Why is soft change so hard?

Again and again studies show that a focus on people is of vital importance for succesful change of any kind. When changes fail, the root cause more often than not is a lack of focus on leading and involving the very people who are so crucial for the success.

When looking for an explanation on why we keep repeating this mistake, it makes sense to look at a change as being a combination of hard and soft aspects. Are you changing systems or people? The two kinds of change come with different underlying challenges and call for different approaches.

The hard parts of change have a tendency to take the focus away from the soft. This, in turn, leads us away from an approach what works for people.

Hard change

Hard change are changes to the organisation, systems, processes, or regulation. It is changes to things and the way they work. Examples of hard change is the implementation of a new IT system, the merger with another company, or a new law going into effect.

Hard changes tend to be easier to define in objective terms. You can describe what will change in detail and have a clear view of the desired end-result. Hard changes are also discreet in the sense that they are either-or. A complex hard change can be implemented step-by-step, but each part is either on or off. They belong in the start-stop quadrants of a "four action framework".

Because of this, it is fairly easy to give direction and to keep track of the progress along the way. It is also easy to evaluate the success at a later point. If you want to.

A final characteristic of hard change is that it is one-directional. Once the lever is pulled, there is typically no going back. Hard change does not have to be anchored to stay in effect. Unless, of course, things go really bad, and you have to revert to the old system.

Hard changes are in the domain of change management. They are implemented with a traditional "plan and execute" philosophy, and the tools used to manage the people side of the change are typically information, training, and monitoring. For hard change it is often perfectly fine to implement from the top down and have a centralised focus.

That is all very well, unless the hard change turns out to have a soft underbelly. And they often do. Identifying the right IT system, reaping the benefits of the merger, or making sure that employees are compliant with the new regulation are all soft changes. And they are much harder to deal with.

Soft change

Soft changes are changes to mindsets, culture, and behavior. They are changes to the way humans think and act. Clear-cut examples of soft change are a new set of corporate values, an increased focus on costumers, or changes to the culture of diversity and inclusion.

Soft changes are typically defined in subjective terms. These terms do not carry much weight unless everybody agrees on their definition. Soft changes also tend to be of a more-less kind compared to the either-or of hard changes. A typical soft change belongs in the more-less quadrants of the "four action framework".

This makes it hard to set a clear direction, and near impossible to measure progress and evaluate on the success. Does the word customer-centric mean the same to management as it does to the frontline workers? And how can we evaluate if we are more or less customer-centric than a year ago? Or customer-centric enough?

Soft changes are also different to the one-direction-ness of hard change. Soft changes need to be anchored in order to not roll back to the old state. They also sometimes end up in a third direction that is neither the planned destination nor where you came from.

Combined, this means that soft changes call for a different approach to leadership.

Soft changes are handled by change leadership, not change management. Implementation is an iterative process of doing and adapting. As leaders, we must embrace the process and be prepared to continue until it does not feel like a change any more. In essence, soft change is not really about implementation but more about cultivation.

“It’s not the destination, it's the journey.'”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Managing the people side of soft change requires involvement and conversational communication and a willingness to let go of the control and give the organisation autonomy to decide and define locally. You have to let the people who will be doing the changing find their own meaning, define the goals and decide how to get there. Meaning, buy-in, and empowerment is more important than alignment.

For this reason, the tools used to manage the people side of hard change, like instructions, training and monitoring, have to be used with caution when it comes to soft change.

Treating a lack of buy-in with detailed instructions is the most common error in change leadership. It is a often the consequence of not realising that there is a soft change hidden inside the hard change.

Summary of soft and hard change characteristics
  Hard Soft
Change goals Systems, organisation, regulation Mindset, culture, behaviour
Characteristics Objective, One-way, Start-stop, Discrete Subjective, Multi-directional, More-less, Fuzzy
Leadership discipline Change management, Implementation Change leadership, Cultivating
Process Planning-executing, Global alignment Doing-adapting, Local autonomy
Tools Information, training Conversation, involvement


Hard on the outside, soft in the middle

There is a soft change as part of almost every hard change. Being successful is a matter of identifying those changes and preparing for them from the beginning.

A change in mindset or behaviour is often needed to reap the benefits of a hard change. It is not enough to change the system; you must also make people use it the way it was intended.

Identifying the soft change from the beginning gives you the ability to design the change process in a way that deals with both soft and hard aspects in the right order. Creating buy-in by involving the employees in the design the new system is more effective than waiting till after it has been implemented. Trying to fix it later can be hard.

Even worse is it when a change is misrepresented as a hard change when the objectives are soft. Implementing the new system to improve the time spent with costumers, or merging with a smaller company to learn from their innovative and agile go-to-market strategies, are perfectly fine strategies if you are transparent about the actual change goals and remember to lead the soft aspects as well as managing the hard ones.

Soft shell, hard core

The opposite can of course also be the case. You can have changes that appear to be soft but have a core of hard change. Again, this can be by design, or by chance.

“A slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.”
Douglas Adams, H2G2

A soft change can turn out to be dependent on hard changes to be made along the way. Existing performance management systems and legacy incentives can act as barriers to changes in culture. Tools and systems that are made to fit old ways of working can prevent new behaviors to take root. If this is not identified before embarking on the journey, it can seriously delay or even railroad soft changes.

You can also have the case of a hard change being deliberately dressed up to be a soft change. In this case, the soft change might be a popular issue used as a sweetener to make the organisation swallow a bitter pill. Like when a campaign for better collaboration is used to cover for an unpopular move to get rid of personal desks and implement open office spaces.

Masquerading like this is a surefire way to destroy trust. And rebuilding trust is the hardest of all soft changes.