7 ways your organisational change interventions fail

There are so many reasons why your organisational change can go wrong. In my experience, there is a distinction between “failure” and “going wrong”.

Let’s start with organisational change “failure”.

I have heard many times the so-called “conventional wisdom” about 70% of change initiatives resulting in failure. I take memorable and scare-inducing statistics like this with a grain of salt.

Photo by Kostiantyn Li on Unsplash

I have come across more “conventional wisdom” via LinkedIn or the broader Internet. An inadequate or ill-defined change management framework is cited as one reason for failure. This may be so. Yet after nearly nine years of working on specific organisational change projects, this is not my experience. My organisation may or may not have a change management framework in place. It is up to individual change practitioners to use these frameworks. But the frameworks themselves are no panacea. A decent change practitioner who brings the head and heart to work can forge a change plan without any frameworks whatsoever. Yes, it is worth knowing these frameworks. Yet can the change practitioner explain to others how organisational change takes place?

Another cited reason for failure? Lack of understanding and support from sponsors and leaders. In my years of working on organisational change projects, I have come across varying sponsor and leader engagement. Change initiatives can succeed without active sponsor support, in my experience. If a project is reasonably funded, resourced and governed, we are off to a flying start. If the project team including the change practitioner can walk in employee shoes, we move further forward. If we have access to timely and comprehensive data to support both project delivery and change initiatives, even better. Sponsors and leaders may be mercurial or absentee. Yet the project team can continue without too much active involvement in my experience.

Key-person risk is one way projects could risk failure. Many projects may be tightly-resourced. A high rate of change on a project -where your project team is flying by the seat of their pants? One or two superstars who shoulder more than their fair share of the work on your project team? Or those superstars with technical expertise, a ferocious work ethic or interpersonal wizardry? A project who loses a key person might not get knocked on its back. Yet project leaders may have to adapt and deliver minimum viable products. Or they have to adjust either scope or timings to limp over the finish line.

Yet this article is about what can go wrong with change interventions, rather than the full project itself.

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Interventions gone wrong

As organisational change practitioners, we have a range of change interventions at our disposal. In my experience, I have found different interventions that have gone wrong:

  • Training sessions were derailed by rude and disrespectful participants who had an agenda;
  • Being buried in hundreds of emails each week because I didn’t put an adequate support model in place;
  • Catering far too much for my stakeholders. This rewarded “bad behaviours” like answering questions my stakeholders should have read in the millions of messages provided to them.
  • Sending out organisational change communications with too much or too little information;
  • “Going over to the dark side”: In one project, there was an adversarial relationship between my project team and my stakeholders. Which team did I side with? With my stakeholders. While it still feels right, I did lose some skin over this. Yet years later I still don’t regret siding with my stakeholders.

Each of these experiences strengthened my change game. With some of these “mistakes”, I learn. For others, I still have yet to learn when I am honest with myself about them.

So what specific interventions might run the risk of going wrong for change practitioners?

Source: Human Factors Advisory https://www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au/

Your support team doesn’t have scripted answers to frequently asked questions

This “mistake” is one that I have frequently made, even recently.

it is important to provide your team with a customer support model. This customer support model should include a knowledge base and scripted responses. The knowledge base (KB) is a collection of all the information that your team needs. They act as a shield for your team to answer prominent questions. Your KB should be used for two main purposes:

  • It should be used to help you create scripted responses for frequently asked questions (FAQ). I publish FAQs on an Intranet or other single point of truth in my organisation.
  • Some FAQs may not land on an Intranet, yet may be used by front-facing support people as quick and dirty answers.

Sometimes you can’t expect every single question that will arise. In the midst of a busy time, digging deep in making the time to script answers to emerging questions does not seem possible.

Your KB may take the shape of a spreadsheet, table or either Google Doc or Microsoft Word document.

Managing expectations and complex change narratives

Be careful what you convey at the beginning of a project. Avoid specific timelines and concrete promises unless you are 95 to 99% sure of these. This high confidence level is usually often possible as you approach your projects go-live or major deadline. Thus keep expectations low and specifics like timelines rather nebulous at the beginning of a project. You will be held accountable for any promises or concrete data provided early.

Invest considerable time if you have a complex change narrative to convey. This investment includes spending time on appropriate imagery. As the saying goes, a picture speaks one thousand words.

