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Organizational Change Management: Common Pitfalls in Leading Transformation Efforts

Posted By Rick Ybarra, Thursday, December 1, 2016



A version of this piece was originally posted on the Hog Foundation for Mental Health’s blog site "Rick on Reform.” Click here for the original posting.

Re-engineering. Reinventing. Rightsizing. Reorganizing. Restructuring. Turning around. You have heard them before. Just a few of the terms used to symbolize "transformation.”

We talk much of transformation. Actually, we talk about transformation all the time. But I submit to you that in both the private and public sectors, many transformation change management efforts to date have not been successful. We continue to hear countless stories of well-intentioned change efforts that have fallen short or completely come off the rails. "Our strategy? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…” Most of these efforts end up somewhere in between, likely skewed toward the lower end of the scale. Think of the bell curve: outliers at each end; most folks fall somewhere in the middle, with the majority tilting towards the lower end.

Certainly this was not the intention of those leading unsuccessful change efforts. So what can we learn from this?

John P. Kotter, renowned for his work on leading organizational change, shared the results of his observations in a 1995 article (reprinted 2007) for the Harvard Business Review titled "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” He highlighted the biggest errors that can derail transformation efforts as well as basic lessons that can be gleaned from successful organizational transformations.

To the health care industry: listen up as Kotter's observations still hold true many, many years later!

To know where you are going, you have to know where you came from. In other words, institutional culture and history.

First, a basic lesson from the more successful case examples is that the change process goes through a series of phases. Check. It’s also important to note that these phases usually require a considerable period of time and often the right staging. Check again! Nothing comes easy or fast during the implementation of change management.

A second basic lesson is that critical mistakes during any of the phases can have devastating consequences, either slowing momentum or worse (such as your change process effort "coming off the rails”).

Kotter emphasized that the most unsuccessful transformation efforts almost always occur during at least one of the following phases:

  • Generating a greater sense of urgency.
  • Establishing a powerful enough guiding coalition.
  • Developing a clear vision.
  • Communicating (or under-communicating) the vision clearly and often.
  • Removing obstacles to towards the new vision.
  • Planning for and designing short-term wins.
  • Premature declarations of victory.
  • Embedding or anchoring changes in the corporate culture.


No real surprises here, right? That said, many transformation efforts continue to fail or fall short by not paying attention to and not nurturing the organization through these critical phases.

Note that even if you get seven of the eight phases right, misjudging or not thoroughly planning for that one phase is enough to bring your entire change management effort to a slow down or screeching halt! A valuable insight, I’d say!

I realize this is an oversimplification as there are a multitude of complexities that all organizations face during their transformation journey.

So what can we learn from these important observations dating back to the mid-90s? The big take-away is that all transformation efforts (yes, even successful ones) are stressful, hectic and sometimes chaotic – and often combined with new and exciting discoveries! Just as a clear vision is needed to guide an organization through a major change process initiative, a vision of the actual change process and phases, clarity on the endpoint for each of these phases, anticipating some of the challenges to expect and ways to navigate these challenges can certainly minimize the bumps to be expected. And fewer bumps can be the difference between a successful transformation effort and failure.

So which end of the bell curve do you want to find yourself on as you move through your change management process?

Rick Ybarra serves as program officer for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and leads the foundation’s Integrated Health Care Initiative. With over 25 years of clinical and administrative experience in both private and public sector behavioral health, Ybarra’s policy and program experience extends to county, state and national efforts promoting reforms, public policies and clinical practice to improve effective service delivery and health equity for racial/ethnic populations. Ybarra joined the foundation in 2007.

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