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Moving beyond ceremonial adoption of change initiatives

Published 8 August 2022 in Innovation • 9 min read

Have you ever sat through a speech by the CEO praising the successful introduction of a new change initiative – be it the introduction of a CRM platform, an ERP system or a TQM initiative – after 12 months when the actual success is still uncertain? Having the underlying new system, processes or tools in place is already a big step, but if employees are not actively using the new system or associated work practices and merely pay lip service to it, the business cannot derive the expected economic benefits from the initiative. This is referred to as “ceremonial adoption.”

In fact, about 50% of initiatives fall into the category of ceremonial adoption, rather than the desired active adoption – successful implementation of the functional benefits and commitment to change.

Source: Developed by author based on Kostova and Roth, AMJ 2002

When there is low implementation of the functional benefits and low commitment to change, adoption is minimal.
When implementation is high but commitment to change is low, then there is likely to be ceremonial adoption.
When there is low implementation but high commitment to change, the adoption of the practice is likely to be in assent.
And when there is both a high level of implementation and a high commitment to change there will be active adoption, which is the desired goal.

Ceremonial adopters often fail to achieve higher levels of commitment to change as they are not (yet) convinced of the value of the initiative, they might not understand the demands or requirements associated with the change, or they have not come to terms with the fear of loss of their current ways of working. Managing the process of change successfully requires leaders to address three change factors: (1) belief in its inherent benefits, (2) recognition that there are costs associated with failure to provide support for the change – also called the fear of loss and (3) to provide support for the new practices. While believing in the inherent benefits is referred to as “affective commitment” and leads to a change in thinking and behavior, the second type of commitment, which addresses “fears,” is more often associated with compliance and leads to a change in behavior but not always a change in thinking.

Achieving commitment to change which not only leads to change in behaviour but also change in thinking requires the involvement of stakeholders through all the different phases of the change process. There are five key success factors to successfully steer a change initiative through its timeline – from solution development to the more or less gradual implementation of tasks.

1. Ensure that you understand and use the formal and informal networks of the organization

While the hierarchy of the organization is reflected in the organizational chart, typically widely available, the organizational networks underpinning how work actually gets accomplished often function behind the scenes and are not that transparent. Organizational networks are relationships between people formed to complete tasks, ask for advice or socialize. Organizational networks influence virtually everything organizations do, and if used effectively, they can help people adapt to change more quickly. Given that they are not transparent, it takes time to understand and map them. At the start of any change initiative, it is important not only to map the key stakeholders of the formal organization but also to understand the formal (work-related) and informal (social) relationships at work. In fact, managers often overestimate the role of hierarchy and underestimate the role of networks.

In the early stages of an initiative, it is important to “segment” key stakeholders of the change effort. The starting point is to assess the key people and departments that will be affected by the implementation of the initiative. The ultimate goal is to understand which people can make an impact within the organization. Although some people are influential, e.g. opinion leaders, others may have formal power but little influence in getting others to adopt their views. The next step is to assess each of the key stakeholders in terms of their level of agreement with the initiative and their capabilities in terms of contributing to the expected outcomes. Knowledge about their position and potential reaction to the initiative can help you decide how to influence or involve them. Next, it is important to understand and map the underlying relationships between people, since talking to or involving people central to a network with high influence will have greater impact than involving loners.

Organizational networks are relationships between people formed to complete tasks, ask for advice or socialize.

2. Involve key stakeholders throughout the process

In the inception phase of any initiative, it is important to proactively identify the group of people you want to involve. Initially, you will probably want to start with the change agents – those with influence and a positive attitude toward the change. You need to collaborate by actively involving them in decisions related to the implementation. Once the change agents increase their level of commitment, this will help them convince others who are merely observers or are opposed to the initiative. Those who could potentially support but who are not as influential or do not have the strongest capabilities are often ignored, so their cooperative potential may be overlooked. This group of stakeholders should be developed, informed and involved in issues where they have the skills to help implement. Bystanders, who are often marginal stakeholders and whose potential to affect the implementation is low, should be part of the communication plan and be monitored in order to avoid negative surprises. Their “wait and see” attitude often makes them followers in a change process. Non- supportive stakeholders, particularly defensive resistors, are initially best managed by making sure you don’t have to rely on their resources. Sometimes this strategy is difficult; therefore, others argue that non-supportive stakeholders are best managed by keeping them busy. Active opposers are probably the most distressing group for managers as they may have the skills and capabilities to sabotage the intended change. They may, however, also have valid points and leaders would do well to listen and to make adaptations to the proposed change. Change agents could help to convert these opposers, and if influential opposers are convinced, they could potentially become your biggest supporters.

3. Timing of actions matters and remember to learn

Although there are many different influencing tactics and actions to convince stakeholders of the benefits of the change, choosing them wisely over time avoids moderating the dip in performance that typically exists when introducing change in the early stages. Initially, you might want to map all the influencing tactics you could employ during the change, e.g. workshops, top management meetings, training, meetings, CEO memo, benchmarking visits, etc. However, bear in mind that timing matters when it comes to deployment.

