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How to overcome common obstacles for effective product change management
Product change management is key in responding to dynamic market pressures and delivering solutions that meet evolving user needs—and product managers are familiar with the blockers that often arise in product or organizational change processes, from user confusion and employee resistance to breakdowns in cross-functional communication.
Product change management is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity—and one worth taking.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time11 min
Product managers who effectively lead through change will improve organizational synergy and keep their teams agile and responsive to user needs.
This article breaks down the most common obstacles to product change management, and tells you how to overcome them to guide your product team towards intentional, long-lasting transitions.
What is product change management?
Product change management involves guiding your product team through changes in the core product vision, like how the product is designed and developed and the users it targets.
Product change management also involves changes in the organizational structure, including new hires and product team reshuffles; changes in tools used; and changes in the methodologies and systems that govern product workflow, like switching from waterfall to agile product management.
But change management isn’t just about structures and systems. At the most fundamental level, change management is people management.
Change management research leaders Prosci remind managers that “it’s actually the employees of your organization who have to ultimately change how they do their jobs.”
The message is clear: “Organizations do not change: people do."
How product change management affects product teams
Product managers are responsible for helping product teams and stakeholders adapt to change, making it an opportunity rather than a distraction.
“Product management is change management. It’s not a part of the job, it is 'the job' ... You cannot be a Product Manager if you are not a Change Manager as well.”
Product change management decisions have an impact on every role in the product team:
Developers may need to adapt to changes in how they work day-to-day, different core technologies and tools, and shifts in how they collaborate with the rest of the product team.
Product designers may have to shift to designing for a new user or slotting into a new product team hierarchy.
Product managers may also need to adapt to shifts in their roles. They may move horizontally into different product areas or vertically into positions with more responsibility and strategic impact.
Changes to product teams and product systems also have a broader ripple effect, affecting other departments, stakeholders, and users.
Effective product change management helps every individual involved to:
Understand how their role will change
Feel secure in the changes
Know that they have the resources to implement change well
Why change management is critical
Change is a constant for product teams: if you’re not changing, you’re not meeting the needs of your users.
Product teams must constantly innovate to stay ahead of new technology trends, disrupt the marketplace, and adapt to user-led change in a rapidly shifting competitive landscape.
The best product teams are responsive and agile. They’re always looking for new and better ways to structure the product workflow and product team to be more responsive to user needs as they evolve and shift.
“A good product manager has to be innovative and ready to constantly develop and redefine their product offerings in order to remain competitive. To ensure customers are engaged with your brand, in a world where technology is always advancing, you need to offer them creative and new innovations. Product managers should be able to react quickly to these changes and constantly evolve their products with the times.”
Change is critical—but without successful change management strategies in place, major changes can leave the product team insecure and overwhelmed, disengaged from the larger organizational vision, and, worst of all, disconnected from the users at heart.
5 obstacles to product change management—and how to overcome them
Change is hard: research shows that a whopping 75% of organizational change initiatives fail.
But by anticipating pitfalls and learning how to avoid common obstacles to change, you can optimize your transformation efforts.
Here are the top five obstacles to product change management—and how you can overcome them.
1. Anxieties around changing roles
Why it’s an issue
Change can make your employees uncertain about their job security and their ability to handle their evolving role. They may also feel anxious about the future of the product or company, and whether they have a role in it.
All too often, product managers assume they know which fears their team and users will have in the face of change, but change anxieties vary across roles and individuals.
How to solve it
Start with an impact analysis, and determine who will be directly and indirectly affected by the change.
The next (but most important) step is to understand your product team's specific fears and concerns at an individual level.
Meet with individual employees or representatives of different product roles, and try to understand their worries. Prepare clear answers to these critical questions for every role:
What will this change mean for me?
Is my job secure?
Am I part of this organization’s future?
Why should I trust this change?
Though this is all about reassuring your team, only full honesty will inspire trust. If you don’t know the answer, tell them—but make sure you let them know your Plan B.
You’re looking to address your team’s emotional concerns. Once you’ve addressed their reassurance and safety needs, you can move towards inspiring your team members.
