Five centuries ago, Niccolo Machiavelli penned the following words, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” In other words, there is nothing more difficult to undertake than to initiate and complete a change management initiative in an organization—and that is just as true today as it was five hundred years ago.

Designing or formulating a change initiative (or strategy) is relatively easy. Implementing and effectively executing that initiative so that it achieves its intended results, is another. However, one of the ways you can increase the probability of achieving the results you desire is to make sure you avoid making the mistakes that others typically make. So what are some of the more common reasons why most change efforts fail in most organizations (regardless of whether they’re large multi-nationals or local small businesses, mid-sized non-profits or religious institutions)? Well, here are my top seven reasons.

Failure Reason Number 1:
Executives Often Fail to Factor in the Heart Issues

In a typical change management initiative, top level executives at a company or organization have worked on a change management process for months, if not years (especially in the case of non-profits, which tend to make decisions at a slower pace). By the time, they finally announce the change, they’re usually tired of the issue and just want to move on. They forget that the people who they’re going to depend on to implement the change haven’t been a part of the conversation. For these people, this is new. And therein lies one of the primary reasons why change initiatives fail.

Executives, who are usually done with “it” and can’t wait to move on, forget that for most employees, change, at least at the beginning, isn’t about the issue being addressed. Change is about the heart. While we like to think that the head comes first. In change initiatives, the heart comes first. Why? Because all change involves loss. Intellectually, someone might agree that cutting the workforce by 4% might salvage their company, but what they’re really wondering is if it will mean the loss of their job or the job of someone else they care about. Intellectually, someone might be able to agree that a new system might be more efficient, but maybe they were on the team that designed the system that’s currently being used (and the change being introduced would be perceived as invalidating their work).

So what good leaders do, who want to avoid this, is they assess the emotional impact of a change initiative. They factor in time for people to process the change. They calculate in who will lose what (and think of ways to turn that loss around). They celebrate the past. They lift up the people who worked on version one. And they cast vision to inspire their people’s hearts. Leaders who don’t factor in the heart, like a Bob Nardelli, when he was at Home Depot or a Richard Thoman, when he was at Xerox, usually find that their change efforts fail.

Failure Reason Number 2:
Executives Tend to Forget They Need to Remind Their People
Why the Change is Necessary

This seems so blatantly obvious that it shouldn’t need to be stated, but it’s not. As mentioned above, one of the primary problems with change initiatives is that by the time the executive team announces the change, they’re ready to move on. Since they’ve been discussing and debating, designing and delegating for months on end, they assume that what’s obvious to them is obvious to everyone else–but it’s not.

In fact, one of the primary communication problems executives have with their employees is that they usually forget that the people who work for them–not only don’t think about the same things they think about, they also don’t have access to the same information. An executive might receive a cash flow forecast every week (and therefore be aware of a problem), but chances are her employees don’t. Likewise, executives typically have oversight responsibilities (in other words, they’re paid to think about the whole). But for the most part, most employees are simply there to do their job. So, while an executive might like to think that his or her employees are thinking about the same issues they are, that’s usually wishful thinking. The odds’ makers would probably predict that someone in graphics design probably won’t be all that concerned about inventory velocity–and they’d probably be correct.

To turn this around, what great leaders do is they remind their people why it’s necessary for the change to occur–even if that means stating the obvious. Change for change’s sake is rarely wise. But when we make a change for a legitimate reason, we need to make sure we’re clearly communicating that. For example, if your company wants to change your organizational structure (like Dick Brown did at EDS when he collapsed forty-odd business units down to four lines of business), you had better explain in very clear terms (which everyone from the shop floor to the executive floor can understand) why this matters.

And since everyone is motivated by self-interest, this rationale had better be put it in terms that help each individual see how this is in their best interest. In other words, why would a reorganization be beneficial to the guy in maintenance (not the company)? Why should they be excited about a new reporting system? Why will this create greater job security for them? Etc. Good leaders have no problem saying to their people, “Here’s the deal. If we don’t do this now, looking at our cash flow, we’ll have to make a 5% across the board employee cut four months from now. We’re not going to put our heads in the sand and hope this goes away. It won’t. Furthermore, this company is a family and we don’t want to be forced to cut 1 out of every 20 people who work with us. So, will you join me in making these changes–both for your sake, and the sake of your the person on your right and on your left.” Remember, what’s obvious to us as executives, is not always obvious to those who work for us.

