How to understand the five most common obstacles to change

obstacles to change

This is a little-known fact but I have a master’s degree in organizational development and for many years led technology change and adoption efforts at a Fortune 100 company. Leading change can be one of the most frustrating of all career challenges. Today I’d like to share my best lessons from dealing with the biggest obstacles to change.

1. There is no grassroots change effort

I can always expect this question in one of my college classes: “How do I convince my boss we need to change and adapt to …”

“Convince” is always a red flag word for me. Here’s the truth. There’s no such thing as a grassroots cultural change led by passionate and enlightened marketers. In any organization, culture determines your marketing success. And culture is controlled by the executives at the top who own the budget and the strategy.

Often, dramatic progress with new marketing initiatives begins with executive education that leads to buy-in and sponsorship. You can’t skip that step. The bosses have to be on board. They have to sponsor the change.

2. Schaefer’s Law

Schaefer’s Law: Whatever technology adoption timeframe makes logical sense, multiply it by three and that’s what will happen in the real world. 

Think back to any new technology you’ve been excited about … Google Glass (AR) … mass marketing applications of Artificial Intelligence … blockchain. You might read an article that predicts mass adoption in two years but the problem is, we’re counting on logic based on the progress of technology. True adoption is more complex and it has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with humans!

Technology is not the enabler of rapid change. Pain is.

Companies, especially big ones, won’t normally spend the big money and resources on dramatic technological change until they have to. There aren’t many leaders willing to risk their careers based on what “might” happen. It has to be HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. Hence, nothing really happens as soon as you think it will

Schaefer’s Law. It’s a thing. Multiply by three.

3. Homeostasis

There is usually an opportunity for a big reward when you take a big risk. This is how breakthrough ideas come to life. But most people working in a company don’t want big risks. They want things to stay the same and that is one of the most frustrating obstacles to change.

In any natural system, there is a tendency toward settling into a routine — homeostasis. Natural systems reject dramatic disruption in favor of calm repetition. Think about how beehives have survived by operating at a peak efficiency of routine. In fact, for most of human existence, the beehive mindset of predictable agrarian existence has been an advantage.

However, this is not how the world operates today. Ignoring innovations and rapidly evolving threats means disaster.

So how do you disrupt an organization that wants to stay the same? My best advice is “trials.”

It’s hard for a manager to say “no” to a six-month trial of anything. There’s hardly any risk and if all goes well, the department will look good because of its new success. So create a six-month plan that has easy accomplishments built-in. As long as you can present a chart showing how you are beating your goals, the project should continue.

Then your boss gets promoted to another part of the company and your project is adopted forever. This really works. The homeostasis killer.

4. The Rubber Stamp Man

Sometime in your life you’ll encounter Rubber Stamp Man. This is not to be confused with the 1976 hit single Rubber Band Man, an excellent and funky song by The Spinners.

The smartest leaders will move ahead in their careers by unleashing the collective power of teams. But there is always somebody near the end of their career trying to hold on to their waning power through control. Nothing gets past them without their rubber stamp of approval, and to earn that, you have to conform to their narrow view of the world.

As an employee, this is a miserable place to be. If you’re smart and passionate, there’s nothing worse than being squelched by somebody who is not smart and passionate.

You have three options:

  1. The Rubber Stamp Man (or Woman or gender-neutral designation) is insecure and paranoid. Anything you can do to feed their ego and make them look great will give you a chance to take tiny steps toward progress.
  2. Wait it out. On average, people change jobs every 18 months. So, chances are, either you or the Rubber Stamp Obstacles to Change will be in another role soon!
  3. Quit. If this is a permanent obstacle, you probably need to look for a new job.

5. Change this. No, wait.

There is a fifth major challenge that always drove me nuts. This is the leader who follows the shiny red balls. Every news item about a startling tech innovation results in new directives from the top. It’s impossible to get anything done in this herky-jerky environment.

I used to work with an executive who would ask me, “What are your three?”

He emphasized that we should all narrow our focus to three critical work priorities. Any more or less sub-optimizes our time and effort. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in that advice, and I also think it is a possible solution to dealing with leaders who jerk you around.

When your boss wants to change your focus every week, simply ask, “Here are my top three priorities. Which one should I drop to focus on your new idea?” That normally clarifies things for your boss and they back off.

So those are my top five frustrating obstacles of change. Of course there are many more but I hope this gives you a few ideas and insights that will be helpful in your organization.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of several best-selling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram.

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