Leadership and change guru, John Kotter has clearly argued for an eight-step change process with a predetermined path, starting with creating a sense of urgency. Although there is often a sequence to change, the speed at which you can proceed and how often you use a particular influencing tactic varies according to the context. Essentially, leaders need to constantly assess the readiness of key stakeholders and adjust their tactics to the current situation and the stakeholder feedback. The main reason for taking the next action step should be the result of learning; that is, it depends on past context, as well as the continually unfolding context that defines the plot into which actions will be inserted. For instance, if key stakeholders are not yet aware of or interested in an initiative, training them will have less impact. This makes the process of change iterative and the timing of using influencing tactics dependent on the level of commitment of stakeholders and the feedback that is received from them during the actions taken.

Kotter Model of Change

4. Communicate to reduce uncertainty

During any change process, there is typically uncertainty, ambiguity or stress, and this has a negative impact on commitment to change. The higher the stressors creating ambiguity or uncertainty and perceived job insecurity, the more likely it is that the initiative will receive minimal support. It is therefore important to communicate with those impacted by the initiative. The effectiveness of communication relies on managers using communication processes and messages that are perceived as understandable and trustworthy. Using concise messages and clearly defined terms as well as precluding the suppression of truth or misstatements of expectations of what the change will bring is part of effective communication.

Keeping in mind that effective communication requires adapting the message for different audiences, it is important to map which stakeholders need to be informed and about what. This will lead to an overall communication action plan that ensures the initiative receives broad share-of-mind. Effective communication also supports and nurtures knowledge about the initiative over time. By communicating the latest updates, individuals are aware of the organization’s efforts and this helps to dispel rumors or misinformation.

How leaders communicate also matters. Showing personal and moral conviction about the initiative, being consistent in choice of words, tone of voice and body language when delivering the message as well as using stories, metaphors and rhetorical questions all have a positive impact on achieving higher levels of commitment. But relying only on leaders to communicate is not enough. Encouraging individuals to share their experiences in a dialogue with leaders is important, as this creates collective ownership and often has a snowball effect through the organizational networks. This may best be accomplished by intense and frequent sharing in meetings or workshops, and by dialogue rather than one-directional reporting. Communication is the key unit of change, so if communication remains a one-off (or rare) event, most change processes are doomed to fail. Communication must take place at regular intervals over time, informing different groups of the progress made.

5. Build momentum early to create a sense of inevitability

The more complexity and uncertainty involved in a strategic initiative, the more important it is for executives to test the waters using a pilot approach. Piloting is a process through which a new practice is first tested and a routine or business model is created for subsequent scaling. The fact that there is continuous planning and feedback throughout the process means that teams start delivering business value from the beginning, thereby creating commitment to change as stakeholders will be able to see the benefits of the initiative.

To help employees understand the demands and requirements associated with the change, it important to plan for resources beyond the first six months and to include training and development explicitly in the implementation plan. Training is often an afterthought and unless budget and time are allocated for it, it may be cut if time becomes tight as the “official” completion date approaches. Furthermore, users of new processes and systems are more likely to grow frustrated if they do not receive training, and this can impede adoption.

Often, the adoption curve is not linear, so achieving the “tipping point” creates a sense
of inevitability that will influence others to adopt the new practice. In sociology, a tippingpoint is “a point in time when a group – or a large number of group members – rapidly and dramatically changes its behavior by widely adopting a previously rare practice.”1 Reaching this tipping point depends on a number of factors – showing benefits through for in instance the pilot, the persuasiveness of change agents, the degree of opposition of the core group and the reduced fear of loss that results from the actual change. The tipping point can, however, be reached faster than expected: Having just a small group of influential change agents and being able to convince some initially active and influential opposers can already tip the scales in favor of the initiative. It is therefore vital to have developed a comprehensive stakeholder map and to understand the networks, as you will then know where to devote your time and energy.


To move beyond ceremonial adoption, ensure that you understand key stakeholders of the formal and informal organization, engage the key change agents early and time your influencing tactics based on the feedback that you receive from key stakeholders. Communicating to reduce uncertainty is a key activity throughout any change initiative, and your role as leader in creating clarity and helping others understand the expected demands will help to build higher levels of commitment to change. Demonstrating the benefits through a pilot and supporting implementation through training are vital in the implementation phase. And remember that a few key stakeholders might be more important in helping to reach the tipping point, when the change initiative will be viewed as bound to happen and become a permanent way of working for the organization.


Bettina Büchel

Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD

Bettina Büchel has been Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD since 2000. Her research topics include strategy implementation, new business development, strategic alliances, and change management. She is Program Director of the Strategy Execution and Change Management open programs, as well as teaching on the flagship Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program.


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