enough people to change their thinking from “the way it is now” to the way you want to operate. In fact, many people are very resistant to change–I call that resistance “institutional inertia.” The most successful companies are able to help their teams and their stakeholders make the transition in thinking, and it’s absolutely crucial to innovation and transformation. How do they do it?

Knowing Where You Want to Go

Obviously, you have to know where you’re going or you’ll never get anywhere, so that’s the first step. Senior leadership teams need to spend some time thinking clearly about where you want to move the organization well before engaging the rank and file. A solid vision statement is a must, and not one of those flowery ones full of meaningless buzzwords. A clear vision of where you want to move the organization must also be congruent with your existing mission statement. If it’s not, you’ll either need to change your vision or revise your mission. It does no good to change one and not the other!

Knowing The Barriers to Change

There are all sorts of barriers to change, both internal and external. Understanding what those barriers are and making a plan to overcome them is the next step in effecting transformation and innovation. In large organizations internal barriers to transformation will be:

  • Threats to positional power
  • Uncertainty in accomplishing the organizational mission
  • Threats to personal careers

Take time to identify the key players and list the threats to your transformational plan, then make a concrete plan to mitigate each. For example, if people are concerned with losing their jobs you can mitigate that with assurances you don’t plan staff reductions. If organizational reorganizations will change certain persons’ positional power, you can mitigate those by engaging those people directly and ensure you have a plan to either move them into a commensurate position or offer compensation to take away the sting.

There’s also external barriers as well:

  • Resistance from functional communities
  • Resistance from key stakeholders
  • Resistance from customers

Like the internal barriers, making specific plans to reduce the resistance to the planned transformation is key to success. Overcoming these barriers is where senior leaders really earn their pay! Getting functional communities on board, for example, will likely mean lots of time discussing planned changes with key functional leaders and getting their buy in. Of course, even the most gifted negotiators sometimes can’t get everyone on board. In those cases, it’s necessary to build a stable of allies that can help you exert political influence on decision makers and stakeholders to make the change happen. For small companies, those functional leaders will often be industry associations and government oversight staffs. For larger organizations, it could be “higher headquarters” or even key C-suite or board members leaders in the company. Assemble the team, make the case, and build consensus among those who can stop the transformation. Be prepared to use influence and power to knock down barriers if necessary!

Knowing When to Engage the Entire Team

As the senior leadership team, you’ll have consider when to bring more people into your planning process. In complex change efforts, keeping the team as small as possible initially will prevent “paralysis by argument.” Again, you’ll need to clearly articulate where you’re headed and why it’s beneficial to all involved. Get as many people as possible involved in creating the transformation plan, careful not to overdo it with too many! Ideally, the more people invested in effecting the change, the more successful you’ll be in making it happen. However, don’t grow the team too fast, and don’t allow the team to take over the transformation from the senior leadership team!

Make it Happen

To effect any transformation, you’ll need to (1) Know Where You’re Headed, (2) Know Your Barriers, and (3) Know Who to Involve. Follow this three-step process and you’ll be able to lead your teams through change!

Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is a consultant and author of eight books on leadership and personal development, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s.

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