Still the Biggest Barrier to Change

I wrote most of this four years ago. Sadly, not much in my experience has changed since so I thought it was worth a revision.

Management workshops and discussion boards often ask what gets in the way of successful change. Typical replies say that Barriers to Change are:

  • Money
  • Senior sponsorship
  • Individuals’ resistance to change

What’s missing here? How about, “It was a dumb idea to start with”? There’s a presumption that the selected change is the right thing to do but things get in the way of its successful implementation.

Let’s not criticise the principles of Change Management by complaining that it doesn’t do something that it’s not designed to do anyway. I wouldn’t say that because my car lacks wings it’s a lousy plane. Change Management is there to deliver a choice that’s already been made. Its methods and tools aren’t designed to select a good change in the first place.

Kotter’s steps to successful change begin with ‘Start with a sense of urgency’. It’s a matter of getting the right people motivated to act to deliver your vision. It assumes that your change is a good thing. Other models take a step back to consider the present state of affairs. Kanter says, “Analyse the organisation and its need to change”. Morris and Raban say, “Surface dissatisfaction with the present state.” Other guides to Change Management follow the same theme.

None of the popular ones I’ve seen begin with anything like, “First, pick a really good idea”. Maybe if we saw that the selected change:

  • Isn’t feasible
  • Destroys value
  • Isn’t the best option
  • Is for the wrong people
  • Isn’t the sort of thing that we do

Then maybe we could weed out the bad changes before they cause too much harm. Picking a good thing to do in the first place might also pull down some of the traditional barriers of money, sponsorship and motivation. It’s much easier to motivate someone to implement a good idea than a poor one.

So what’s the step before Change Management? Von Clausewitz summed it up as the Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. APMG Managing Benefits calls it Starting with the End in Mind.

An objective is a result with a purpose, “We will do X because…”. Even if it’s implicit, there has to be a sensible and understood ‘because’ behind the things you choose. Take a look at some business cases and chances are you’ll find things like, “Objective: To build the building”, or, “Objective: To install the hardware”. These are the means, they’re not the ends. There’s no purpose to them. And purpose is so very important.

The reasons why we do things affect the ways we go about them. If Nelson had gone off to Trafalgar simply with the intent of using up his budgeted stock of gunpowder then it would have been a quick trip over the horizon, beat up the first French fishing boat he came across and home for tea and medals. He would have fought a very different battle from the one that actually took place. I grant you that he might not have died. I don’t think he would have got a column though.

If your objectives aren’t clear at the start, then there’s a serious risk that everybody makes their own assumptions about what it’s all for. How can you convince your stakeholders to make it happen when they don’t agree on what ‘it’ is? The purpose behind any course of action has a direct and significant effect on the way it is undertaken. It might even stop it from being undertaken at all.

So, you put in the thought and effort and your objective has a clear and agreed purpose. That doesn’t guarantee that it’s a good objective. Is it worthwhile? Who is it worthwhile for?

A benefit is a result that someone thinks has value. This means that the things people call ‘benefits’ usually aren’t. Faster, smaller, comes in the corporate colours, these are all features, not benefits. Like the building or the hardware above, they are the means, not the ends. Follow the cause-effect connections. How would you use ‘faster’ in practice? What would that achieve and who would find it useful? How useful?

By looking closely at the benefits, you see who it’s for and what it’s worth to them. Then you can see if the benefits add up to make the objective worthwhile.

If at this point you don’t have a sound set of objectives that add value in the right places, then you’ve learned something with minimal pain and can move on to your next idea. If you do have sound objectives, then you have a compelling story full of urgency and the need to change, with plenty of the right allies dissatisfied with what they are presently missing. That’s got to be a terrific head start to making the change.


  • Kotter 1996
  • Kanter et al, 1992
  • Morris and Raben, 1992
  • Von Clausewitz, On War, 1832
  • APMG Managing Benefits, Jenner, 2012