Managing change is one of the most fundamental skills you need to succeed in an organization. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a private, a public or a non-governmental organization. Every time you want to launch a new product or service into the market, introduce a new IT system or just convince people to stick to a new process, you need change management skills. This is why in this blog post we summarize the top 12 reasons why change management initiatives fail and provide you some best practices on how to fix them.
As a professional, it is likely you have been part of a wide range of change initiatives during your career. A change initiative can be any attempt to initiate organizational change - from new products on the market to changes in workflows. Change initiatives require management - however, not all change management initiatives are successful. Most probably you have had the chance to see some of these initiatives fail first hand. Have you ever wondered why they failed and why it was not possible to make the intended change?
When you dig deep enough, you will find a wide range of root causes that are unique to the specific change initiative that failed. Once you collect information about all those root causes, you should cluster them into categories with similar themes you will get valuable insights into why change initiatives fail in general. While this collection won't tell you in detail how to prevent a change initiative from failing, it will at least provide you with some guidance on what to consider in order to keep it on track next time.
We collected the - from our point of view - twelve most important reasons why change initiatives fail. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. However, it reflects our extensive experience in the area of change management in practice and combines it with insights from social science about how to avoid such failures in the first place.
You tell people what to do rather than why they should do it
Do you want to be told by somebody else what you have to do? Most probably you don't. There is a good reason for that: Most people enjoy doing things when they are intrinsically motivated to do them. Intrinsic motivation refers to a relaxed willingness to act with full and unconflicted approval (Ryan and Deci, 2000). This is also reflected in the four basic psychological needs autonomy and competence which are one of the building blocks of self-determiniation theory (Deci et al., 1989). Instead of telling people what to do, you need to get them buy-in to your change initiative.
How to fix it:
Don’t tell people what they have to do, but rather tell them why the change initiative you are implementing is important for the organization. Ask them what they think is the most appropriate approach from their point of view to achieve the desired change objective. In some cases, it makes sense to define different action areas that provide some focus on how to implement the change initiative. However, don’t get caught in micro-managing others.
You didn’t convince people of why the change initiative makes sense
How many of the change initiatives you have been part of during your professional career made sense, from your point of view? How many of them were driven by individual interests (e.g. from top management, single departments) rather than the desire to add value to the overall organization? Organizations are busy places with a lot of activities going on simultaneously. Resources are scarce and there is fierce competition about who can utilize them to get things done. This also applies to your change initiative. If people cannot get a clear answer about why your change initiative makes sense, it will not be of high priority to them.
How to fix it: Point out the benefits associated with your change initiative for the whole organization and for every individual. Draw an inspiring picture of the future of your organization that relies on the change initiative being implemented. Discuss the “why” with key professionals, managers and change agents in your organization. Create appealing stories from those discussions and share it with other people.
You want to achieve too much in too little time
Organizational change won’t happen overnight. Of course, you can achieve quick wins by pushing a change initiative through, but I can assure you that it will not be sustainable. Once the pressure to stick to the new processes, systems, guidelines etc. eases, people will start to fall back into old patterns. It gets even worse when your change initiative doesn’t have a well-defined scope but covers everything and nothing at the same time. This especially applies when impatient stakeholders push you to deliver more in less time. Change initiatives led by external management consultants are also prone to fail due to a lack of sustainability.
How to fix it: Start with your change initiative early enough. Make sure your change initiative has a well-defined scope and a realistic timeline. Formulate and align the desired future state with all relevant stakeholders. Actively address what your change initiative won’t cover and cannot achieve. Regularly align with your stakeholders about your change initiatives progress and results.
You don’t consistently use an easy-to-understand rationale of change and a measurable objective
How many of the change initiatives conducted by your organization do you remember? Do you remember their name and why they were implemented? Did the change initiative achieve what it was intended to? Many change initiatives lack an easy-to-understand rationale of change and a measurable objective. Often, even if there is a rationale and objective, they are not consistently used or invoked in communication. Project names are changed on a regular basis, key stakeholders don’t stick to the agreed-upon communication guidelines and there is no supporting change communication that conveys the change rationale in an easy and appealing way. Change objectives lack a clear definition and can hardly be measured.
How to fix it: Document the change initiative’s objective and create a corresponding communication guideline. Make sure it is well-known and committed to by all relevant stakeholders. Define easy-to-understand and easy-to-measure metrics that can be used to evaluate whether you are on the right track with your implementation efforts. Use insights from goal-setting theory (Locke and Latham, 2002) to guide you through this process.
