The 7 Biggest Obstacles to Change


Rick Lewis
Contributing Writer
Break a Rule

These days it’s indisputable: if we want our business to thrive, we better be good at embracing change, or even courting it, in fact. The problem is, change is hard.

Everyone knows that growth requires things being different — and being different requires some skill at working with changing habits.

As a consultant who helps companies with the human potential side of their businesses, I’ve seen change initiatives fail again and again only because the root underlying habits of the problem haven’t been addressed. Without understanding the process of change, and specifically what the obstacles to change really are, we spend lots of time wishing for results and striving for achievements that consistently elude us.

Here are the 7 biggest obstacles to change.

  1. We haven’t taken an inventory of what we’re ignoring.
  2. We are in denial about the feelings we have about what we’re ignoring.
  3. We hesitate to declare and commit to an intentional future.
  4. We think about how to avoid the worst, not how to create the best.
  5. We quit too soon in our effort to build that future.
  6. We make demands for change without connecting to others first.
  7. We cling to the familiarity of the past and hesitate to ask for help.

These habits describe the primary derailing of well-intentioned change. They are, however, only the symptoms of deeper causes. There is a hidden set of root habits out of which the above tendencies arise: a collection of “rules” in our culture, or unspoken agreements, that we unconsciously obey and which undermine the actions that lead to effective change. They are the same 7 rules that I shared last month in my article, “7 Rules Your Customers Want You to Break.

Here’s how these rules block our ability to change.

The 1st Obstacle to Change – Pretending You Don’t Matter 

Have you ever tried to describe something funny to a friend that didn’t translate in the telling? “You had to be there,” we might say when they don’t quite get it. As business owners, it’s actually the first duty in our job description. We have to be there. That means we’re present and attentive to the current state of things. We’re watching, we’re listening, we’re receptive, attentive and registering, moment to moment, what’s happening with our enterprise. This requires all of our senses, including our intuitive sense of what’s real, what’s right, and what’s needed. To ignore what’s right in front of us is to Pretend We Don’t Matter, and culturally we’ve been trained to do this. There have never been more distractions available that we can use to justify our absence from the moment. When issues in our business arise, we may have good reasons for why we “didn’t see it coming,” yet 90 percent of what takes us by surprise is stuff we’ve unconsciously chosen to ignore.

If we want positive and manageable change, we have to start by acknowledging what we’ve been ignoring.

The 2nd Obstacle to Change – Being Normal

There’s a good reason why we ignore difficult people and circumstances: dealing with them is emotionally demanding. It’s “normal” in our culture to bypass our feelings, say we’re “fine” when asked how we’re doing, and fit in with everyone else who is also doing “fine.” The problem with this is that we need energy for change, and we harvest energy from emotion. That means we’re going to have to get honest, at least with ourselves if not also with others, about how we feel in relationship to the challenges that are present in our business. That’s a challenge, because you can’t fully feel and Be Normal at the same time.

If we want positive and manageable change, we have to admit how we feel about what we’ve been ignoring. 

The 3rd Obstacle to Change – Being Popular

We are the leaders of our business and nobody else has the same power or responsibility to create its future. Getting “followers” onboard with our plans is as much about finding our true vision as it is finding the right people. Without a strong declaration of organizational destiny and purpose, it’s a perpetual struggle and challenge to engage good people. The willingness to stand for what our company is about — as well as what it isn’t about and doesn’t do — is essential to its success. Our own need for gaining approval, receiving permission, and Being Popular must be monitored and even completely ignored at times if we want to engage effective leadership.

If we want positive and manageable change, we need to lead with declarations and commitments about the purpose, direction, and intention of our organization, even if others don’t understand or agree.

The 4th Obstacle to Change – Avoiding Mistakes

Imagination plays a crucial role in our power to change. Studies have shown again and again that positive visualization improves the results we get. Mostly, however, we use our creative forces to imagine the worst in an effort to avoid it, rather than using the same forces to visualize the best and hold it as a possibility. In following the cultural rule Avoid Mistakes we forget to generate desirable alternatives we have the power to cause. Our cultural habit involves scrambling to avoid worst-case scenarios we see ourselves as being helplessly at the effect of.

If we want positive and manageable change, we have to shift our thinking from how to avoid the worst possible future to how to create the best possible future. 

The 5th Obstacle to Change – Staying Comfortable 

Stable growth requires time and effort. Sustainable change is anchored and integrated slowly and incrementally by daily practice and repeated small steps toward a new habit and a new future. We don’t hear about what it really took for the success of today’s business heroes to get where they are today. In fact, it would be impossible to fully communicate the nature of the work required for exceptional success; the unglamorous, dogged efforts that must be sustained through boredom, failure, confusion, doubt, and exhaustion to reach a deeply worthwhile and satisfying goal. The realization of worthwhile goals and Staying Comfortable just doesn’t happen at the same time.

If we want positive and manageable change, we need the perseverance and fortitude to stick to our plan and pursue our goals way beyond the point at which we’ve been trained to tap out and get comfortable.

The 6th Obstacle to Change – Being Independent

True authority arises out of a depth of character, the warmth of authentic interest and caring in others, and the desire to see the best in them and to enable their success. We can lead to the extent we see potential in others and empower that potential by providing coaching and encouragement and by catching them doing things right, as Ken Blanchard advises us in his book The One Minute Manager. If our habit is to do everything ourselves, including taking the credit for good things that happen, then we’re following the rule Be Independent and distancing our organization from the possibility of teamwork.

If we want positive and manageable change, we need to show genuine interest in others, engage others in real relationship, and through these connections enjoy the teamwork that arises when mutual respect, understanding, and regard are shared among colleagues.

The 7th Obstacle to Change – Staying in Control

It’s not easy to admit that we don’t know what’s next, don’t have an immediate solution to a problem, or need some outright help. To share our needs and be honest about the challenges we haven’t figured out is a vulnerable place to be. The willingness and ability to ask for help and to self-reflect with the question “What am I missing?” is necessary to keep growing, evolving, and making ourselves available to the great things that could happen next if we opened ourselves to the possibilities.

If we want positive and manageable change, we need to be willing to question what we know, and in some cases drop it altogether, in favor of opening our attention to the unexpected and what might come next.

So we’ve gotten pretty clear on what the problem is and the obstacles to change and growth that are created by these root causes. The next obvious question is, what do we do about it? “Establish new habits” is the answer, and next month, right here in ShuBee, we’ll talk about how you can do just that.


Rick Lewis is a corporate meeting presenter, trainer, author, and self-proclaimed “professional misbehaver.” He travels extensively throughout North America presenting to Fortune 500 organizations on the topic of leadership, employee and customer engagement, and the development of corporate culture. Rick and his staff offer live workshops and online training to teach Intelligent Misbehavior to business owners, executives and their staffs. Rick can be reached through his website at

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