Change Leadership: Avoid the 8 Common Mistakes of Change


Organizational change is a monumental task that very few take on and often times results in a lot of expenditure and less than expected success.  As the economic and societal landscapes continue to evolve and exert pressure on organizations to keep up, organizational change is not a passing fad but has instead become a regular occurrence.  As a result there is increased pressure for organizational leaders to effect change more quickly and with a greater impact.

While the readiness and adaptability of an organization are often areas to contemplate when planning a large scale change, there are several tactical mistakes that can be avoided to give your change project the best chance of success.  John P. Kotter of Harvard Business School, has outlined 8 common mistakes made that eventually lead to the failure of change initiatives.

Mistake #1 – No Sense of Urgency

Most people tend to gravitate towards a comfortable state of familiarity.  Change, by its very nature, is an effort to abandon the status-quo.  As a result, for people to change there has to be a perceived benefit to the new state or a perceived detriment to the current state.  Good change efforts have both.  The detriment is what gets them to let go and take the leap, the benefit is what encourages them all to leap in the same direction.  Generating reports and surveys that indicate possible downfall to continuing on the current path can be ways a change leader can generate urgency to change.

Mistake #2 – No Strong Change Coalition

In a recent experiment, a movement is not started by a single person but rather begins with the 1st follower.  A good change coalition has at least one representative from all major stakeholder groups.  These members help inform the change initiative and make it much easier to roll out to all the invested groups.  People are more likely to follow a colleague they trust than a “senior management group” that they think is out of touch.  Find respected peers in each stakeholder group and create your change coalition.

Mistake #3 – No Vision

This is an easy one to confuse with having strategic goals.  A vision is a picture of what you hope will be different , the strategic goals is how you will make it so.  A question to ask to help get clearer on the vision is “for what purpose are we trying to change”.  It is not as important to be crystal clear at first.  The clarity will evolve as the coalition begins to work on it.  A key question to ask is “what do you hope will be different as a result of this change.”

Mistake #4 – Under-communicating

This is a biggie and often misunderstood.  Good communication is a discussion, not a meeting, a poster, a plaque, an intranet site, or a mandate.  Talk to people about the change; don’t just tell them about it.  This means asking possibly more questions than actually telling people about it.  At the beginning they will have a lot of fear an uncertainty, perhaps even denial.  Remember, resistance is just data.  Investigate why they are hesitant or concerned, let them know you hear them.  50% of communication is listening.  Make sure you are asking questions and listening to their concerns, ideas, and questions.  Also, this is where viral communication can come in handy from your Change Coalition.

Mistake #5 – Not Removing Obstacles

Some policies or people seem so ingrained that moving or changing them does not even seem to be an option.  If this is the case and they are standing in the way of your change effort, you may enjoy short-term success but eventually it will die.  This part may mean changes in policy and it may mean removing people, sometimes even high ranking, if the organization is to realize the vision.  In some companies, even people in the C-Suite need to change for an organization to move forward.

Mistake #6 – No Systematically Planned and Created Short-term Wins

Including short term wins is crucial to keeping momentum.  These are the subtle, “what will it take to get us there” steps you include in your plan.  I am not just talking about business successes as a result of the change, I am talking about successes of the change initiative itself.  So if a crucial part of your change is upgrading the server, when that happens, that is a short term win.  Acknowledge and celebrate it.  Anything that reflects forward momentum of the change initiative is a win.  Sometimes a simple shift in morale or how meetings are conducted can be wins.  Don’t be blind to the progress people are making and ALWAYS tie it back to the vision, don’t assume people see the link. (see Mistake #4)

Mistake #7 – Declaring Victory Too Soon

A vision is achieved when it becomes the vision, it is not achieved with the accomplishments of goals – those are short-term wins (see Mistake #6).  Most changes take months to years before they are fully realized.  This is where the importance of having a vision instead of a set of goals come in. (See Mistake #3)

Mistake #8 – Not Anchoring the Change in the Culture

This has as much to do with recruiting, promotion, and workforce planning as it does with policy changes.  Highlight how the changes have improved the organization’s position and contributed to its success (if you have been tracking the planned short-term wins this is easy – See Mistake #6.)  Make certain new leaders are exemplifying the new change vision and are living the new culture.  Incorporate the cultural vision into leadership development programs and generate a pool of leaders that carry it out on a daily basis.


Change is difficult to be certain and often the biggest challenge change professionals have is encouraging organizational leaders to be patient.  Organizational change is rarely organizational before it is personal.  The people have to change first, then the culture follows.  Organizations go through changes and people go through transitions – one is tactical the other is psychological. (Bridges, W. 1991)

If you create an environment that encourages the new change, involves those being affected, removes barriers, and promotes the living of new values, people are more likely to follow.  And remember, if you are pushing people though change, then you are in the back, and therefore not leading anyone.


Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: making the most of change. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.


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