Show them how the change will offer opportunities for personal advancement by growing and developing with the company, and get them excited about how their role will contribute to larger changes to motivate them with their impact on users.
“The future needs to look brighter for your employees than the present, and you have to deliver on that future when you arrive. New roles and responsibilities are new opportunities, not busy-work, and if someone won't be well-served by the change then they shouldn't be on the project, or else the change itself needs to adapt.”
Pro tip: your team aren't the only ones who get nervous about change. Major product or organizational overhauls can also lead users to worry about changes to a product they’re attached to.
As with your team, address your users’ emotional concerns. Use Hotjar Surveys or other user feedback tools to understand what they’re anxious about and what they want you to prioritize in the change process.
Once you’ve addressed their worries, it’s time to get your users excited by showing them how they’ll benefit from the change.
2. Disconnection from the organization’s change vision
Why it’s an issue
It’s common for product teams to remain fixated on what will change, especially at their role and department level. This can block them from understanding why the changes are happening.
Without connecting with the larger organizational change vision, product teams may experience a lack of motivation or may end up siloed from other departments, working on micro-goals that don’t link with stakeholder expectations.
How to solve it
Create a communication plan that goes beyond the what of change towards the why.
Then, work on connecting this user-centric change focus to the wider organizational vision. Help your team see the bigger picture by linking product goals and user satisfaction metrics to corporate objectives.
Cross-functional touchpoints are key here.
Megan Murphy, VP of Product at Hotjar, asks: “Would you believe that we managed to get every discipline equally excited about a single OKR?” By defining an objective that made as much sense to the product team as to business stakeholders, our product managers helped different departments connect with the organizational vision.
Take a look at Hotjar’s Building In Public video for inspiration on finding objectives that will get all departments to rally together for change.
Pro tip: effective product storytelling techniques can help you create a strong change management narrative. The best stories ignite emotions around how the change contributes to your product’s mission to solve problems for your users.
Use product experience insights tools like Hotjar to gather VoC data on why the change is necessary for users and back up your product change vision.
3. Lack of clarity or transparency
Why it’s an issue
Even when employees understand why change is happening, they may not be clear on what that change will look like, when it will happen, or how it will happen.
Letting them know what to expect is crucial. Change experts Chip and Dan Heath put it clearly: “clarity dissolves resistance.”
How to solve it
Ensure your communication plan about the change is crystal clear, including why it’s happening and how your team is expected to act. Set clear expectations, goals, and timelines.
This means translating the larger change goals into small, specific, measurable behaviors without losing sight of how user needs drive every action.
Clarity also means transparency. Be upfront on how the change process is going and make shared data available to all departments to aid transparency.
Pro tip: change communication shouldn’t be a one-way street. Get your team involved and create communication checkpoints and channels for hearing their feedback.
On smaller teams, use 1:1s and all-team meetings.
On larger teams, nominate change evangelists within the product team: get representatives within different product areas to be ambassadors for change, address individual concerns, convey the change vision, and make sure questions and issues are listened to.
4. Failing to create the conditions for successful change
Why it’s an issue
As we’ve made clear, change management is often about managing attitudes and emotions. But good feelings on your team aren’t enough to guarantee effective change.
To set your team up for success, they also need concrete resources, efficient processes, and adequate support.
“It’s crucial to set up new structures, controls, and reward systems to ingrain the new way of thinking throughout the organization. Once the change has been implemented, managers must embed it into the company culture to prevent reversion to the prior status quo.”
How to solve it
Start by identifying possible sources of friction in the change process through ongoing discussions with your team. Pay special attention to new skills your team will need and plan for quality educational resources to get them up to speed.
Plan the time and space to allow them to get used to new ways of working—which may mean de-prioritizing non-urgent tasks in your backlog management during the adjustment period.
Try to negotiate extra support for your team, whether that’s through additional financial resources, tools to automate processes, or new hires. Ensure there are no bottlenecks to getting the data and training they need to roll with the changes successfully.
