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Why do most change initiatives fail?

Why do most change initiatives fail?

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Managing change initiatives means tackling the gravitational pull of company culture, the ingrained habits, the unwritten rules as to how things are done – and always involves battling established norms and the egos associated with the status quo, writes James Sweetman

It was more than 2,500 years ago that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated that “there is nothing permanent except change”. In recent years, change management has become ubiquitous in business parlance. It appears on job descriptions and is listed as an espoused competency in most organisations. Yet why is it, that if statistics are to be believed, that most change initiatives end in failure?

Companies are getting a first class honours degree in project failure, with 70 per cent the most commonly quoted statistic. There is no doubt that a high portion of change initiatives take longer, cost more money, don’t deliver on the promised benefits, or are not as widely adapted as planned. What are the challenges? What are the early warning signals of looming failure?

As the organisational behaviour and management guru Charles Handy famously said, “organisations are nothing but the people in them”. Therefore, managing change requires at least a basic grasp of how human beings deal with change. This requires a healthy dose of empathy, the ability to see the world from other people’s perspectives and curiosity as to what makes people tick.

Managing change initiatives means tackling the gravitational pull of company culture, those ingrained habits, the unwritten rules as to how things are done. Change initiatives always involve battling established norms and the egos associated with the status quo.

Our instinctive response to change
When speaking with audiences on the topic of change I often open with an exercise. I invite attendees to change something about their appearance or their immediate surroundings. Some will remove their glasses, take their phone off the table, or move a pen.

It is very rare that someone will add something, (put on their jacket, or place a bag on their table.) Instinctively, we associate change with a sense of loss, of being worse off. It is how we are hot-wired. Our first motivational drive is the drive to avoid pain, embarrassment and humiliation – it’s survival instinct.

Think of it this way, what would you put more effort into: earning an extra €5,000 or preventing somebody taking €5,000 from you? Our reflex is the latter, because we don’t want to be worse off.

Barriers to change
As humans, we are hot-wired to form habits and routines. Homeostasis is the Greek word for it, we form habits and rituals wherever we can, as they simply make life easier. As an experienced driver you have developed the habit of being unconsciously competent behind the wheel.

When new processes or systems arrive, we have to work consciously, using the prefrontal cortex which requires more effort and concentration (like driving a rental car on holidays.) We are pushed outside our comfort zones, which heightens self-consciousness.

We crave certainty, and change by its nature fuels uncertainty. This uncertainty will stimulate feelings of loss of control, loss of power and diminished self-determination. This, of course, may not be actually true, but it is our perception, our thinking about the change that triggers the internal struggle.

‘People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.’ Peter Senge

When implementing change, we should remember that existing procedures, systems and processes were once new. For some people, especially those who were involved in establishing current practices, there can be a loss of face associated with discarding the old and embracing the new. This will often stimulate concerns about competency and the ability to perform in the post-change environment.

In a company where lack of trust abounds and where ‘them and us’ (as opposed to ‘we’) are the dominant pronouns, change initiatives will stir up past resentments and old wounds. History and an entrenched culture mean people will resist change because they fear the ripple effects.

Sometimes, too, the ‘pain’ of change can be very real. We would like to think that at a macro level all change initiatives exist to benefit the bigger picture, but at a micro level the change may not benefit everybody.

If these are some of the internal battles being waged what are some of the early warning signals that you are on the road to being part of the 70 per cent? When you know them, you can side-step them, or better still, develop a strategy to proactively manage them. Of course, some projects and change initiatives are doomed from the outset, a chalice laced with poison.

Lack of buy-in and active support from the managing director and the senior management team
This is an obvious one, or so you might think. Some projects can be outsourced or delegated, but ownership of the change process and responsibility for the outcome can never be abdicated. Change initiatives, particularly those seeking to alter the company culture, go to the soul of the business.

Unless change initiatives are actively owned and supported by the senior manager and the senior management team, they will fail. Major change initiatives have to be seen as being integral to the business, not just some HR or IT project.

Not aligned with business needs
The connection between the change initiative and the business has to be explicitly made and repeated frequently. Focusing on the consequences of inaction and the benefits of change (interpreted for different stakeholders) is key.

The reasons why something is important (the motive) is where the motivation for engagement is found. In the absence of quality conversations (over different media) gossip will fill the vacuum and gossip is never positive.

‘No time’ and ‘no resources’
This will always be the common refrain and No 1 ‘excuse’ for failure to actively participate and take ownership of an initiative. In this context, time is finite and in the short term, resources are usually finite too. It is never a question of time and resources, it is always a question of priorities. If the priority is high enough, time is made and resources found.

Running before you can walk
Serious change initiatives are like running a marathon (while performing open heart surgery.) How ‘fit’ are the people who will be driving the initiative from both a skills and a willingness perspective? How robust are existing processes and internal communication channels?

If an organisation doesn’t have a culture of staff engagement, the skills and mindset will not be in place to cope with any new initiatives, just as a performance appraisal conversation is doomed to fail if the manager never has meaningful one-to-one conversations with their staff throughout the year.

You cannot facilitate impactful conversations about change and the future of the business if forums are not in place to support management and staff dialogue.

There’s no one cure
All change projects are a means to an end. The ultimate end is enhanced effectiveness, productivity and profitability. Boosted morale, engagement and proactivity can be byproducts.

But no project is a panacea. Serious change will also put other issues on the table such as wider remuneration and reward structures; how roles are defined; employee engagement; communication structures; and management skillsets.

Lack of milestones and measures of success
When dealing with ‘soft’ issues such as communication, engagement and motivation, it is more challenging to identify tangible success factors. Equally, the success of some initiatives can take months if not years to come to fruition.

At the outset, it is always worth identifying how success will be measured. Focus can also be placed on the process of building momentum. For example, participation in events, the regularity of forums, and the capturing and acting upon feedback.

Not listening or engaging with the ‘troops on the ground’
With some projects, it is not possible to see the end from the beginning. Staff at all levels have a role to play. Even if they may be not able to actively contribute ideas, they will remember their opinion was sought.

There is a balance to be struck between ‘top-down’ communication and ‘bottom-up.’ Too much of the former and it is likely to be too directional, leading to a ‘not invented here’ mindset.

Too much of the latter and the initiative is likely to stall as too many voices lead to confusion, a tendency to go off on tangents and to get stuck on issues such as remuneration.

Managers and supervisors are not held accountable for results
Some managers will only be motivated to devote time and energy to a change initiative when they know that failure to actively participate will negatively impact on their own performance rating. If a manager is not held accountable for their own lack of buy-in, for treating it as a tick-box exercise, the initiative will fail.

Adding to the Peter Senge quote: ‘people don’t resist change, they resist being uncomfortable and they also resist change being imposed upon them’. Because change is a constant, effective organisations and managers have absorbed change management into the definition of leadership.

Leadership is about acknowledging current realities and optimistically forging a path forward. You cannot ignore the current company culture and you have to meet people where they are located on the change adoption curve.

Risk assessment and contingency thinking are key elements of all projects, so by having an awareness of ‘what you are looking to avoid’ means that the above factors are at least on the radar.

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