Lessons From Change Management Failure

You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

-Wayne Gretzky

In the following paragraphs, I deliver a personal account of a powerful lesson I learned about how detrimental change management can be if the following principles are ignored:

(1) Establishing a powerful guiding coalition

(2) Empowering others to act

(3) Tempering logical appeals with emotion appeals


John Kotter, a world renown thought leader in change management, stated that urgency needs to be at about 75 percent in order to be effective. To achieve the 75 percent goal, Kotter recommended making the status quo seem more dangerous than launching into the unknown.

From a shellacking I suffered, I learned that persuading people to adopt new approaches is a lot easier said than done.

About three years ago I worked with the owner of a small art gallery/coffee shop who wanted help securing media attention.

Before I took on the assignment, the owner who I’ll refer to as “Jen” was unable to generate buzz through a previous public relations contractor. As a result, one of my previous clients referred Jen to me.

At the outset of the assignment, I couldn’t figure out why Jen’s unique establishment had such a hard time attracting media.

The area seemed ripe for media coverage due to both community and economic development taking place in the art gallery’s neighborhood.

Media Hogs:

Over a 12 month period, The City of Detroit spent more money per square mile in Jen’s area than in any other area around the city. Nevertheless, my client identified a new business across the street--competing in the service industry-- as the sole reason she had not secured media attention.

The gentleman who opened the business in the service industry was a local celebrity. And his business attracted a mighty stream of customers.

The mayor’s biggest pet project injected millions of dollars in Tax Increment Financing funding into the community.

On one day I walked through the district and thought there were more reporters in the neighborhood than stories to go around.

New boutique clothing stores received attention. Trendy salons received attention. And other art galleries received attention.

But media outlets avoided Jen as they would earthquakes and rattlesnakes.

The Talk:

After mulling over the situation, it didn’t take long to find the art gallery's problem. And that problem was Jen.

Jen insisted on micromanaging nearly every strategy--what outlets to pitch to and when.

Jen insisted on micromanaging nearly every tactic--what information to include and how to write the press release.

I tacitly suspected that Jen had previously approached too many media outlets too many times with too many bad ideas. And as a result, they treated her like the boy who cried wolf.

Taking on Jen as a client, I thought that I could change her perspective. But in hindsight, I didn’t use the empirical approaches tried and tested across industries.

Nevertheless, I knew that if I allowed Jen to control the process, I’d ruin my favor with local reporters and possibly become the boy who cried wolf-- just like Jen and her art gallery.

It didn’t take long for Jen and I to have a frank discussion about unpleasant facts regarding my dilemma, her perceived public relations problem and the thriving businesses in the area.

In working through our interactions, I relied too much on generating a profile of Jen based on her accomplishments.

First Jen is a type-A personality who works at a multinational corporation with more than 20 years as an executive. Jen earned an MBA from a top 25 B-school and an engineering degree from a top public university.

Jen was accustomed to doing things her way, all day. And desired results and logic-- so I thought.

After my first week consulting Jen’s art gallery, I felt like I had to assert my credibility and reinforce the merits of my strategy.

But rather than yield decision-making to me based on my experience, I felt as though Jen ignored my recommendations and instead insisted I pitch bad stories to good reporters.

Given Jen’s technical background in engineering and her Goliath-like personality, I picked up my slingshot and delivered a dosage of amicable logic.

“Jen, you hired me to solve your PR related problems. I can do that because I know how reporters think. I know the questions they'll ask and the story-lines they find newsworthy. I sat with them, listened to them and made decisions as part of that community. I know how to get secure media attention for your business but you’re going to have to let me do my job.”

I recommended we ride “Enemy coattails" to increase our odds at news coverage. This mean partnering with other businesses to receive air time.

The mayor was already coming to businesses across the street-- with news crews to boot. Two connections I had in media assured me that they'd include my client in their stories but after they interviewed the hometown hero-- representing the business across the street.

I secured an early win with two of the city’s top rated TV stations in less than a month on the job. Previously, Jen secured no media offers in two years.

Great news, right? So, I thought.

Jen declined. She wanted to be the headline story.

My recommendation to “ride the enemies” coattails worked with media but didn't with Jen.

Not long after that conversation we decided against renewing our contract.

In retrospect, I felt that Jen and I could’ve done better. Jen ego was attached to her position. When her position fell, so too did her ego. I sensed this early on but acted on a logical appeal rather than change leadership principles advanced by Kotter.

The Kicker:

Jen acquired the art gallery after her mother passed away some time before we contracted. I suspect her passion may have influenced her need to assert complete control regarding decisions for the gallery.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Form a powerful guiding coalition

  2. Empower others to act on the vision

  3. Consolidate improvements and produce more change

  4. Institutionalize new approaches

Knowing what I now know, my guiding coalition would’ve started with my PR team (who execute strategy), then establish buy in and with Jen’s staff (who my PR crew could influence).

After forming the solid coalition between my staff and Jen’s staff, I would have approached Jen.

Since I did not form a powerful guiding coalition early on, my efforts to change did not lead to an optimal result because my client did not receive media attention and I missed out on renewing a contract.

It’s possible that Jen needed to come to terms with certain issues. But people just like Jen exist across the globe. My lessons center around applying the best strategies to lead change.

Now that I know more about change leadership principles, and my failed attempts to advance change, I’m more equipped to deal with change moving forward.

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