Remove barriers to change
Even though we know all know change is needed, it can seem as if many of our change initiatives take a long time to adopt or completely fail to take root. Here's why:

Even the most motivated employees will fail to change
when we do not remove the organizational barriers that make changing difficult.

This is the focus of John Kotter’s fifth step, “empowering broad-based action,” in his eight-step process to leading change. He encourages change leaders to look for and remove four types of barriers that commonly prevent people from following through with organizational change.

  1. Formal (and old) structures currently in place make it difficult to act.
  2. Bosses discourage action aimed at implementing the vision.
  3. Personnel and information systems make it difficult to act.
  4. A lack of skills is preventing the change from occurring.

If we consider the possible barriers when planning change initiatives and work to remove them throughout the project, our projects will run more smoothly and the change will be adopted more quickly.

Here’s a quick example of a change initiative we are starting and some of the barriers that will need to be removed before we can expect change to happen.

The change: Create an intranet that provides a central place for storing information; scheduling tasks and managing projects across departments; and providing staff training.

Potential barriers

Examples of barriers

Possible solutions
Formal structures making it difficult to act. The majority of our staff works in a silo/department structure. This makes it difficult to see a cross-departmental organization that would work for us. Rather than asking departments to identify what information they need on the intranet, identify organization-wide processes. Improve communication and performance across departments by moving these to the intranet first.

Bosses discouraging action. The boss doesn’t see a large enough value for making this a priority in the department. It’s a good idea, he promises to do it when there is time (i.e., never).
  • Use champion groups to show the efficiencies gained from a central intranet.
  • Provide help in migrating processes over or to stand in for those working on the project.
  • Work with the boss to identify problem areas and use the intranet to correct those first.
  • Point to the organizational rather than the departmental priority.
  • Seek collaborative solutions early.

Personnel and information systems making it difficult to act.
  • We’ve had the same file storage system for years and, although not perfect, people are comfortable with it.
  • People are busy and do not feel they can afford the time to learn a new system.

  • Provide extra staff or reduce workload temporarily to allow time for the learning curve.
  • Once the new system is in place, remove the old system so that people can’t revert back.
Lack of skills is preventing the change from occurring.
  • Unfamiliarity with best practices for structuring an intranet slows down decision-making and development.
  • Unfamiliarity with the system once in place causes misuse and frustration.

  • Talk to external people who will share real-life experiences with this type of project.
  • Find resources and make time to learn best practices. Reinforce that the learning process is just as important as designing and building.
  • Plan for training time both for the team doing the initial development and the staff who will be working with it once in place.

As leaders our job is to identify and remove barriers that are preventing change from taking root. Project managers should factor removing the barriers into their project plan and continue looking for unexpected barriers throughout the project.

Barriers can slow down or stop even the most motivated employees from working toward organizational change. As leaders, pointing the way to change is not enough. We must also clear the way so that the change can take hold.