Ten reasons why change initiatives can fail

By Campbell Macpherson

88% of change initiatives fail and a similar number of strategies, acquisitions and mergers suffer the same fate. After several decades of instigating change in many dozens of organisations of all sizes – as a consultant, as an adviser and as an in-house change leader – I have come to the conclusion that there are ten main reasons why the vast majority of change initiatives fail – and they are all intertwined:

  1. People don’t like change
  2. Lack of clarity regarding what we are trying to achieve and why
  3. The implications are not fully understood
  4. Obsession with process over outcomes
  5. Inertia
  6. The project is set up to fail
  7. Poor communications and disingenuous stakeholder engagement
  8. We forget that emotions trump logic every time
  9. A change-averse culture
  10. Leadership doesn’t stay the course.
  1. People don’t like change.

Companies cannot change unless individuals do. Corporate change is the culmination of a myriad of personal changes. But we humans are hard-wired to resist change, which means that every change initiative starts with an inherent handicap. Fear is the main reason why people resist change: fear of failure, fear of the unknown and fear of being blamed for not changing earlier. The false comfort of victimhood can be strong where people slump into feeling powerless in the face of change. Sometimes, the long-term gains simply don’t seem to be worth the short-term pain. Often, we need help to change but it is nowhere to be found.

If you want your people to embrace a new way of working, these are the demons you will need to help them confront. And it doesn’t matter where they sit in your organisation – in the boardroom or on the shop floor – the demons are the same for everybody.

  1. Lack of clarity

The desired outcome may be clear to the change leader, but it is rarely clear to the people having to instigate the change. What are we trying to achieve? Why? How will success be measured?  How on earth could anyone succeed without knowing – and believing – the answers to these questions?

  1. What implications?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Isaac Newton’s statement is equally valid to the world of business.  Unintended and unexplored implications have scuppered many a new idea. Engage your people in identifying as many of these upfront and your chances of success will sky-rocket.

  1. Process over outcomes.

The operation was a complete success. Unfortunately the patient died. Too many change initiatives become so obsessed with process that they forget what they were setting out to achieve in the first place. While a robust (and appropriate) process is important – never, ever forget that it is merely the enabler. It is what gets delivered that matters.

  1. Inertia

The first type of inertia is complacency; a cancer that has killed countless companies. The second type is ‘trying to stop a runaway train’; projects build a whole momentum of their own until they run headlong into the buffers having wasted countless manpower and funds. This is very common. The answer is to build in a ‘pause for reflection’ that forces you to reassess the project along the way.

  1. The project is set up to fail.

Poor or complicated governance, unclear accountabilities and inappropriate process have killed many change initiatives before they had even begun.

  1. Disingenuous engagement.

Change communications that are broadcast-style edicts achieve less than nothing. Interaction with your people needs to be genuine, two-way and involve listening. Your people are the only ones who can deliver your strategy.

  1. We forget that emotions trump logic

Logic is a very poor motivator, as David Cameron amply demonstrated during his disastrous Remain campaign last year. Emotional motivation is four times more powerful than rational motivation. Most change initiatives forget this.

  1. A change-averse culture

Some corporate cultures attack new ideas like antibodies attack and unwelcome virus. People aren’t encouraged to challenge the status quo. They fear the consequences of failure. Such a culture is doomed. Is your culture the opposite of this? There is only one way to find out – ask your people.

  1. Leadership

Perhaps why change fails could be summed up in two words: ‘The Leadership’. The forces against change are strong and relentless. At the first sign that an executive may not be 100% aligned, these forces, like a Hogwarts Dementor, will infiltrate this chink in the armour and the momentum for change will wane. The leadership needs to stay strong, focused and committed. Or the change initiative will join the long list of the 88% that fail.

This is an edited extract from The Change Catalyst: Secrets to Successful and Sustainable Business Change, by Campbell Macpherson, pictured above.
(Wiley, May 2017).