Why Change Programs Fail

Most change initiatives fail to deliver the expected organizational benefits time and again for the same reasons.

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Organizations and the Change Imperative

The rate of organizational change has not slowed in recent years. In fact, with the Global Financial Crisis continuing to send shock waves to all four corners of the globe, the frequency of change appears to be increasing.

Consider the other myriad drivers of change. For example, the rapid and continual innovation in technology is forever requiring changes to organizational systems and processes. Witness the startling growth of the internet and micro-devices, which is enabling much faster and easier access to knowledge. Add to this the increased expectations of employees as they move more freely between organizations. It is no wonder that relentless change has become a fact of organizational life.

In spite of the importance and permanence of organizational change, most change initiatives fail to deliver the expected organizational benefits. Research over many years indicates that well over half of major change initiatives fail. Kotter1, McKinsey2 and Blanchard3 put the failure rate at 70% whilst a recent IBM Corporation4 study reports a failure rate of almost 60%.

Common Reasons for Change Program Failure

There is a recurring theme to the reasons for the high rate of change program failures. You may recognize one or more of these reasons in your organization's change program challenges.

Poor executive sponsorship or senior management support

Active and ongoing leadership from the top is an essential prerequisite for achieving change outcomes. Where there is poor communication from the management team, lack of real commitment and a shortage of allocated resources, employees quickly see through to the real story. In one survey of change practitioners, 92% cited top management sponsorship as the most important factor in successful change programs.4

Lack of employee involvement in the change process

Executives and managers who can marshal the support of employees win the day. The principle of participation illustrates how people allowed a hand in their destiny show the highest commitment to the change goals. In one study, leaders who actively sought to engage employees in the change effort enjoyed a 70% success rate.5

Absent or ineffective change champion

For change to succeed, a key person needs to be focused primarily on the program, working on the ground and driving the change across the organization. In a recent survey report, 55% of change practitioners cited having strong change agents as a key factor in successful change.4

Hope rested on a simple solution

Changing an organization's culture, level of innovation or manufacturing capability is rarely down to manipulating one factor. Changes such as these typically involve a number of organizational systems. Yet many change initiatives start with a prayer that a one-dimensional solution will suffice. Nearly one in three change leaders admit that underestimating the complexity of the change was a significant barrier to the success of their program.4

Ad hoc approach to planning and managing change

Successful organizations adopt a structured and formal approach to their change initiatives. In one study, almost three in four businesses that achieved their change objectives used a rigorous process for clearly defining goals and segmenting the program into its various component initiatives.5 In another study, organizations that primarily improvised solutions to problems reported only a 36% success rate.4

Failed organizational change initiatives leave in their wake cynical and burned out employees, making the next change objective even more difficult to accomplish. It should come as no surprise that the fear of managing change and its impacts is a leading cause of anxiety in managers.

Understanding your organization and matching the initiative to your organization's real needs (instead of adopting the latest fad) is the first step in making your change program successful. Beyond that, recognize that bringing about organizational change is fundamentally about changing people's behavior in certain desired ways.

As is apparent from the above list of reasons for failure, lack of technical expertise is not the main impediment to successful change. Leadership and management skills, such as visioning, prioritizing, planning, providing feedback and rewarding success, are key factors in any successful change initiative.

End Notes:

  1. Kotter, John P. (1996). Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press,
  2. Keller, Scott and Aiken, Carolyn (2008). "The Inconvenient Truth about Change", McKinsey & Company,
    http://www.mckinsey.com/App_Media/Reports/Financial_Services/The_Inconvenient_Truth_About_Change_Management.pdf
  3. Blanchard, Ken (2010). "Mastering the Art of Change", Training Journal, January 2010,
    http://www.kenblanchard.com/img/pub/Blanchard_Mastering_the_Art_of_Change.pdf
  4. "Making Change Work Study" (2008). IBM Corporation,
    http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/bus/pdf/gbe03100-usen-03-making-change-work.pdf
  5. "What Successful Transformations Share: McKinsey Global Survey Results" (2010). Organization Practice, March 2010,
    http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/What_successful_transformations_share_McKinsey_Global_Survey_results_2550

Expert View Author: AIMM MAITD

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