Transforming Transformational Change

28 Nov
November 28, 2014

Transformational change has a poor track record of success and perhaps now more than ever we need to revisit our approach to some of the underlying models that we’ve relied upon for so long.

I’ve written before about the various studies showing that almost 70 percent of large-scale change programmes fail to meet their goals.  That’s right – study after study reveals roughly the same facts: that only three out of ten transformational change programmes will meet their stated goals.

It’s worth explaining what I mean by transformational change as it can sound like another one of those ‘poncy consulting terms’.  Transformation changes are those whose outcomes are less certain than, say, replacing a logistics or payroll system.  Transformational changes will also be broadly people driven – in that it is the change in people that drives the change, not a change in system or process.

Current reality

For what seems like aeons, we have used a number of ‘change models’ to help us understand and deliver transformational change.  These models – the Kotter eight steps being one of the most popular  – are still useful guides but the fact is that change is not a clean and clear step-by-step model with everyone working in unison; rather it is something a little more haphazard.

We don’t have the organisations we think we have

The organisations of old were built for discipline, control and efficiency – and the bulk of today’s organisations follow suit, which is why you will see a tension and mismatch between the pace of change in the outside world compared to that within organisations.  The truth is that most organisations are struggling to keep up.

Step-by-step change

For most change programmes – and I’ve been involved in more than my fair share – there is an unswerving expectation that they will operate rather like a marching army – everyone together, everyone in unison and everyone in step.  This is never the case!

Coupled with this are the three pillars of accepted change wisdom that accompany every programme:

  1. Change starts from the very top:  it is driven by the CEO, the Executive Board and so on, and these are the very people who will hold the reins of change and direct it – often to failure
  2. Change is rolled out step-by-step:  first there is the engagement phase, then implementation and so on.  We all know the steps in the dance.  Perhaps it’s operations who will lead, followed by customer service and so on. Planned, controlled and managed.
  3. Change is pre-designed:  rather like a new building, change is often pre-designed with plans and KPIs and a blueprint of what’s going to happen, when and to whom.  It’s written down and there are graphs and plans and diagrams on the walls of ‘war rooms’.

But real life is not as controlled as we would wish . . . .

The rapid nature of change

Way back in the early eighties Apple were designing the Mac.  One of the key software tools to ship with this product was MacPaint.  Folklore suggests the original programme was crafted in one long evening.  In 1999, an 18-year-old college dropout named Shawn Fanning stayed awake for 60 straight hours writing the source code for his file-sharing program Napster, which changed the music industry forever.

And more recently Mark Zuckerberg wrote a program called Facemash in one short evening while attending Harvard.  This act is immortalised in the film The Social Network.

Away from the world of technology – where change can literally happen overnight – we’ve seen organisations such as Virgin, FirstDirect, Innocent, Amazon and many others rapidly change markets.  And all this achieved without step-by-step linear approaches.


Perhaps it’s time to rethink change – from big to small, from planned to organic.  I’ll be adding to this post over the coming weeks but as always, I’d value your thoughts.  What’s your view of change? Does it work – and if not, what should we do?

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