Failing to change

21 Nov
November 21, 2013

In a recent post I wrote about how – despite all our efforts – almost 70% of all change initiatives fail.  In this post I want to look at why so many change initiatives fail.

Let’s recap According to HBR almost 70% of all change initiatives fail.  That’s right – 70%! In addition to HBR, change guru John Kotter also found that about 70% of change initiatives fail.  Ken Blanchard joined the gang and also found the same shameful 70% failure rate.

As I said previously whichever way you look at it, it isn’t pleasant reading.

But why?

But surely we must get better at change?  We have been ‘doing’ change for years, we have qualified change managers, we have people with change-related degrees and we have change management taught as core elements of MBAs and despite all this supposedly good intent, the best we seem to achieve is that 30% of change programmes are considered a success.  Thanks goodness we’re not in charge of the railways or airlines or anything that could really hurt someone!

But there must be a reason why so many change initiatives fail – we can’t engage and plan and scope and manage and realise benefits and still be that bad – can we?  But we can and we are.  And the reason that so many change initiatives fail – the reason that 70% of our effort and money is wasted – is because we just don’t manage our change programmes to take account of human nature.

That’s right – the conventional view of what human nature is, what motivates us, what drives us and what makes us change is almost completely wrong when applied to change management programmes.

There is another way

I’d love to claim that I researched and created the following ideas but they are derived from a brilliant paper by McKinsey. What I can do though is totally support McKinsey’s findings with my own experiences drawn from running change programmes – of one size or another – over the past 25 plus years. McKinsey talks about the ‘Inconvenient truth about change management’ in much the same way as Al Gore’s original ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ does – but without the alleged errors and court cases.

The inconvenient truths of change management There’s much to discuss here and I’ll be returning to some of these themes in future posts, but for now let’s take a look at five inconvenient truths about change management.

Inconvenient truth #1:  People aren’t always motivated by what motivates you

Let’s be painfully honest here.  We know that many large-scale changes begin with the senior leaders sharing their picture of the future – their nirvana.  And the leaders expect people to “get it”, “adopt it” and “live it” as though they’d just got religion and then wonder why it fails.  These ‘standing in the future’ moments – often called the compelling story – are fine, but they don’t work for everyone.  The leaders will hopefully believe their own hype about ‘building capability’, ‘upper quartile performance’, ‘synergies and strategies’ or whatever fancy words they care to use but the inconvenient truth is that this form of compelling story will only motivate about 20% of the workforce.

So the story we so often hear is immediately not recognised – internalised, if you prefer – by 80% of the people you’re trying to change.  Whoops – failure looms. . . What’s been found is that there are five types of compelling story.  These revolve around:

  1. Beating the competition, industry leadership, share price targets, etc.
  2. Impact on society – building the community, stewarding resources
  3. Impact on the customer – making it easier, superior service, better quality products
  4. Impact on the working team – sense of belonging, working together efficiently and effectively
  5. Impact on “me” personally – my development, pay/bonus, empowerment to act

It would be great if one of the above stories had a major impact but overall each one appeals to about 20% of the people.  This means that to engage with an entire workforce you’ll need to use all five stories rather than the one that’s normally used.

Inconvenient truth #2:  People don’t like being told what’s good for them

Within the UK it took decades to change attitudes towards wearing seatbelts.  The truth is we don’t like being told what’s good for us.  And yet this is what virtually all change programmes do!  They have a compelling story – as mentioned above – and then this is repeated ad nauseam rather like Big Brother in 1984 in the hope that people will ‘get onboard’ and change. We are far more likely to reject what we’re given or what we’re told rather than what we choose for ourselves.

The key issue here is that if I make a choice then I am five times more committed to the outcome than if I’m told what to do. But in change programmes we know what the problems are so we write them down, put them on posters and videos, fill out great presentations with rhetoric and then go round telling people.  Just for a change, why don’t we let the people discover, reveal and own what the root problems are? It takes longer, yes – but if they are then five times more committed to the outcome then I’d have that any day of the week over misaligned or disenfranchised employees who feel they are being ‘talked to’.

Inconvenient truth #3:  It takes positives and negatives to change

The “burning platform” has become one of the cornerstones of change management  – the story of a person confronted with a ‘change or die’ option who chooses to make the leap to save their life.  That story could be considered a negative change – one that was driven out of stress and necessity – but the person made the leap. According to some, in February 1519, Hernando Cortez set sail on the final leg of his voyage from Cuba to Mexico.  His plan was simple.  Go to Mexico, conquer and become rich.  As they arrived on the shores of Yucatan, it is said that Cortez told his army to “Burn the boats.”  This meant that Cortez and his army would conquer and come back alive on somebody else’s boats or they would die trying.

Those are some tough lessons but they were real reasons to change.  Bringing the approach up to date I’m reminded of the stand-off at the Grangemouth refinery.  The owners wanted changes that would allow it to operate well into the future; the unions – who were exceptionally strong – refused.  The billionaire owner decided enough was enough and announced he was closing the plant.  That’s it.  Game over.  No more jobs.  Within a matter of days the union and workforce had completed the biggest U-turn ever.  They agreed to new working practices, changed pension arrangements and so on because it’s better to have a ‘slightly worse’ job than no job at all So that’s one way to drive change – create some stress and a little uncertainty but you can also praise the good performances and you’ll get more of them.

