The path of organizational change is littered with good intentions that never delivered results. Creating successful change is not easy, but there are lessons that can be learned from others who have tried. Prosci's work in change management is founded on the longitudinal best practices studies we complete every two years. These studies provide data on what works and - sometimes more importantly - what does not work when implementing change.

Today we’ll explore the question: What were the biggest obstacles to the overall success of your change program?

Top change hazards

In the 2016 edition of Best Practices in Change Management, 1120 participants from 64 countries shared their insights. Each recounted the story of how their project played out. Below are the top five obstacles they identified:

  1. Lack of active and visible sponsorship
  2. Lack of change management resourcing
  3. Manager and supervisor resistance
  4. Employee resistance
  5. Lack of buy-in from project teams

1. Lack of Active and Visible Sponsorship

More than twice as often as any other obstacle, participants reported lack of effective executive sponsorship as the number-one obstacle to successful change management. This included sponsors delegating duties, being present at kickoff then stepping away from the project and not helping to get other employees and sponsors on board.


Many participants reported that these mistakes came from executives lacking an understanding of the role of an effective sponsor.


- Best Practices in Change Management – 2016 Edition

Poor sponsorship directly impacts the value a project or change delivers to the organization. In the same way that effective sponsorship can mobilize and activate the organization, poor sponsorship can inhibit and delay progress. Employees interpret an absent or inactive sponsor as an indication of how important - or unimportant - the initiative is.

Prosci's methodology includes a sponsor assessment and checklist for identifying the required coalition and a sponsor roadmap that lays out the specific actions a team needs from senior leaders.

2. Lack of Change Management Resourcing

Lack of investment and resourcing for change management was cited as an obstacle to success, including both financial and human resources. Change management resources were often insufficient to apply change management. Allocated resources were often the first to be cut when budget concerns and competing projects arose.


- Best Practices in Change Management – 2016 Edition

Change management is not an activity that can be accomplished in one person’s free time. In order to succeed in adoption and usage, realize the benefits of a change and avoid the cost of not changing, change management needs to be resourced for according to the scope and scale of the change.

The Best Practices in Change Management report and the eBest Practices tool both contain research that demonstrates a strong correlation between effective resourcing and change meeting project objectives, as well as benchmarking that could help you define your own resourcing needs.

3. Manager and Supervisor Resistance

Resistance at the mid-level and frontline manager positions was the third most common obstacle participants identified. A manager’s focus on daily operations and lack of inclusion during decision-making resulted in managers being predisposed to resistance.


Managers also lacked awareness of the important role they played in the change process. Consequently, managers often took sides, speaking out against the change and failing to participate in cascading communications that the change initiative required.


- Best Practices in Change Management – 2016 Edition

Middle managers are perhaps one of the biggest allies - and potentially biggest hurdles - in times of change. Based on the 2016 research, their key roles are:

  1. Communicator
  2. Advocate
  3. Coach
  4. Resistance manager
  5. Liasion with the Project Team
  6. Continuing managerial responsibilities

However, these same managers were also cited as the most resistant group to change. If middle management resists a change, so will their people. And many times, resistance takes on a viral quality, spreading throughout the organization.

 Design into your change management plans direct and intentional engagement with managers.  Give them the information and resources they need to be effective communicators and advocates.  And give them an opportunity to go through their own personal change process first so they are better prepared to lead their team.

4. Employee Resistance

Resistance from frontline employees was also cited as an obstacle. Participants reported this was largely due to a lack of employee awareness of the need for change. Participants also reported that the majority of frontline employees were already experiencing large amounts of change, which increased their resistance to any new change.


- Best Practices in Change Management – 2016 Edition

From small departmental changes to large sweeping organizational changes, all change happens at an individual level where one person at a time moves from current state to a desired future state. 

Resistance to a change also happens at the individual level and should, as much as possible, be addressed on the individual level as well. Managing resistance requires both proactive steps to mitigate the sources of resistance and a reactive process for addressing resistance when it does occur.

5. Lack of Buy-In from Project Teams

Lack of the project team understanding the important role change management plays in the success of a project was another obstacle for change managers. Project teams often involved change managers very late in the process, or even worse, after a previous rollout had already failed. Change management was viewed as a soft science and did not have credibility with people who were project-minded.


- Best Practices in Change Management – 2016 Edition

It is critical for change management to be integrated into a project as early as possible, and for change teams to have access to relevent information and materials about the project. The change team’s recommendations need to be viewed as credible. All of this depends on engagement and buy-in from the project team. Check out this article for a way to frame change and project management with a unified value proposition.

How Well Are You Doing?

The quick checklist below will help you gauge the risks you may face related to the biggest obstacles to overall change success. 

Are you:

  • Facing ineffective sponsorship from senior leaders
  • Lacking sufficient resources for change management
  • Expecting resistance from middle managers
  • Experiencing or expecting resistance from employees
  • Lacking buy-in from project teams

Focusing attention on overcoming these obstacles proactively can help mitigate common risks and ultimately help you achieve better outcomes for your change project and your organization.

Introduction to Change Management - Prosci

Written by
Robert Stise
Robert Stise

Robert uses his extensive educational background in social science research and writing to continually expand and deepen the body of knowledge dedicated to change management. In his role as Prosci research and development analyst, Robert works to plan, run and produce meaningful advances in the field of change management.

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