Change: avoid failure now, learn what doesn’t work

Most change initiatives either fail or are heralded as “partially successful.” The latter means they did not achieve their original objectives. Because failure is an orphan and no-one wants to parent it, people would rather focus on partial success than admit failure to achieve the original goals. The annual cost of failed change initiatives in the UK has been estimated at £1.7 billion. Why does this happen? This article will outline what not to do. You could find out what not to do by trying it and measuring the results. Or you could learn from others.

Failing street

How do organisations end up on Failing Street when it comes to managing change? Studies have revealed the major causes of failure and have ranked their importance. The results may not be what you might expect.

Before you read about why things fail please rest assured that a future article on this blog will outline how changes succeed. There is no need to be depressed about change for too long. If you sign up to follow this blog, you will get to read about what works. I promise not to leave it too long before the next post on this subject reveals what enables the successful achievement of change goals.

The number one cause of failure when it comes to change initiatives is “failing to change mind-sets and attitudes.” This is closely followed by the existing culture of the organisation strangling the change, starving it of oxygen, silencing the voice of the change or depriving the change of the food it needs to be sustained. Whatever analogy works for you, I hope you get the point that the culture of the organisation is the problem.

The third biggest reason why change initiatives fail is that the inherent complexity of change is underestimated. This is made even worse by a failure to understand the complexities of the specific changes that will be needed. We may all get the concept that people underestimate how difficult any change can be, but few of us will include ourselves in this concept. We tend to have the opinion that others struggle with change, but we cope just fine most of the time. If you do recognise that change is complex, what adjustments do you make to help you cope?

In terms of underestimating the complexity of the specific change, how many times have you experienced this? I would be a very rich person if I had a £5 note for every “software upgrade” that I have been given that caused unexpected problems and completely altered the UX (User eXperience) in a way that made me less efficient (and comfortable.) Sound familiar? As I type, I still am befuddled by the latest version of a software package that is crucial to my business. The last version worked fine, I knew what I was doing, and I was happy. With the new version, it took me more than ten minutes to find the “help” facility. My mood was somewhat darkened when I found the help videos told me how to do what I wanted in the old version, which looked nothing like what was on the screen in front of me! “I didn’t ask for this change and I don’t like it” I heard myself think.

Computer rage

The fourth biggest factor that causes change initiatives to fail is the first factor in my list that is tangible – something you can see and touch. It’s the first “hard” factor; it’s not “soft” and intangible. It’s that organisations just plain don’t allocate the amount of resources needed to achieve the change. The resources could be money, capital equipment/tools, or land/office space. They might be software programmes and IT equipment, or something as mundane as office stationery. I recall one organisation that invested huge amounts of money in a corporate rebranding programme, but the accounts department were still sending out invoices with the old branding because there was no budget to order new invoice stationery (okay, it was a while back –  they sent out paper invoices then.)

The resource that is most often lacking available is, I believe, the resource that causes the biggest number of failures. It is entirely predictable that this resource will be needed and so often organisations assume (unconsciously) that it will just magically supply loads of extra quantities of itself for free! Other seasoned change management experts are way ahead of me here – the resource is the time of people in the organisation.

Here’s what happens. People are doing things in an organisation on a day-to-day basis. They may not be fully utilised, but they are doing stuff. A change is needed and the assumption is that the people can continue to do the stuff they are doing, and they can do more stuff to make the change happen. The argument goes something like “we’re not asking them to do more, we’re just asking them to do something different.” Or “if they do stuff differently, they will be more efficient, so the change means we will need less resource.” This latter view is indeed often true, but managing the design of the change, the implementation of the change, and any redesign all require resource before you can realise the benefits.

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Change requires planning. To be successful it needs resource and it is a high-risk strategy to rely on those doing the “day job” to also make the changes. What are those doing the “day job” going to focus on? When push comes to shove the “day job” is right here, right now. The change is in the future, so people do what they need to do to handle the immediate requirements of the “day job” in the best way they know right now. The better way that will come in the future is unknown to them right now, so they have to do things the way they always have. And so the wheel turns and the cycle is repeated again and again and the change either happens slower than desired, or withers on the vine and never happens.

So far I have covered the top four factors that cause changes to fail or deliver less. I want to make you aware of number five (I have my top ten) because it is another “soft” factor. I want to be clear that it is the “soft” factors that are the biggest contributors to change initiatives falling short. Factor five really doesn’t need much explanation, it is “lack of commitment of higher management” – another intangible.

If you recall, the estimate is that the UK is losing £1.7 billion annually through failed change initiatives. The best organisations, who manage change well, achieve an average of 80% of their objectives. The worst average 8% achievement. The difference is not an accident, a fluke of nature.

Change success requires careful management, it means avoiding the pitfalls outlined above. Avoid them and you will be half-way there. Getting the rest of the journey involves doing the right things well. In a later article, I’ll take you through the factors that enable successful achievement of change objectives. Sign up to follow the blog and you’ll get that article in your Inbox automatically.