CIO Leadership

Why Change Of Any Scale Rarely Succeeds And What Great Leaders Practically Do About It

Change efforts fail because the hard work is done in the wrong place, and because we avoid resistance as much as possible. To succeed at change, create and embrace friction as early as possible.

Scott Smeester


June 1, 2023

Photo credit:
“When change initiatives fail, they rarely fail on technical skills, they fail on people skills.” David A. Shore, Harvard University

In a recent CIO Mastermind meeting, one of our members, who I regard highly, sought input from the community on practical elements of implementing change. 

My friend knows the theories. He has read the books. Nothing from Kotter or Lewin or Prosci - all change architects - is outside his realm of understanding. I find my friend to be a brilliant thinker and leader. 

And he has run into what many great leaders run into when it comes to change; the practice is a whole other matter than the knowledge.

I was interested in the advice our peer community would give. As usual, it was rich in contribution. Much of the advice surrounded culture and communication tactics. Overwhelmingly, CIOs spoke to the need for dedicated personnel to drive the change and to keep it in front of others.

I agree. And…

The Great Divorce

Every person you meet lives in a particular state of being, which is between their Current State and their Desired State.

The moment a desire is recognized, a space is created. By way of simple illustration: you are very focused working on a project, not even cognizant of hunger. You finish or come to a natural break and realize, “I am hungry.” Desire just created a space.

In that space, two things are true: It must be filled, and there is friction (such as, no food around, or the only food around is icky, or you have to go to the kitchen). Friction is on a scale of difficulty.

I get up, overcome whatever friction is between me and my desired state (perhaps I cook), and then eat to my fill. End of state until I recognize a different desire. Rinse and repeat.

All this makes sense to you, and your marketing team lives in it every day, answering the question, “How do we shorten the distance between a person’s current state and their desired state (which is a solution we have for them)?”

Specifically, marketers are searching for how to reduce friction, how to make the buying process as easy as possible.

But they understand that there is friction, you cannot avoid it, and you must have it. It seems a contradiction, but friction greases the wheels for a purchase (which, by its nature, is a change). A person must face a restraint to seek your help.

I have a desire. I believe it can be fulfilled. I face restraint. If someone presents you with desire, belief and restraint, now you can lead.

Many change efforts divorce change from friction. Our strategy, communication, set expectations and short term wins feed the monster of friction-avoidance. 

We believe that people resist change. They do not. They welcome change every day (red traffic light changes to green light). They also welcome change that isn’t just for their benefit; being willing to give or sacrifice, a dignified trait of being human, is done in the name of someone else’s benefit all the time. 

Because we believe that people resist change, we try to make change easy; instead, change needs to be seen as essential.

Easy change doesn’t create any sense of ownership or pride on my part; essential change, in which I expect to have to overcome obstacles, does. 

I don’t disagree with creating a sense of urgency (per Kotter). But I must create a hope of fulfillment.

How It Works

Change-efforts fail because friction comes too late in the process. 

You want the greatest amount of friction up front. Typically, even if leaders encounter friction, they put it in the context of friction around the idea, the proposed change.

You want to create friction first within a person or team, and it is in the space between Current Reality and Desired Reality. What, in the proposed change, is a desired reality within those affected (even if the desire is sacrifice for a greater good)?

It takes work to get people to define their desired reality. (A work I will address a few paragraphs from now).

Then you want to invite and embrace friction around the idea. At this point, you are not calling people to adopt your idea, you are advocating for them as an idea is being adopted. 

The difference between this and most change efforts is significant.

I’ve done it both ways (avoid friction vs advocate in friction). Now, I only do it the advocate way.

Practically Speaking

Any number of leaders make changes, but few of them are change-agents.

Change efforts fail because change-agents aren’t in the mix. As the peer-advisory group said, you have to have people dedicated to communicating the change AND to communicating with others regarding the change. We tend to put our effort into the first and relax our efforts on the second.

  1. Hire a change-agent. They will work with your communications team, marketing leaders, managers, etc. The money you save will be worth the added personnel.
  2. Hire a change-agent who can train others on leading change, so that an environment and reproducible process is created within your IT and within your company.
  3. Implement ACTS into every change effort. Change-agents know how to conduct assessment, coaching, training and support into the smallest and biggest of changes. They are the four essential dynamics of defining a desired reality, creating friction and leading toward fulfillment.

Naturally, we are happy to help. Just reach out to us here:

Alignment Survey

Interested in what CIO Mastermind could do for you?

* Designed for all IT executives and CEOs, CFOs and Board Members

All Article categories

Access Our Library

Thank you!
Please confirm your subscription and add "" to your safe list :-)
Oops! Something went wrong. Please try again.