Why Change Projects Fail

In a previous article, Learning to Lead Change, I argued that because of the increasingly rapid and complex nature of change in the lives of modern organizations, learning professionals must rise to the task of learning to lead change and then bring those skills to bear throughout the organization. Doing so, however, requires a better understanding of why change projects so often fail.

Why Change Projects Fail

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The failure rate of change initiatives is both shocking and sobering. For many years the accepted statistic is that 70% of all change initiatives end in failure. Even worse, The 2013 Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI Survey found that only 25% have any success at sustaining the attempted change, which means the long-term failure rate is more like 75%.

What gets in the way of change to result in such dismal statistics? The main culprit is resistance to change. If you find yourself leading change (or even just trying to manage it), you can expect resistance. That resistance can take many forms, from a general crankiness all the way up to open revolt and sabotage. In between are people complaining why the change will probably fail, a lot of passive-aggressive behaviors, avoidance, even defiance. Generally speaking, there are 11 main drivers of this resistance as follows:

  1. Let’s face it, lots of people like the security and safety of routines that don’t change. When faced with the great unknown, many people get nervous, anxious, and even angry.
  2. Lack of warning. No one likes to show up to work one day and discover that a major change has been implemented without any kind warning or heads up.
  3. Lack of rationale. People are also much more likely to resist change if there’s no provision of a clear reason why the change is taking place. It’s hard for people to get on board if they have no idea about any of this.
  4. Lack of Participation. People want to be involved in potential changes. In fact, the earlier you can solicit input about changes on the horizon, the better.
  5. Changed Relationships. When a change means things are going to be different in terms of human relationships – who you’re used to working with to get things done – people are understandably disgruntled about such shake-ups.
  6. Lack of Robust Communication. Even if you gave a “heads up” about change, failing to keep people in a regular communication loop about it can cause trouble.
  7. Lack of Perceived Benefit. If people can’t clearly see how the end result is an improvement, it will be hard for them to support the change, let alone help make it a success.
  8. Likelihood of Harm. If people have even an inkling that this change is going to somehow decrease their power, status, security or control in the organization, you can expect intense resistance.
  9. Lack of Trust. If people have a well-built level of trust in the people making or leading or managing the change, they will be more likely to support it. If that trust is lacking, the change will surely be resisted.
  10. Poor Timing. You don’t always have control over this, but any time you can proactively keep change at a reasonable pace rather than piling on too much at once, things have a better chance of going smoothly.
  11. Natural Predisposition. Let’s face it, some people love the excitement and thrill of change while others absolutely hate it. Knowing where your people are at on the spectrum of predisposition towards change can give you a sneak peak at potential levels of resistance.

It should be clear from examining the above list that there are all kinds of things an organization can do to eliminate, lessen or manage the resistance that so often crops up with change – being clear about the objectives, getting people in the loop, considering timing carefully, keeping people informed, and so on. Much of this can be made clearer by making sure you adopt a clear model or framework for change – and there are plenty to choose from, which will be the subject of a future article.

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