How to Identify Difficult Change?

Change efforts sometimes run into complicated obstacles. Correctly identifying a change effort as difficult or non-difficult allows you to select the right model. This way, when you step into difficult change you are taking the right steps from the start.

We shouldn’t underestimate how valuable mastery of change facilitation know-how is to the success of difficult change efforts and we need to recognize that “change” isn’t one thing. A change from an archaic system that glitched all the time and significantly limited the team to a new, user-friendly, intuitive system that provides answers to the team’s past concerns will require adjustment. But the change will be very different than trying to shift from that same archaic system to a new, complicated system that does not solve the team’s past concerns. Trying to get a caring, introspective, service oriented team to adopt a Servant Leadership culture will require new focus. But it will be nothing like trying to adopt that same culture if the team is coping with low trust, people are argumentative, and each team member is primarily focused on what any change will add to their workload.

There’s a saying: ”If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If your change education was anything like mine, you didn’t get access to difficult change models. Stepping into difficult change armed with the right models means you are ready to successfully guide people through difficult change because you see the steps clearly yourself. Unfortunately, change models that are not specifically designed to overcome the unique obstacles of difficult change often can’t stretch to provide sufficient guidance and support. So the first thing we need to talk about is: How can we identify difficult change?

The top 3 factors that can be used to identify difficult change are a big shift, big gap, and long duration. To get an intuitive sense of how these apply to difficult change, think of an individual, team, or organization you know that can benefit from improving. Define to yourself what the current state is (what needs to change?) and what the desired outcome is, then consider assessing if this is more likely non-difficult or difficult change:

  • Will it Require a Big Shift: from a previous way of doing things to a new way of doing things. If, for example, an open, receptive individual needs to adopt greater mastery of effective listening skills this will probably be less of a shift than if a defensive individual needed to acquire those same skills. If a team or organization that is learning-oriented, feedback-seeking, and frequently questioning assumptions needs to adopt greater mastery of skills around diversity and inclusion it will probably be less of a shift than if a team that generalizes truths, sees things in black and white (us vs. them etc.) and believes that ”our way is the right way” had to acquire the same skills. Will a big shift be required to achieve the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?
  • Is there a Big Gap: different groups of people seeing things very differently. For example, when an individual who needs to change recognizes and accepts the feedback he is given from other people’s perspectives it will probably be less of a gap than when an individual is given feedback from other people’s perspectives but sees things very differently himself. When a team all agree about the issues they need to resolve it will probably be less of a gap than when there are sub groups in the team, each with their own different beliefs about what the issues are and how they need to be resolved. If different levels in the organizational structure are aligned in terms of needs, it will probably be less of a gap than if higher levels of management and “end-employees” only see needs from their perspective. Is there a big gap in how different people see things in the context of the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?
  • Duration of Previous Way of Doing Things: Long duration of practicing previous responses, behaviors, thinking patterns, actions, systems etc. prior to introducing the need for change. If, for example an individual is experiencing friction with a manager for two months and responding to the manager in a less than ideal way during this time, changing this dynamic and response pattern will probably be less difficult than if the same dynamic has been in place for ten years. If a team or organization is trying to deliberately adopt new values or a new culture, this will probably be easier a few months after the team or organization formed than after the organization has been practicing another way of doing things for twenty years or more. Have responses, behaviors, or thinking habits been reinforced for long duration of time in the context of the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?

Add to these top three factors like emotional investment, fake buy-in, lack of trust, and dysfunctional politics. Any one of these factors can make change difficult but it is not at all uncommon to find them together. The good news is that there is a common cause at the heart of why these factors make change more difficult. These are all more difficult because they each increase the need for Unlearning. The more change requires Unlearning, the more it “activates” conscious (visible, external) and subconscious (invisible, internal) resistance responses. The more these factors are present, the more you’ll hear responses like ”this is how we’ve always done it…”, the more meetings with discussions about change will lead to draining implementation progress, and the more you’ll have to deal with frustration, argumentativeness, and other fear-driven, change-blocking responses.

There is a way to go about it that is designed specifically to overcome these obstacles to change. If that’s relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out KCI services, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.

With appreciation,



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