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Why Change Fails

This lesson is a part of an audio course Creative Problem Solving by Ross Maynard

Research suggests that around 75% of change programs fail. This is a figure which is often bandied about, and its accuracy depends on how you define "change."

In the research, the term "change" is used in a way that includes restructuring programs. But corporate restructuring is not really the same as "change," is it? Restructuring often involves moving the deckchairs about and changing role titles rather than any radical change. Change programs fail because most of them are actually restructuring, and restructuring is usually planned by senior people looking to suit themselves. It often fails to attract the commitment of the "foot soldiers" in the organisation.

As Professor Grint says in his article:

"Change depends upon the relationships between leaders and followers: in effect, it is followers that make or break change strategies, not leaders alone because organisations are systems, not machines." Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the Role of Leadership," Keith Grint, Cranfield University, in "Clinical Leader," December 2008.

The Factors That Result in Poor Solutions to Problems

There are many studies into why problem-solving fails to generate solutions that successfully resolve the problem identified. Here are the main issues:

Fear of the unknown. We, humans, are creatures of habit. We form patterns, and once we identify a way of addressing an issue, we become anchored in that method, and don't like to have to change. Problem-solving, like all change, involves moving into the unknown. It involves breaking embedded habits. We don't like change, and we get fearful that we might not be able to cope with the new environment or the new way of working. This can easily lead to resistance to change. Many change programs fail to address this basic human need. The future may look rosy to management but individual in the organisation become fearful for their jobs, or fearful that they won't be able to cope. Any solution developed to a problem needs to include a clear path for the people in the organisation to adapt – time and support to develop the new skills needed and to get used to the new ways of working.

The problem is insufficiently compelling. If people don't "buy into" the problem as being a significant issue, then they will not rally behind it with any enthusiasm. Many organisational improvement efforts fail because staff see them as an ego trip or hobbyhorse for senior management, rather than an important problem for the organisation. If you don't think the problem identified is the "right" problem, or is that important, you are not going to actively engage in solving it. You'll do what you are told but with the minimum of effort.

The lack of a clear vision. This point is the counterbalance to the previous point. Not only does the problem have to be clearly defined in a way that justifies the need to resolve it, but there has to be a clear vision of what the future for the issue looks like. There may be plenty of plans and methods, but people need a clear view of "what good looks like" to engage emotionally with an issue.

A lack of senior team alignment. If the senior team doesn’t engage in a problem and support its resolution, then it is unlikely to gain much traction or last very long. This is a case where actions speak louder than words. Senior management may publicly support an initiative, but if they are seen to revert to old behaviours, or engage in political manoeuvring, the people in the organisation will soon become cynical and not take it seriously.

Communicating without engaging. There can be newsletters and update emails and a website created by the problem-solving team, but one-way communication is not enough. There has to be intensive, authentic, frequent engagement and involvement of employees to make the change work. Change is impossible unless the majority of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. If there are stirring speeches at the start of a project, followed by occasional email updates that nobody reads, then any enthusiasm initially created will soon wane – particularly if the executives promptly go back to their old ways.

Failing to address barriers as they arise. No amount of planning can identify every constraint or barrier that addressing a problem will encounter. Often these barriers become more difficult to resolve the later they are identified, but they have to be faced. Many problem-solving programs fail because they lack the political will to address some of these barriers. Company procedures, reward and incentive policies, and managers in powerful positions refusing to act are common issues. Unless they are tackled, cynicism will grow, and the project will fail.

A focus on systems over people. Improvement programmes can often focus on the systems and procedures that need to be changed but changing the minds of the people is much more important. Changing the culture of the organisation is difficult but essential. Sometimes it receives inadequate attention. Problem-solving teams need to identify the behaviours that are necessary for driving the transformation. Then they need to work out what they can do to alter them.

Inadequate skills development. Implementing sustainable solutions to organisation problems often involves new skills. The people in the organisation will need new skills to adapt their roles, or to work in new ways. Sometimes such training and development are given insufficient attention. If the people in the organisation begin to fear that they will not be able to cope with the new skills or working methods required, they will begin to actively resist the change, and this can sink the project.

Failing to provide short-term wins. A grand vision for a project can seem interesting, but people will fail to engage with it because it feels too far off. Planning for short-term wins as milestones to the vision allows people to see results and to "feel" the benefits of the change. This will reinforce their commitment to the change and work more actively for it.

Most of these issues boil down to people. Organisations are not machines: they are communities, and any plans for change must put the community first. They must engage people in the process and sustain that engagement over time. That's not easy with the busy working lives that we all have.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we consider the first type of problem – the critical problem.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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