Organizations constantly change, in ways both intended and unintended. When managers deliberately set out to alter an organization, shifting it from its current state to a future state, we speak of implementing change.
The challenges involved in successfully implementing change depend on how big the intended change is – whether it is a minor adaptation or a major organizational transformation. Generally speaking, the wider the scope (the number of aspects being changed) and the larger the scale (the extent of the change), the more challenges you are likely to encounter.
This model identifies the three main categories of challenges encountered by managers trying to cross the gap between the current state and the intended future state – hence the tongue-in-cheek name, Mind the Gap Model. Within each category, three specific challenges are described that commonly occur when implementing big changes. The model does not suggest that these challenges always occur. Rather, it serves as a checklist to warn managers of the potential problems they might come across.
9 key elements to change
The nine change challenges, grouped into three sets of three, are:
- Change clarity. Do all stakeholders clearly comprehend what the change will bring about? Managers often think that what they say is clear-cut, but not all recipients necessarily interpret the message correctly. Common forms of ambiguity among stakeholders are:
- Specificity ambiguity. Often the change itself hasn’t been made tangible enough to act upon. It is unclear what needs to be done, when, how and by whom.
- Credibility ambiguity. Changes can also sound too unrealistic to take seriously. It is unclear whether there is sufficient drive and commitment to actually make the changes happen.
- Consistency ambiguity. Changes may also be inconsistent with the stakeholders’ other priorities. This can lead to unclarity as to what objectives should be given priority to.
- Change ability. Is the organization capable of realizing the intended changes? Even if the required change is clear, people may not have the potential to successfully carry out what needs to be done. Common barriers holding the organization back are:
- Switching barriers. Changes can be hampered by being set in e.g. long-term contracts, legacy systems and fixed investments, making switching very difficult.
- Resource barriers. Organizations may lack the necessary tangible resources, e.g. money, and/or intangible resources, e.g. knowledge, skills, relations and mindset.
- Learning barriers. Organizations may also lack the capability to absorb outside knowledge and to learn by doing, making change very difficult.
- Change willingness. Do all stakeholders want to realize the intended changes? Do they embrace the changes and commit themselves to implementing them as intended, or are they rather reluctant or even unwilling? Common reasons for resistance are:
- Political resistance. Going along with the changes may not be in people’s perceived interest. Their resistance is then a rational and calculated response to a potential loss.
- Cognitive resistance. Going along with the changes may go against people’s views on what should be done. They resist because they believe the proposed changes don’t make sense.
- Emotional resistance. Being forced to go along with changes, may trigger a sense of insecurity. People fear uncertainty, exclusion or unfairness, which leads to resistance.
5 key insights to change
- Change requires more than a specific plan. While successful change implementation often starts with having a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time-bound) plan, there are eight more challenges that need to be kept in mind.
- Change faces three types of challenges. To deal with change, managers need to distinguish between “I don’t get it” (lack of clarity), “I can’t do it” (lack of ability) and “I don’t want it” (lack of willingness). Each challenge requires a different response.
- Challenges are situation-specific. While lack of clarity, ability and willingness are universal challenges, not all nine issues of the model always turn out to be problematic. It depends on the type of organization and the type of change being implemented.
- Challenges are difficult to observe. Most change challenges are not easy to objectively identify at the outset. Managers thus have to keep their eyes and ears open for signals along the way, contrary to the idea that an initial outside analysis will sufficiently capture all possible challenges.
- Challenges need to be managed or downsized. Managers need to constantly estimate whether, and how, the intended change can be successfully achieved, or whether the scope/scale of the change needs to be reduced so that challenges can be overcome.
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