Failure Reason Number 3:
Executives Frequently Forget That Everything is a System

In a system, every part influences every other part. If we make a change to x, then y will be affected. The reason this is so important is because in change efforts, most executives focus so much of their time and energy on the change they want to make, that they forget to think about the collateral effects of what they’re about to do. For example, if a company decides to cut their customer service staff in order to reduce payroll and increase cash flow, that’s a choice they have the right to make. However, they better make sure they calculate in the negative effect on sales because word will spread quickly, “Acme, used to have great customer service, now it’s atrocious. You can’t reach a “live” person anymore,” (which translates means “lost customers”). Or, using Peter Senge’s example in, The Fifth Discipline, if you cut inventory today, chances are your cash will increase . . . today. However, chances are that you’ll also kill sales in the future because you won’t be able to service your clients as quickly as your competitors (or as quickly as you did in the past). Remember, everything is a system. And in a system, every part influences every other part.

So, what do good executives do to avoid this? They think systemically. They think about the collateral impacts of the changes they’re about to initiate. They think about how all of the other systems will be affected (from people to operations and from finances to strategy). And they prepare ahead of time for how to handle those issues. By definition, every time we say, “Yes,” to something, we’re saying, “No,” to everything else. Good executives realize this–and plan for it.

Failure Reason Number 4:
Executives Regularly Fail to Create Executable Plans

You’ve been there. You’re at an offsite. Everyone has been dreaming big dreams. You have reams of easel paper strewn across the room. You’ve voted with your little dots and have had great table discussions. At the end of the day everyone is excited about the five initiatives you agreed upon as being the five most important things for your organization to do over the course of the next twelve months. There’s only one problem–five initiatives on an easel pad do not an executable plan make.

As a strategy consultant, I must confess that I thoroughly believe that strategy and tactics are two distinctly different functions. Strategy is an executive function. Tactics are an operational function. So, while designing five key initiatives at an offsite is a good strategic outcome of an offsite, if that’s where it ends (and for many organizations it is), then it was a wasted exercise. Someone should be responsible for making sure that each initiative comes to fruition. At the end of that meeting, a future date ought to be set for each operational leader to come back with their executable plan for how to turn those five initiatives into significant business results for their division–and that plan ought to include items like key results and milestones, a communications plan and resource allocations. It ought to answer the five W’s and one H. And finally, it ought to include a motivational component (like linking rewards to performance).

The history of failed change efforts is huge. One of the main reasons for this is because a large percentage of executives enjoy designing “big picture” strategies, but dislike the more mundane work of designing an executable plan that can actually be implemented. So refuse to do that. Instead, make sure you work through the details of your change management initiative, and don’t just announce it with great fanfare–act on it.

Failure Reason Number 5:
Executives Frequently Fail to Step Up Their Regular
Communications Throughout the Change Process

During change initiatives, communication from leaders, especially the senior executive for enterprise wide initiatives, must increase. However, most executives don’t change their communication style at all during times of change. In other words, the frequency and types of communication that they’ve engaged in in the past, will be what they’ll continue to do–which is an unwise choice to make. If you remember problem number one (the failure to factor in the heart issues), then you’ll immediately realize why it’s so critical to step up the amount of communication during times of change. People need to be reassured. They need to feel informed. They need to believe they’re being given the truth. And they need someone to regularly inspire them and remind them of why this is the best course of action.

Again, as a consultant, one of the issues I find myself continually reminding leaders of is that managing morale is one of their most important functions. One of the most potent ways to do this is through a systematic communication process, and at a higher level than before. Telling stories. Casting vision. Giving updates. Sharing victories. Admitting mistakes when made. Asking for input. And honoring those who’ve gone above and beyond must become the normative practice for those who are leading change initiatives.

In essence, what I tell executives is, “It’s virtually impossible as a leader to cast vision too often or to communicate too frequently.” The reality is that people “leak” vision within a short span of time of hearing it. As leaders, we think we’re boring people–but we’re not. They need to hear from us over and over again. And never is this more critical then during a change effort. Why? Because at the end of the day, what your employees want to know from you is that you’re in control, that you’re fully engaged and that they’re getting the truth from you. So if you’re involved in a change effort, make sure you double your amount of communication you have with your employees (or members of your organization).

Failure Reason Number 6:
Executives Often Fail to Plan for Obstacles, Setbacks and Resistance.

