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The 3 Uncomfortable Truths About Change Management

  • 3 Min Read

The more we know about where change management can go wrong, the better we can understand how to do it right.


Change management is a critical part of any transformation—big or small. It’s key to keeping people informed about what’s going on, helping them become familiar with new workflows and technologies, and growing engagement and adoption after that new-car smell has worn off.

In short, change management helps make sure whatever you’re undertaking becomes a lasting, long-term achievement and not just a blip in the radar.

Yet just because it’s important, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The reality is that change management doesn’t always go according to plan. There may be roadblocks and detours along the way, and the outcomes can be murky.

This article takes a deeper dive into truths about change management—helping us discover where it tends to falter so we can see how to get it back on track. So, let’s dig in.

1. It Doesn’t Always Work 

When it comes to digital transformations, this is the elephant in the room. In many cases, they’re simply not successful. According to research from BCG, only 30% of initiatives were winners—both meeting or exceeding their goals and leading to sustained change. The remaining 70% either created some initial value that didn’t last or had little impact at all.

This doesn’t have to mean doom and gloom, though. It simply reinforces the importance of fostering continued engagement and adoption in deliberate, effective ways. Kiara Graham, senior learning strategy consultant with D2L, outlines three factors that contribute to successful change:

  1. getting executive sponsorship
  2. encouraging employee involvement
  3. providing clear communication

The good news is that taking actions like these can have major impacts. Prosci found that setting aside resources to reinforce and sustain change management bumped success rates by 20%—48% for projects that didn’t allocate sufficient resources, compared with 68% for projects that did. Sponsors had an even bigger impact. While only 29% of initiatives without effective sponsors hit the mark, 73% of those with effective sponsors were successful. That’s a 44 percentage point gap.

2. Its Impacts Can Be Unclear

Another common challenge with change management is quantifying and showcasing the returns it generates. In a 2019 report, The State of Digital Transformation, the biggest problem executives identified was a lack of data to justify the return on investment and benefits of a digital transformation. The second biggest problem was budget and that they often saw transformations as cost centers.

This drives home the importance of building on a solid base. As you’re creating a strategy for your digital transformation, that means clearly articulating:

  • practices your organization needs to focus on
  • goals you’re working toward and how prepared you are to realize them
  • priorities, including the resources needed to implement them
  • key performance indicators, key metrics and benchmarks you’re considering
  • milestones and actions for achieving your targets

Whatever the scale of the change you’re making, having clear objectives can help keep the outcomes easy to measure.

3. It Can’t Be a Top-Down Process

To be truly effective, change can’t be a top-down process, though that’s still how 80% of organizations manage it, according to Gartner. The reality is that all stakeholders—including the employees who will need to adapt how they work—need to be active participants in defining and driving transformations.

Gartner’s research also shines a promising light on the impact a more transparent approach to change management can have. In 2019, it revealed that organizations that adopted a revamped, open-source approach were able to boost success by 24%. In 2022, it reinforced these findings—showing that involving employees in making decisions increased wins by 15%, while giving employees primary ownership of implementation planning did the same by 24%.

As Graham said, “Organizational change often boils down to individual change. To encourage individuals within organizations to take action, you need to bring them into the process.”

The Good News: Change Management Is Worth the Effort

We don’t want you to walk away from this article feeling discouraged. We want you to be informed, but we also want you to be optimistic.

Remember that change management doesn’t have to be perfect to leave a lasting—and positive—mark. Prosci found that simply by moving from poor to fair change management, initiatives were three times more likely to meet their objectives. When it comes down to it, the more we know about where change management can go wrong, the better we can understand how to do it right.

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Table of Contents

  1. It Doesn’t Always Work
  2. Its Impacts Can Be Unclear
  3. It Can’t Be a Top-Down Process
  4. The Good News: Change Management Is Worth the Effort