Why is Change So Hard and So Important?

   Product Management

Driving change is one of the most important things we do as leaders. Organizations are often resistant to change. It’s our job to effectively lead change against this resistance. If you get good at this you will have a competitive advantage.

Create Urgency

Understand the urgency of making the change and have a clear vision on where you’re going. Paint a picture that leaves no alternative other than action. You need to overcome complacency. For example, ubiquitous computing, machine learning, and big data are bringing massive challenges. Do you and your org have the sense of urgency to meet them? Or will you lose out to competitors that adopt change faster than you?

On the aspirational side, you need to convey a picture of what the future will look like. Create a clear, realistic vision that can be communicated clearly in five minutes.

I love the example where the New York City police chief made his people travel to work on the subway in the 90’s. After riding the subway for a while they got a sense of urgency about addressing crime on the subway.

Another example might be doing a TCO (total cost of ownership) analysis on your data center and realizing if you don’t migrate to the cloud, the maintenance costs, lack of agility, and reduced productivity will put you at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Tools like SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and TPC (technical, political, cultural) can help you identify areas where change is urgent.

I’ve also seen leaders make initiatives vitally urgent too often. When this happens individual contributors can feel manipulated and lose trust. Establish a sense of urgency and vision when you really need change, not once a quarter.

Recruit Help

You can’t drive significant change alone. Make sure you have strong support from key influencers at all levels in your organization. I’ve underestimated this one myself. On one project, we were doing a platform change and had a great team making good progress. But I didn’t work to get support outside the team. Other company priorities consumed the expected cavalry before they arrived and eventually pulled resources from our team.

Simple tools can help you plan for support. For example, create a stakeholder map showing the level of support needed, the current level of support, and how the change can benefit them.

Communicate More

Over communicate. You are probably under-communicating by an order of magnitude. As leaders, we understand what we’re trying to do and think everyone will get it the first time. But in an organization, everyone has a different context. Someone may hear the message 10 times before they finally get it. Communicate with words and actions. If your actions don’t match your message, people will opt out.

Listening is the most important part of communication. Be aware that your people may communicate nonverbally. Look for signs that people don’t have cognitive or emotional support for the change and understand why. These can be indicators of a problem with your change process.

Empower People

Your people can probably do more than they realize. For example, we were delivering software on an iPad for the first time. It was a big change in the way we did things and the team didn’t think we could do it in time. So instead of thinking about what we couldn’t do, we thought about what can we do! We temporarily removed typical interruptions. We removed the requirement to have strict parity with the existing product. These actions and other support allowed them to deliver the change.

Help people successfully deliver change by providing feedback. Positive stimulus reinforces behavior, negative stimulus changes behavior. Once you get burned you don’t have to be encouraged to stop touching hot surfaces. Leverage performance systems and rewards to provide the right stimulus for change. Make the support or resistance of key influencers visible.

Get Some Short-Term Wins

Break the change into manageable pieces that individuals can be accountable for, have control over, and deliver in under a month. Set up clear metrics that demonstrate gains to stakeholders and influencers. Work on the part that will deliver the biggest results first and fast. If it takes too long before you can show results, people will lose urgency and the change effort may fail.

Be Aware of the Change Journey

Change Model

Change does not immediately make things better. In fact, things often get worse before you see positive results. People react differently to change. Some embrace it, some need direction, some are slow to accept it but later embrace it, and others won’t accept change. But everyone goes through stages like denial, resistance, exploration, and commitment. While people are in the denial, resistance, and exploration stages the change will feel worse than the status quo.

There are also practical reasons change may not immediately seem better. While people are learning new systems, even if they’re better, people won’t know them as well as the old system and it will feel slower and more uncomfortable. We need to reassure them that once the new system is in place it will be better than the old system. Remind them of the dissatisfaction with the current state, encourage them with the vision of the future, highlight the progress that has already been made. Make the change effort something they’re doing and a part of, not something that’s being done to them.


Don’t stop your change efforts until the change moves to unconscious competence. Until the change is part of the culture. Until people are able to teach the new way to others. Until the change has become second nature. If you don’t stick with it until you see these signs, you risk reverting to the old way. When you are successful at change you get to set the pace of change for your strategic business area. A pace those less skilled at change leadership can’t match.


  • Read Leading Change by John Kotter. Steve Bennett, the former CEO of Intuit, used to say, “if your change effort is stuck you missed a step, go back and do the missing step.”
  • Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne has a good chapter on overcoming key organizational hurdles.
  • Organizational Behavior by McShane and Von Glinow
  • Lean Change Management by Jason Little

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