The great thing about a plan, is the thinking that went into it. The bad thing about a plan is that parts of it become obsolete the moment implementation begins, for as you well know, very few things work according to plan. And this is never more true than when you’re engaged in a change effort. People whom you thought would be with you, won’t. Key employees you thought would stay, end up taking a job somewhere else. The housing market slumps. Oil prices increase. China decides it wants steel. A large client opts for a lower priced competitor. The board ousts your senior executive. Your web team requires an additional four weeks to get part three of your strategy completed (thereby pushing everyone else’s timelines back). A supplier can’t get a critical part to you for two weeks. A key divisional manager discovers she has ovarian cancer. You find out your CFO has been having an affair with his secretary. The list goes on.

Now, while you and I can’t possibly prepare for every possible obstacle or setback, we can engage in candid discussions about the most likely ones–and then create a decent Plan B (before we need it). Unfortunately, when we’re excited about a new change initiative, the last thing we want to think about is, “What could go wrong?” Using de Bono’s language (from his Six Hats process), we don’t like to wear the “black hat,” we prefer to wear the “green” hat (after all, who doesn’t prefer to think of all the possibilities versus the problems?”).

But obstacles, setbacks, and resistance are a reality of every change initiative. They happen whenever we attempt to accomplish something, and that something is dependent upon other people or events. Foolish executives plunge ahead without preparing for this inevitability. Wise executives keep a Plan B in their back pocket at all times.

Failure Reason Number 7:
Executives Typically Forget to Realign The Resources
Necessary for the Change to Succeed

I’m always amazed at how many executives can come up with a plan, and then not realign the resources necessary to accomplish their change initiative. For example, I’ll go into organizations that already have a budget set for the year. Their executive team will tell me about a plan for a change they’ve developed. Yet I’ll frequently discover that they’ve never discussed where they’re going to find the money to fund that initiative. Or I’ll find that they’ve never discussed realigning some of their people or their job responsibilities in order to make the initiative succeed.

I continually find myself reminding clients of another rather simple concept, “You need to subtract before you add.” That sounds basic enough. But it’s not. For example, how often do you break that rule? How often, when you engage in a new change initiative, do you keep doing everything you were doing before–and simply adding the new initiative to your already overwhelming list of to dos? In other words, one of the reasons why so many initiatives fail is that, as executives, we keep adding and adding to people’s plates (including our own), but we never subtract. However, in order to succeed at creating change, we need to create the space and capacity for change to occur–and that means we have to practice subtracting before adding.

If a change effort is going to succeed, then the right resources need to be realigned in order to make success possible. That means that people, processes, finances, training, and operations need to be realigned so that you have to right people in the right place with the right resources and the right capacity to make your change effort optimally successful. If any of those items are misaligned, the probability of initiating and completing a successful change effort are significantly decreased.

Machiavelli was right. Undertaking a change effort is difficult and perilous. However, by making sure you avoid some of the most common mistakes made, you can radically increase the probability that your change initiatives will succeed. Put in a more positive light, here are seven keys toward engaging in a successful change effort.

1. Pay Attention to the Heart Issues (the heart comes before head)

2. Frequently Remind Your People Why the Change is Necessary (because they will forget)

3. Remember that Everything is a System (which means that everything you change will have both positive and negative effects somewhere)

4. Make Sure You Develop a Detailed Executable Plan (and then execute it)

5. Double the Amount of Communication You Process with Your People (they’ll need it more than ever)

6. Prepare for Obstacles, Setbacks and Resistance (because they are going to occur)

7. Realign Your Resources to Give Your Change Efforts the Best Possible Chance for Success (think people, responsibilities, operations, finances, systems, etc.)

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2 Responses to “7 Reasons Why Most Change Management Initiatives Fail”

  1. noel hodnett 4 June 2015 at 2:40 pm #

    A most enlightening article, I came across the article by accident as I was looking for some ideas as to why projects/process change initiatives fail because, I am dealing with that issue right now. This article helped get focused my thoughts as to why the project I am working failed.

  2. Donna DeBoard 3 September 2015 at 12:08 am #

    Liked your outline however I assume although you did not state that management often does not have enough detailed knowledge of the work/jobs/process to be able to determine the tactic or plan execution. Often these same companies fail to include any staff below the manager to determine the obstacles, develop a tactic together or plan B. I currently work in a large healthcare organization who has great vision and execution at the highest level with excellent outcomes but horrible management with midlevel execution for change. My boss says her plan is written down and reviewed with her boss annually and the rest of the year she never looks at it! Omg

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