The 5 Most Common Reasons Why Change Fails
Why is it that most change programmes fail to achieve their objectives? Why
don’t they survive beyond implementation (if they get that far)? Research proves
that roughly 70% of all change initiatives fail regardless of sector. Experience
shows that the five main reasons for failure are:
- Communications: insufficient, not the right sort and
not to the right people;
- Plans are cast in concrete – once set, they will not
be changed - and they do not take the larger system
(within which the change occurs) into account;
- Change is imposed from above without buy-in of those
- The change process is seen as linear, rather than
- Insufficient thought is given to sustainability and
The costs can be enormous, not just in wasted money, but in de-motivated teams
and even damage to your reputation or to your product.
Look at each of these problems in turn
Almost the first thing you hear from people is that they feel like mushrooms –
kept in the dark and fed ‘rubbish’. They want to know more, they want
transparency. No matter how well you think you are communicating, or how often,
people just aren’t satisfied. So what can you do? Consider not just how often
you communicate, but – remembering that it is a two-way process - with whom you
communicate, the way you communicate and the methods you use. Different people
need different kinds of communication and in different amounts or frequencies.
Do you know all of the people with whom you should communicate? Have you done an
extensive stakeholder mapping, keeping the larger system in mind? From your
stakeholder mapping, you can identify groups of people and think through what
KIND of communication they need, how OFTEN it should be and via what sort of
medium you should send it. Different individuals have different preferences as
well, so a mix of media is always a good idea.
When change initiatives fail, the second thing you discover is that plans are
cast in concrete and do not take the larger system into account. Whatever
change programme you are implementing, it is part of a larger system. There
are many more people and parts of the organisation (if not other
organisations) who are affected by what you will be doing differently, not
only the people in your team. It is useful to consider not just who these
people and organisations might be, but also how that might affect your
plans. What impact might they have on the programme? Can they be an obstacle
to the programme? Can they help you? How might you encourage their help?
Plans need to be flexible. That is, for the very near term, you may be quite
clear about what you will do, but as soon as you approach the medium term, you
will need to test where you are and see if adjustments need to be made. This
requires extra thinking at the front end of the programme – how will you know
that you are on track? What do you need to see that tells you? Use a simple
‘Plan/Do/Check/Act’ cycle: Plan what you are going to do, Do it, evaluate how
well it has gone and Check if you are where you need to be; re-plan the next
steps (for it usually is re-planning) and go for it, DO it – Act - and go around
the cycle again.
3) Change is imposed
Frequently, change is imposed from above and that is all that there is.
Buy-in is not sought or it is not achieved. People are told what to do and
how to do it. However, to get buy-in, you need to allow people the freedom
and creativity to have input into the process. The best way to do that is to
make sure that those who are affected by the change are involved – have a
say – in how it happens. Business is not a democracy – we make a decision
about a strategic direction for instance, and that decision is made by you
or by you and your leadership team. But, unless there are good reasons, if
you allow people to work with you on HOW the change will be made, you are
more likely to achieve buy-in, motivation and pro-activity. This probably
feels quite risky – after all, how do you know you can trust people to do
what needs to be done? It means you have to share not only the direction you
need to go in, but also the constraints…
4) The change process is seen as linear rather than iterative…
There are many different models of change to choose from, but they are only a
guide. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. Whatever model you use, you will
need to continually monitor where you are in that model. You are working on
change for a whole system, not just your particular unit. Whatever changes you
are working towards in your unit have an impact on the larger system of which
your unit is a part and in turn that larger system has an impact on your unit.
You need to keep that in mind during your planning and when you monitor to see
where you are. This tells you what you need to do next. For instance, you could
be working with a smaller unit within your larger unit and people are being very
resistant. By monitoring where you are on your model, you may discover that
despite having communicated with everyone the reasons for the change, you need
to go back to the beginning and enquire into what is happening for this
particular group of people to cause the resistance you are observing.
You may be humming along quite nicely and suddenly the programme hits an
obstacle. Again, by looking at where you are in your model and what you need to
do to move forward, you can ‘un-stick’ the programme. Don’t go in with
pre-conceived notions about what you should be doing next – this is a time to
ask questions and listen to the answers.
5) Not enough thought given to future sustainability and next steps…
How will you know that this change is ‘sticking’? What benefits will you see?
What will people be doing? What will they have stopped doing? How will they be
behaving? What will your customers say?
Frequently organisations finish the implementation, then just stop feeding
energy in and things go back to the way they were, the change is not sustained.
It needs to become embedded in the ‘way we do things now’ through repetition to
redevelop new ‘habits’ for several weeks, even months. This is not to say that
sustainable change requires continual energy, but it does require that attention
is paid to the change at the individual’s level - that questions are asked of
stakeholders on how things are going for them and that learning is captured and
Then there is always the question of ‘what next.’ An agile organisation is one
that responds to its environment. Whatever change you are implementing is around
a business issue – has the change solved the issue, or do you need to do more
(or different) work on it? Has the issue gone away? Has another issue arisen?
What are your next steps? How do you maintain and sustain the change?
�Patricia Lustig, 2006