The 5 Barriers To Organizational Change (According To Harvard Professor Moss Kanter)

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar October 17, 2018

Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter (check out her biography below) said these words during our visit to the RenDanHeYi Forum in Qingdao, China. We couldn’t agree more.

As she points out: “The current business environment in the digital world of today demands a different skill set from organizations. We observe power shifting from manufacturers of products to the users of those same products.”

“We are witnessing established players who once dominated their markets increasingly under attack by start-ups. The business environment now demands that organizations are able to act directly, from anywhere, anytime.”

The art of mastering change in the digital era was a major focus at the conference. Rosabeth shared what she sees as the main barriers—and how organizations should address them. There are 5 valuable lessons we learned from her.

Change is a threat when done to us, but an opportunity when done by us. - Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter
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1. "It's not mine" - The ownership challenge

Organization change falters when employees don’t buy into ideas they can’t identify with. Rosabeth calls this the “It’s not mine” barrier. And it is the cause of challenges most big corporations experience.

“The solution lies in the empowerment of the innovators, explorers, questioners and rebels in the organization. It is about everyone becoming an entrepreneur.”

These rebels should be allowed to incubate their ideas inside the organization. They should be able to raise them, invest in them, and actively test them. They should be allowed to pursue them from scratch—and be given a stake in the outcome. Only then will you be able to keep your true rebels on-board.

How to do this in practice? Read here more about how organizations as Buurtzorg and Handelsbanken are doing exactly that.

2. Territories, turf, boundaries

Rosabeth’s second barrier is “battles over turf”. These are battles where employees defend their “territories” first. This frequently occurs in traditional organizations, and makes change painful.

The cause is the internal walls the organizations have built over many years. “Those walls need to disappear. Organizations need to open up and start embracing other stakeholders as their true partners. They need to create ecosystems around their products, services and users.”

Boundaries that were once clear need to become blurred. These walls should dissolve into ecosystems built around (online) user communities.

How to do this in practice? Read here more about how organizations as Buurtzorg and Haier are doing exactly that.

3. The anxiety of uncertainty

Rosabeth’s third barrier is the increasing uncertainty in the business world. Organizations realize they can no longer predict the future (even if they could in the past). “This creates anxiety. Even the optimists feel anxious!” This inability to foresee the future means organizations need to be able to adapt quickly.

“The solution lies in finding a higher purpose—a grand mission for all of the organization to pursue. It’s about creating human bonds to make this mission a reality. Strong human bonds are created by mastering stress together, by inclusion, by valuing difference and by listening to all voices.”

How to do this in practice? Read here more about how an organization as Patagonia is doing exactly that.

Patagonia 1

4. Rigidity, over-control, new-in-old systems

The fourth barrier to change is the fact that traditional organizations are slow moving objects. They are often rigid, and employ excessive levels of control. “We all are familiar with the painful truth that it’s often impossible to create something new and vibrant in these old rigid systems. This is especially so when situations are novel, and it is hard to predict how things will play out.”

Organizations should embrace a culture of experimentation. “They should permit improvisation, and balance plans with flexibility. Nothing should be regarded as permanent any more. Structures should be challenged. It’s about finding the right balance between bold strokes and long marches.”

How to do this in practice? Read here more about how an organization as Spotify is doing exactly that.

5. Kanter's Law

During change journeys, it is often true that everyone feels motivated at the start. And we all look forward to happy endings. According to Rosabeth, it’s in the middle where the hard work happens. This is the territory of the Rosabeth’s last barrier to organization change, which has become known as ‘Kanter’s Law’.

It says everything looks like a failure in the middle. “The middle includes those moments when it seems you can’t move forward. You don’t feel comfortable. The goal seems far away. In the middle, we all have doubts—even the true believers.”

This is exactly when Kanter’s Law kicks in. Rosabeth hit upon it after observing hundreds of major changes slide into inertia. “I’m talking about the moment that grand promise gives way to the tough challenge of implementation.”

With all new initiatives – like organization change – there is a good chance of running into trouble before the end. “Problems tempt employees to give up, to forget this initiative, and move on to the next enticing rainbow.”

“There are unexpected obstacles and delays in any change process. Stopping too soon is, by definition, failure. Those who master change persist and persevere. They assess and adjust. Those who recognize the struggle of the middle succeed. They have stamina, they are flexible, and they expect obstacles on the road to success.”

The 5 barriers to organizational change (according to Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter): (1) 'It's not mine' (2) 'Battles over turf' (3) 'Anxiety of uncertainty' (4) 'New-in-old systems' (5) 'Kanter's Law'
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And, Kanter’s Hope

Luckily there is not only a law, but also hope. Rosabeth regards change as a process that every two steps forward often include one step back. In other words, failure is a natural part of the process. “With a mindset of persistence, we can change the world of work altogether.”

So, this article is not only about Kanter’s Law, but also Kanter’s Hope. This is the hope of a better and more prosperous world. And for that we should embrace change as an opportunity, and not longer as a threat...

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, and is also the Chair and Director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative, a collaboration across all of Harvard’s Schools to help successful leaders at the top of their professions apply their skills to addressing challenging national and global problems in their next stage of life. As an expert on strategy, innovation, and leadership for change, she has advised numerous national and global corporations and public sector leaders.

Her latest book, MOVE: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead, is a sweeping look across industries and technologies shaping the future of mobility and the leadership required for transformation. Her previous book, Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin & End, describes the culture and dynamics of high-performance organizations as compared with those in decline, and shows how to lead turnarounds, whether in businesses, hospitals, schools, sports teams, community organizations, or countries. Past prizewinning books include Men & Women of the Corporation, When Giants Learn to Dance, and World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy.

You can connect to Rosabeth on Facebook

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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