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Obstacles to Change

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Your business may be large or small, your team close-knit or dysfunctional, but change is seldom easy. Even in a group of two, changes may require seemingly endless discussion (moving to a new location, buying an expensive product) and others never really catch hold. 

One rule of thumb, the 20-50-30 rule, states that 20% of people will support a change immediately, 50% will be on the fence, and 30% will resist. Those figures may be wildly optimistic. According to research described in Forbes, 63% of executives believe that people welcome change, but only 45% of front-line managers, the ones closest to the work, share that view. Perhaps 20-30-50 would be a better rule of thumb.

Before a change can be implemented, you need to assess the barriers and determine if the change is truly necessary.

Barriers to Change

The main barriers to change are a lack of strategy, communication, and resources and the fears and anxieties of the people affected. 

  • Strategy: do you have a plan for explaining and implementing the change; do you know what next steps are needed?
  • Communication: what language will you use in explaining the change; have you set up systems for communicating and tracking progress; are you committed to keeping people informed?
  • Resources: will people be trained in the new systems, products, or processes; do you have enough people, time, and money to see the change through to the end; what if delays and problems occur?
  • People: how many failed changes have your people endured; do they have trust in your leadership and commitment to change; are the reasons for the change clear and compelling; have you asked about and addressed their concerns; are they part of the decision making?

Evaluating the Need for Change

The old adage, “a new broom sweeps clean,” refers to the tendency of new leadership to make changes regardless of their need. That approach to change leads to confusion, resistance, and failed initiatives. Instead, leaders should evaluate change by first determining if the change will:

  • Further the company’s mission and be in line with its values.
  • Have clear objectives—it must accomplish something more than bragging rights for the next new thing.
  • Meet the criteria for a high priority project, including impact anticipated and effort required.
  • Have benefits that can be clearly communicated to employees.
  • Address concerns raised by employees about both the type of change being considered and the expected results.
  • Support the financial and customer service objectives of the company.
  • Achieve buy-in by all leaders—not just lip service.
  • Include a step-by-step plan for implementation—change never happens simply by asking for it.
  • Be within the capabilities of the team responsible for implementing the change.
  • Provide a way for teams and employees to communicate back up the chain to leaders.

Consolidating Change

When a change fulfills all the evaluation criteria and has been implemented with the desired results, it may still fail. You may have meticulously planned and accounted for impact of the change itself, but have you also accounted for: 

  • The new metrics you will need to accurately measure the effectiveness of the change and the performance of the people affected by it
  • The  change in responsibilities and levels of cooperation, as workload shifts from one group to another or involves teams that were not involved previously
  • Resentments that arise from frustration in mastering new equipment, procedures, or other modifications to old ways of working
  • The possibility that after implementation, new challenges will emerge requiring further change; be prepared for unintended consequences.


Work on meeting the obstacles to change must begin well before the change itself is proposed. Without proper evaluations and follow-up, a company will institute changes that sound good but do not meet the specific needs of the company, its employees, and its customers. By determining if a change is truly necessary, a leader takes the first steps to ensure that a change will not only be implemented successfully but will maintain that success over the long term.

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