Pro tip: lead a change culture that celebrates small wins and celebrates mistakes as part of the learning process.
Transition periods can be messy, but instilling a learning culture will encourage your team to feel comfortable taking risks, messing up, and growing from the experience.
When a change process feels chaotic, it’s equally important to focus on small-scale successes to keep morale high.
Use Hotjar’s tools to show your team positive user feedback as evidence that product changes or streamlined processes make a difference.
5. Going too big, too fast
Why it’s an issue
Trying to rush major changes can leave your team without the time, space, and resources to adapt. Big product changes can also shock users and disrupt the smooth flow of the product experience.
Focusing only on drastic transformations can distract you from the small behavioral changes that will transform your product and organization.
How to solve it
Every product manager knows it’s a terrible idea to land major changes on your users without involving them through A/B testing or other user research techniques.
You need to take the same approach to your product team. Instead of springing big changes on them, check how they feel about smaller, incremental shifts.
Plan for changes to happen gradually, and start an ongoing conversation with your team well in advance so they know what to expect—and so you can modify your change vision as you go.
Be wary of imposing an ambitious, fixed framework for change. Setting objectives is a great way to measure progress, but if you're not hitting your targets, it might be time to dial back. See it as an opportunity to check in, learn what’s blocking your team, and adapt the plan, whether that means adding more resources or shifting your expectations.
A 5-step process for effective product change management
By now, you should be clear on what not to do. But what does a successful product change management process look like?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and product managers should let their change vision be led by the unique needs of their users and their product team.
Following these five steps can get you started on the path to smooth, well-managed changes.
1. Define and justify the change
First, decide what needs to change and why, and ensure your change is driven by user needs.
Flesh out your change vision by connecting user impact with market and organizational benefits and determining the scope of the change.
Look at how the change will impact your team, other departments, and the company as a whole. Weigh up the positive effects of change with the potential for negative disruption before deciding whether to go ahead.
2. Gather feedback from your team and users
As early as possible, start having conversations with your users and your product team.
For product changes, use a minimum viable product (MVP) approach to create a quick, simple iteration, and get feedback. You can gather user opinions on your ideas with wireframes or dummies before there’s a full product change to test.
Remember to go deeper than the product itself: collect open-ended feedback that will connect you with underlying user needs.
Spend time with your team to understand how the product or organizational change will affect their roles and prepare the personalized resources and reassurance they’ll need.
3. Establish a change management team with different stakeholders
Lead as many cross-functional team conversations as possible so stakeholders across the organization are aligned on the change.
It’s also a good idea to create a change management team with representatives spanning different roles and departments (and possibly even a couple of users). Choose people your team will trust and listen to to act as evangelists for change.
Check in with these change management leaders regularly to stay connected to key issues as they arise.
4. Create a change management roadmap and communication plan
Use the information you’ve gathered to create a high-level change vision that offers an overview of your strategy.
You should also create a (flexible) timeline for the change and set key goals and KPIs. Share these documents with all teams involved and welcome their thoughts and feedback.
Create a communication plan that outlines how you'll communicate different aspects of the change to stakeholders, how they can give you feedback, and how you'll respond to their concerns.
Remember, it’s not just about communicating the facts but also about engaging, inspiring, and reassuring your team. Your change communications should help them understand the bigger picture of how the changes will help to meet user needs and organizational goals.
5. Resource your team and create a supportive change environment
Design a change-positive environment so your team can thrive throughout the transition.
Get executive buy-in to provide the support your team needs, whether that’s new hires, automated processes, or extended deadlines while they adapt.
Drive a learning culture where change is celebrated as an opportunity and failure is expected as a step towards growth.
Check in regularly with your team to understand how the changes affect them and what resources they need.
Strong product change management can raise your game
Change is disruptive for better and for worse. Strong product change management helps you lead changes that positively disrupt your market and product, without negatively disrupting your stakeholders.
Skilled change managers can help the product team and users to see change as an opportunity.
Product managers who tailor change to their unique user needs and team dynamics can bring about organizational synergy and thriving product cultures.