Making large-scale change programmes work is an art form.  One of the classic approaches is to keep looking at why there are gaps between current performance and desired performance and focusing on what’s wrong and how it can be fixed.  An alternative approach is to forget about failure and just focus on success.  Whenever something goes right keep asking why it went right, what the differences were, what can be learned.  This relentless focus on good performance will serve to drive more.  As Ken Blanchard so wonderfully wrote in his book The One Minute Manager ‘Catch someone doing something right for a change.’

Research from Wisconsin University studies two sports teams.  They videoed both teams in action.  One team was only shown videos of when they did really well and the other team was only allowed to see videos of when they did badly.  The result – the team that studied successes did better overall. I’ve been involved in many changes.  Emphasising the good performance is a great way to drive change; however, I’ve also been faced with the situation where I wasn’t allowed to burn my boats, to close facilities or to move people out of the business.  Trust me, trying to get people to change when there are no consequences is tough and takes far longer than would normally be the case.  A balance is needed between risk and reward and the less this balance exists, the less successful you are likely to be.

Inconvenient truth #4:  Your leaders may not be leading the change

Let’s suppose that you’re about to embark on a major change programme and you’ve briefed the key leaders on the new behaviours that need modelling.  Perhaps you’re driving cost reduction or improving efficiency or perhaps you’re trying to change underlying behaviours in your organisation for long term benefit – so far, so good. But leaders in an organisation are often asked to ‘be the change’ or ‘be the face of change’ or ‘lead the change’ and that’s where another problem begins.

Despite what they think, most leaders are not the solution – they are part of the problem. Let’s be blunt – how many times have you seen leaders failing to model the desired behaviours?  How often can all the best intentions of change be dashed by just one single executive who either doesn’t do the right things or publicly says they disagree with the changes?  You’ve seen the effects – I’m sure you have – and you’ve probably put your head in your hands as you see the benefits of a change programme ebb away.

Most executives don’t see themselves as “part of the problem,” and because of this – deep down – do not believe that they are the ones who need to change. I’ve seen the very best of executives quietly modelling the right behaviours and helping others to do the same – and I’ve seen the profound and rapid change that can take place.  Equally, I’ve seen executives who couldn’t give a damn, were actually against the change programme and would publicly do all they could to discredit it – and surprise, surprise, the change failed.  As Gandhi said, “For things to change, first I must change” and this should be the mantra for all leaders.

Inconvenient truth #5:  Good intentions are never enough

It’s well documented that three months after we’ve heard a presentation, video or discussion we can remember only about 10 percent of what we heard.  We know that people learn by doing and that whenever we learn in this way we can retain up to 65 percent of the learning.  And we also know that if we learn by doing and immediately practise what we’ve learnt back in the workplace for a number of weeks, then almost all of the learning can be retained.  Hooray!  But that’s the theory – the reality is so very different.

Change programmes will often include an element of education – the opportunity for you to find out what changes you’re expected to make, and how these changes can benefit both you and the organisation.  Good Learning and Development people will design interventions that are highly engaging, giving you the best chance to remember as much of what you’ve learned as possible.  And we know that these sessions will often finish with the completion of an action log, a commitment card, a promise card etc. And what happens the next day when we’re back at work? Nothing!  We’re back to our old ways, we’re trying to catch up on the time we ‘lost’ to the training and we’re wading through the stream of emails that we’ve missed.  The truth is that very few of us keep our commitments.

Disagree?  Well, according to Forbes only 8% of us realise our New Year resolutions – as I said, very few of us keep our commitments. But of course this wouldn’t apply to your change programme, would it?  Of course not!  On your change programme everyone is committed to the cause, everyone is ‘on message’ and it just couldn’t get better… Oh really!

A Princeton theological seminary carried out an experiment to see just how committed people were to their cause.  Students were asked a series of questions about their personality and level of religious commitment and then sent across campus.  Along the way they met a person who was slumped over, coughing and groaning and asking for medical assistance. Did self-proclaimed nice people help more?  Absolutely not.  Neither did religious commitment correlate to who provided help.  The only predictor of behaviour was that half were made to think they were late for an appointment across campus, while the others believed they had plenty of time. Sixty three percent with spare time helped, as opposed to just 10 percent of those in a hurry.  When short of time, even those with “religion as a quest” did not stop to help. Telling, eh? So despite our commitment and convictions, if we’re not given the time to make the changes then we probably won’t.


I hope this post has got you thinking.  Change isn’t easy.  We all know that, yet we cannot expect to be successful unless we take into account many of the inconvenient truths mentioned above.  We have to allow for the vagaries of human nature, the fact that our leaders are not always as good as they think they are and that despite all our best intentions there’s always something else trying to take our time and energy.

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