Why Many Change Initiatives Miss the #1 Risk-Reducer

Your change initiative has the basics.

It’s got a strong message summarizing your strategy, personal presentations from senior leaders, training to address knowledge gaps, and a heat map showing potential resistance and mitigation efforts.

That’s everything – right?

No. According to our research, it’s only part of the solution. My organization studied 72 organizations undergoing change and evaluated the progress impact of 30 typical change assumptions. These results were repeatedly confirmed over a decade as change practitioners.

The findings?

Organizations that relied on communication as a primary instrument to power their change effort failed to progress over time. Organizations that combined communication with focused accountability achieved significantly better results than the communication-centric group.

Why do leaders miss accountability?

Three assumptions cause leaders to overlook accountability and increase risk:

Communication as effective

Many senior leaders believe their communication is both powerful and influential. It can be, but more so with upper organizational levels. Farther down in organizations experience shows that staff weigh actions and discount words.

Within the organization, employees are more likely to be: fearful about employment, bombarded with corporate team app messages, and influenced by accountabilities and process responsibilities far more than presentations. What communication does get through? Leadership actions, job responsibility changes, and repercussions to individuals who fall short.

Organization as ready

Contrary to common understanding, voicing a ‘change’ message does not ‘morph’ the organization and magically adjust what actions are held accountable. Without intentional adjustment, in-place motivational structures (like accountabilities) continue to promote what used to be important under previous leaders and/or initiatives.

Resistance as personal

Finally, leaders and change managers tend to see resistance to change as arising from individuals who are backward, stubborn, and naive enough to constructively criticize. In our experience, organizational not personal factors create most ‘resistance’. We ignore employees’ past contributions, infer that what they’re doing today is lacking, and interpret questions as insubordination. People primarily resist as they detect a conflict between the ‘new’ message and the activities for which they are currently accountable. By adjusting motivational structures prior to rolling out any ‘new’ direction, resistance can be almost entirely prevented, and risk greatly reduced.

What’s the #1 Risk Reducer

In combination with communication, the real risk reducer is accountability, as it’s applied to two areas:

1 – Leaders accountable to link change and culture – which is easy.

2 – Staff accountable to adjust actions to execute change – which is more effort, but crucial, in terms of delivering expected change.

1 – Leaders accountable to link change and culture

Leaders, you must convey that the desired change:

“If you honor their past, they’ll let you take them to the future.”

  • Is a natural reaction to industry/ market pressures just as previous successful organization or system changes were responses to internal/external demands.
  • Has NOT been caused by staff negligence for staff perform as directed by their leaders.
  • Can be accomplished by committed, talented staff, if the same previously demonstrated passion, diligence, care, and/or perseverance is again applied.

In short, it’s about showing respect for staff’s previous (and current) efforts. As I tell leaders, “If you honor their past, they’ll let you take them to the future.”

Linking change and culture is relatively easy, while the next step takes a little more time and investigation, it is crucial and yields engaged change.

2 – Staff accountable for adjusted actions

It’s important to remember staff are already being held accountable for actions that support the old way of doing things which may or may not specifically support the intended change. Adjustments are needed to ensure staff actions support the new.

In addition, this step involves limited process analysis so be sure the change team has process and not just administrative experience, otherwise their suggestions may impede rather than increase progress.

First – break the change down by area, by role, to identify not what they need to accomplish by year-end, but a few daily and weekly activity changes which will contribute to the change. The required total interview time is small, typically half the work hours represented by a one-hour, all-hands call, but worth every minute.

Second – describe your suggested adjusted activities within their performance management assessments, to communicate that these value-adding behaviors will be evaluated in future compensation and promotional decisions.

Why this works?


Staff want to be shown respect for their past and present contributions. I have seen change programs subtly convey that staff deficiencies led to the present situation. This impression can doom a change. By communicating appreciation for staff’s previous and current contributions and highlighting the innovation and extra effort involved, leaders show respect, open minds, and invite participation to reduce risk and smooth adoption.

Relevant Time-Frame

Leaders err when they think year-end goals clearly communicate what people must do differently within their roles. Long-term employees can have trouble comprehending a different way of performing their roles and decision time-frames within front-line jobs are closer to days and weeks than years. With few exceptions, faced with annual targets, employees endeavor to more diligently perform current activities, leaving your change unexecuted. A senior Toyota executive reminded me, “It’s the daily improvements not the results.” Toyota focuses on what individuals can do differently today to deliver on tomorrow – a good perspective.

Employees Want to Contribute

I have never seen employees offended by a brief but sincere effort to suggest a few ways they could more significantly contribute each week. Millennials, especially, want to feel they’ve moved their organization ahead each week. In interviews with hundreds of high-performers, I am continually surprised to hear that my hour with them was the first time in their careers when someone cared enough to ask about their jobs and help them identify how they might better contribute.

In summary

To skillfully manage change, ensure leaders should be accountable to present the change as a natural extrapolation of the organization’s growth, achievable as employees again demonstrate the passion and persistence from your collective history.

Ensure key roles are accountable for weekly adjustments individuals can make to execute the change. List these within their performance assessments to demonstrate the intention to reward contribution.

The result will be a greater sense of engagement, accomplishment, and ownership and another professionally managed project to add to your portfolio.

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