I have also found value in trying to explain complicated change narratives to a friendly audience first. These “dry runs” help iron out any bugs in your message. It is better to have your confidence falter in front of a friendly audience. Strengthened your narrative; your confidence in outlining your narrative soars. Your investment pays off when working with hostile or sceptical audiences.

A lack of communication.

Organisational change practitioners wouldn’t have a problem with communicating to stakeholders…?

I am currently working for a government client on a large office relocation project. Right now, I am juggling a sequence of seven change communications for my main project. Plus another six apiece for two smaller relocations. On top of this, there are smaller, emerging messages that I might need to send depending on what explosions take place in the next few weeks.

So when I reflect on this Easter long weekend in 2022, what organisational change messaging do I need to deliver soon? Reminder messages to particular employee cohorts. Post-relocation surveys. Awareness messages to other cohorts as well. What is stopping me? I can’t always get my hands on accurate data. Sometimes I get so distracted and end up focusing on something that seems more urgent. Yet I know that organisational change communications are on my critical path as a change professional. Still, procrastination and perfectionism are my frequent enemies. Other change professionals might balk at pressing send on a message until things are perfect. Sometimes we don’t even have a decent understanding of who we are sending the message. All we are chasing loose ends before we send a message. Sometimes we have to wait for our leaders to give approval… and the clock keeps ticking.

Your communication doesn’t land

Sometimes our messages fail to land. We can assume that our stakeholders know what they need to stop, start and keep doing around your organisational change. The more complicated or unfamiliar your change is, the more you need to spell things out. If there is room for assumptions, expect noise. This noise will take up your time in the form of phone calls from union delegates and dozens of emails from readers. The noise also travels up the chain so that leaders learn the hard way that your message failed to land.

Accidentally creating a pressure cooker

There’s no space for stakeholders to vent… and escalate in a controlled manner. Most change practitioners might start by identifying the population(s) impacted by your change. Breaking it down further, stakeholder maps help understand employee cohorts. Identifying employee cohort representatives is a smart move. These representatives become your change champions. Regularly meeting with your change champion network is in most cases a decent change intervention.

So where can these meetings go wrong? If your champions have spoken and you have not listened nor done anything with their feedback. This way you are creating a pressure cooker with no viable space for your representatives to vent or raise concerns. And if this pressure cooker is pressurised enough, explosions happen. By explosions, you might find that representatives escalate around and above you. Sometimes this happens anyway in rare instances. These escalations tend to happen in response to contentious decisions made by leaders.

No sense of progress

If you fail to convey a sense of progress. You also need to set measurable objectives or clear milestones from which progress will be measured. This allows you to track whether things are going according to plan. Reaching each milestone on time, or conveying roadblocks well in advance — builds a sense of trust in your change champions. Regular, open, frank and respectful conversations with your change champions and project team are essential on any change project. This openness helps you face delays and disappointments together. Transparency costs you upfront but is worth it. While you may have to collectively sit with difficult emotions now this is far better than surprises later.

Confusing difficult emotions with interventions “going wrong”

Speaking of difficult emotions… organisational change is not “going wrong” if your stakeholders have strong emotions about your change. Strong emotions convey a sense of passion and advocacy. Yes, these emotions and difficult behaviours may be hard to tolerate and “sit with” when you meet with stakeholders. Yet it is worth exploring the legitimacy of people’s concerns.

I tend to liken change professionals to the front of house wait staff in a restaurant. This image is from a former boss and it is stuck with me. I spent three years as a waiter and found the experience transformational. This experience serves me over a quarter of a century later. Poor wait staff have to explain to the customer why their meal is late or that a menu item is out of stock.

Granted, it is difficult when the kitchen (ie. your project team) Is behind schedule or other surprises abound. You become the face of your project. Yet in this difficult role lies a big part of your commercial value. Change practitioners often “run interference” for the project team. They deal with difficult customers, shielding project teams from strong emotions and an array of challenging behaviours. But this relationship goes two ways — your project team need to support you with timely answers and an upfront overview of the “warts ’n’ all” of the changes ahead.

Leading organisational change can be as uncomfortable as being the recipient of change. You may feel that your interventions are not working as well as they should. It is worth differentiating between failure, mistakes and difficult obstacles. This differentiation helps you when evaluating your change interventions.

Our book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out our online course on Change Management.

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Organisational change, behavioural design and coaching psychology insights — practical and research informed. Clever ways to put a dent in the world.

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Allan Owens

Allan Owens

Australian Change Lead: 8 years experience. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion. https://www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au/the-change-managers-companion

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