What Causes #OrgChange to Fail?

If you needed to explain why organizational changes fail — off the top of your head - what would you say?

Peter Senge

Here are seven I had come to top of mind, will check references later…

1st One of the fundamental reasons is that the people most affected by the change are not enlisted in the efforts to build the change. Although much is written (& practiced) around burning platforms and getting people to buy in, this often does not take into account the way that those who will be living the change are affected. Stakeholders include front line employees -they need to have an investment in the outcomes.

2nd Another reason that changes fail is that frankly the change is the wrong change. Either due to a poorly thought out strategy, or a bad diagnostic process, sometimes the change is just not correct. This will cause the people in the system to reject the change no matter how hard the change is pushed. This happens when there is not enough due diligence…. More sources of evidence need to be explored (internal data, external data, empirical, customers, expert opinion, etc.) and synthesized.

3rd Some changes are initiated at the wrong time. It may be a good change for all the right reasons, but if the people are saturated with too many other changes, this proposed change may need to happen at a later time to increase chances of success. Change agents need to help companies to see this option. This may be especially relevant to software implementations, as opposed to a change needed to keep the business remain viable.

4th Context matters. One of the reasons that change will fail is that even if you have the right overall goals, and people want to see that happen, you have to take into account context. Too many companies over-rely on best practices and benchmarks. What works for a revered successful company might not work at yours when it is simply ported over to a different culture. You can use models, and tools, but they need to be adapted to and adopted by the company work culture that you live in. Check your assumptions at the door.

5th At times the wrong approach is used, such as trying a transformation when an incremental change may have been more appropriate. Punctuated equilibrium might work to disrupt a company and move to the next level, but it might also stop too many fundamental processes to keep the company moving forward. It’s about understanding your tools and knowing where and when they are used to greatest effect, and where they will do more damage than anything else.

A diagnostic approach may be needed or a dialogic approach may be better.

6th Change Leadership. In the change of an organization the leadership cannot be over emphasized. Although some change may be grassroots and organic, it still needs support to grow. Obstacles may need to be removed, structures changed, processes and procedures altered. Without change leadership the change initiative will likely wither or at least fail to see benefits fully realized. Resources need to be allocated to make a change move forward. If time and money are not allocated (let us say people need to dedicate 20% of their time to the change initiatives) then that change is not going to have the desired outcomes, or at least certainly not in desired time frame. In addition to resources, role modeling and a sponsor to be the “face of change”.

7th Change maturity is a construct to be taken into account for an organization. Some companies are more fully developed in their capacity for change. Similar to context matters but if for example you attempt to use methods designed for a company that has great capacity for change, but the company you are working with is very early in the change maturity model, then again that change will be likely to not reach its full potential.

Kurt Lewin

These are not all of the reasons change fails, (e.g., role of middle managers) however these are some of the big buckets. A bigger issue is how do we measure the rate of failed change? There are many different kinds of change including software implementations, shifting culture, Mergers & Acquisitions, improving processes etc. These are different kinds of change and may require a different lens to determine if it has failed. I am not saying that many changes do not fail, but I think when people cite stats like 70% that this is poorly substantiated by rigorous evidence and does not have a strong empirical base. Both the method of measurement, the time of measurement, and the frequency of measurement needs to be explored and presented. Then we will better understand why so many org changes fail.

NOTE: Change resistance should be reframed to change readiness. If we assume people are going to be resistant than we are starting from a place of negativity. Let us move that to that to a level of change readiness to start from a place of positivity and get off on a more positive foundation for org change.