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Making Change Stick (And why it doesn’t)

Most business change initiatives fail to achieve their original objectives with poor leadership usually cited as the culprit. Director Jonathan Booth explores whether this is fair or if there are other factors at work.

There is an often quoted 70% failure rate quoted for business change programmes that dates back to the 1993 book Re-engineering the Corporation, in which authors Michael Hammer and James Champy stated: “our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a re-engineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.”

During nearly every discussion about organizational change, someone makes the obvious assertion that “change is hard.” Yes, change requires effort but the problem with this attitude, which permeates all levels of our organizations, is that it equates “hard” with “failure,” and, by doing so, hampers it at the start.

I believe that blaming leadership in general is too vague and that the common mistakes leaders make can be more accurately pinpointed. In my experience, leaders fail to make change stick due to one or more, and often all three, of the following reasons:

  • Not taking the time to properly prepare change initiatives
  • Failing to lead by example
  • Not seeing things through


Taking the Time to Prepare

Leaders often rush into change initiatives in a reactive way and in a desire to see quick results. In many instances, this leads to the change initiative failing to achieve its aims which then leads to a resistance to further change.

They may have come up with detailed solutions behind a closed door before talking to anyone in the organisation who could be affected by it and then wonder why people react badly when these are revealed.

There is no substitute for engaging and involving affected colleagues as soon as possible. By doing so, leaders will often arrive at a very different solution that has a lot more support from their colleagues.

Once it is understood what needs to be changed and why, it is the essential that it is made clear how the change process will be led and by whom. This usually requires a careful balance of top-down direction and cross-functional / multi-level leadership.

Of the change initiatives I’ve been involved in, the ones that have been most effective and that have lasted longest, are those that have been led by the people actively involved in and responsible for the affected area(s.) Senior leaders’ main role is providing strategic direction.

It’s critical to take the time to work through the approach up front and map out the change process in some detail. Then identify and secure the necessary time and resources required to implement the change process and see it through.

Leading by Example

Asking senior leaders to commit to a change process and to lead from the top is easy to do but hard to achieve. Leaders often say the right things but then become distracted by business as usual  and fail to give sufficient time to communicating what is required and why.

Behaviour breeds behaviour. If leaders take the time to approach change effectively and ask colleagues for their input and acknowledge the potential impacts on them; they will gain their colleagues’ trust. A leader who pushes on regardless will not and will face resistance and resentment in the process.

This isn’t rocket science: take the time to talk to people. If you are open and honest about your intentions, you will create an example that others will appreciate and follow!

Seeing Change Through

I tend to think of a change process in three phases:

  • Engage people in the need for change and how it should be approached;
  • Energise people to try change;
  • Embed the change(s) into business as usual.

This last phase is the most important, although I also think this is the phase that receives the least attention.

If you’ve planned the changes, and engaged and involved colleagues in developing change plans,  it can be tempting to think that the job is done. But that is never the case – I am often surprised at how well thought through change initiatives fail to be fully implemented due to a lack of commitment and persistence.

Time can be the greatest factor, particularly not building in enough to see things through, while others give up when the going gets tough, particularly when they are looking for quick, instant results and tangible outcomes.

Change is rarely easy, but we mustn’t lose confidence at the first sign of negative feedback. There always will be initial resistance to change, especially from those wanting to keep things as they are.

McKinsey’s 2009 research into the relative success of change management programmes found that 38% of respondents said “the change transformation was ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ successful at improving performance, compared with 30 percent similarly satisfied that it improved their organization’s health.”

In other words, a third of executives believed that their change initiatives were total successes, and another third believed that their change initiatives were more successful than unsuccessful. But only “about one in ten admit to having been involved in a transformation that was ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ unsuccessful.” I often find that it is not ‘what’ the organisation tried to do that was wrong but ‘how’ they went about it.

It can be too easy for leaders to give up, to say we’ve tried this and it didn’t work, rather than to look at why it didn’t work, to put those things right and to keep going. Not seeing it through can cause more problems than not changing anything in the first place. It certainly makes subsequent change initiatives a lot harder to get off the ground.

Leaders also need to be aware that team members are not usually entering change situations without any prior experience – but still there remains a bias against success in our minds. And every time we say “change is hard” we water those seeds.

So, perhaps the first thing we should all start doing from tomorrow, is to put that scepticism to the back of our minds and look afresh at what CAN be achieved and not view time as the enemy.

Journey4 has extensive experience in handling change programmes for organisations of all sizes. Read about our approach, call us on 01823 451 199 or email for a confidential initial discussion on how we could help you to transform your business.