Opinion Column

THE DELFI GROUP: Why change is so hard!

By Larry Schruder, The Delfi Group

Change is hard. We know this from our personal lives – and we know it from our business lives. Change is all around us, and without it we would stagnate and die. But change is hard – and it is stressful. Today we take a deeper look at change in business – and what lessons we can learn that might make change a little less difficult in all aspects of our lives.


We have always had to live with change – and it is clearly a major source of stress. But the nature of workplace change has significantly shifted over recent years. First: the pace of technological change has increased significantly, with shorter and shorter time periods before 25 per cent of the North American population is using the new technology. It took 14 years before the personal computer hit this 25 per cent penetration rate – but only four years for the smartphone. Some of us are just getting comfortable with email – and the web – while the world has moved on to Twitter, text, Facebook and Snapchat. Second: our technology has stretched our customer expectations for responsiveness to almost around the clock, 365 days per year. We have been dragged into the ‘always-on’ mode of doing business. And third: capitalism feeds on a relentless drive of growth and improvement, which pushes companies into an ever-accelerating cycle of newer/faster/better to remain competitive.

However, In the world of business, between 50 per cent and 75 per cent of change initiatives fail. This failure rate crosses all businesses, all sectors, and occurs in all functions, from marketing to human resources, from production to finance and legal. This failure rate should astound us – because change initiatives in business are not just spontaneous whims launched by uneducated leaders. Most change is carefully designed and crafted by subject-matter experts, with analysis of data, and well-developed roll-out plans. But the majority still fail – and sometimes spectacularly. Our Federal Public Service is still grappling with the change to the Phoenix pay system, too many months after its launch. Samsung had a major problem with a battery change in its Galaxy Note 7. Both organizations have lost significant credibility in the marketplace. Change initiatives often fail in our personal lives as well.

The costs of failed change initiatives go well beyond direct dollars. Failed change initiatives generate a ripple effect that harms the customer experience – and significantly erodes employee loyalty and engagement. A major report by the Gallup company found that 52 per cent of employees have essentially checked out and are ‘sleepwalking’ through their daily work tasks. A further 18 per cent of employees are actively disengaged and are undermining the progress that their fully engaged co-workers (all 30 per cent of them) are accomplishing. This well-researched study pegs the cost of disengaged employees at 34 per cent of total payroll. The costs of disengaged employees will be a topic for another day.

There are two very different things at play when dealing with change: the structural change itself that is being scheduled for implementation, and then the resulting transition that it requires by the humans affected by the change. The first component is very factual and structural – and is the easiest part of the change plan and preparation to complete. The transition, or the human response to change, is totally contaminated with the wonderful human realities of emotion and motivation. The structural change component is something that happens at the flick of a switch, following detailed implementation planning. The transition or human component requires the skills associated with adjustment and behaviour change rather than execution. It is the psychological process that people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Complete and successful change implementation requires getting people to stop doing things the old way – and then getting them to start doing things a new and different way. This behaviour change cannot just be ‘willed’ into reality.

Unless transition occurs, change will not work. Paying little or no attention to this transition reality is the primary reason for the high failure rate of both organizational and personal change projects. The best detailed change plans in the world will not overcome people who failed to make it through the transition process. They are left resistant, reluctant, or downright oppositional.

There are three major components to this transition phase of working with change. Transition starts with an ending – a letting go of the way things used to be. Old habits die hard – and this is a very challenging phase. Once you accept that you have to let go of certain things, you begin to enter the neutral zone – the no-man’s land between the old reality and the new. The old way is gone – but the new way is just not comfortable yet. This is both a dangerous and an opportune place – and is critical to the change process. People can run away and try to escape the change (change jobs, resist or obstruct) – or they can creatively engage in the learning and renewal that the change requires. The final phase is the new beginning – a complete acceptance of the new world order and the new behaviours resulting from the change.

People will not move into the new beginning without spending some time in both the ending and neutral zones – and the time is dependent on the size and nature of the change. Leaders, spouses and parents need to be sensitive to the psychological aspects of change if they want change to be easier to implement and be more successful. Our next Delfi column will explore some of the leading and following behaviours to help us on our change journey.

Larry Schruder is president and co-owner of The Delfi Group, Pembroke and can be reached at larry.schruder@thedelfigroup.com

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