You lack top management support for your change initiative
Do you have top management support for your change initiative? What does this support look like? Is there real action behind it or is it merely lip service? Top management usually consists of very busy people who must keep the organization running and who must develop it to the next level. Your question must be whether your change initiative is considered part of those high-profile efforts or whether it is only seen as one of the countless organization-related activities that need to get done. It gets even more tricky when expectations are high regarding your change initiative, but you lack support from the C-Suit.
How to fix it: Actively address the fact that the very success of your change initiative depends on whether you get the right amount of top management support or not. Come up with specific suggestions what such support efforts could look like: You could ask for a project sponsor, a regular project steering committee which gives you access to the top decision makers, or conduct town-hall meetings with a top management Q&A session.
Your change management initiative lacks inspiring leadership
There is a considerable body of evidence showcasing that sound leadership plays an important role in managing change . This especially applies to transformational and charismatic leadership. Both leadership approaches rely on guidance through inspiration and a strong focus on the individual. Another important leadership success factor is future orientation (Seijts, 1998). Your change initiative is not about preserving the status-quo. It is about reaching and inspiring and ambiguous shared goal as a result of combined team effort.
How to fix it: Learn the basics of transformational leadership (Bass, 1999) with a focus on the four “Is” individualized consideration, inspirational motivation, idealized influence, and intellectual stimulation. Staff your team with people with strong leadership skills. Inspire people by drawing an attractive picture of the future that will be a result of successfully implementing your change initiative.
You lack bottom-up support for your change initiative
Do you have the feeling that enough people who are directly affected by your change initiative do support it? If not, why do you think they don’t support it? A lot of change initiatives fail because they lack bottom-up support. Failure also refers to a lack of sustainability of your change efforts. Please keep in mind that there is no way to compensate a lack of bottom-up support with top management power. In most cases, it will make things even worse when you push for resistance even though people are more or less openly opposing your change initiative.
How to fix it: Involve people who are concerned by your change initiative from the very beginning. Make sure their opinions are heard and your decision-making process is transparent and fair. Identify key people that support your change efforts and ask them whether they want to actively support your initiative as change agents. This also involves a shared leadership approach.
You ignore change resistance as an important source of learning
How do you deal with change resistance? Do you just tell people that they should stick to what you tell them and give-up their resistance? This is of course one approach to deal with change resistance. In some individual cases it might also work out. However, when you experience change resistance on a considerable scale (e.g. some important key people don’t embrace your change initiative, or a considerable part of the organization doesn’t support it) it can seriously backfire to ignore signs of change resistance or even to try to break it.
How to fix it: First, focus on not changing people but changing contexts. Once processes, procedures, roles and responsibilities are defined ,it is much easier to get people to stick to it. Second, try to understand why people are resisting your change efforts. People don’t do things just for the sake of it. There is usually a reason for actions. Your job is to understand that reason and to learn from it.
You push too hard and don’t recognize signs of organizational exhaustion
Change initiatives can take a considerable amount of time and energy. Depending on your personality traits, you might try to push the organization to its limit while achieving one of your change milestones after the other. While this is a strong sign of progress and it might give you a sense of accomplishment, it might put a considerable strain upon other people in your organization. You’ll most probably see your absenteeism rate skyrocketing and job satisfaction plummeting. Once your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) show a picture of organizational exhaustions, it is just a matter of time until there will be the first cases of burnout (Maslach and Leiter, 2008).
How to fix it: Watch for signs of stress and a high level of workload over a long period of time in your organization. Celebrate successes and provide social support to your team. Define realistic milestones and keep the organization informed about the progress. Don’t blame people when things don’t turn out as expected. This puts another unnecessary strain on your organization.
You are not adjusting your plan to upcoming developments
Many change initiatives don’t work out as planned but take unexpected turns. This especially applies to complex change endeavors with many different variables involved. While it still pays-off having an implementation plan and schedule on hand, it is equally important to update it based on how things evolve over time. In a VUCA world you need an agile mindset to succeed. Otherwise reality will overtake your plan and eventually your change initiative will fail.
How to fix it: Don’t create one plan but create a set of scenarios that take into consideration that things might work out differently. Stay involved with your frontline team and watch for signals the require you to reconsider you planning. Apply an agile approach that allows you to change things as you go.
You don’t care (enough) about organizational politics
Depending on how well you manage it, organizational politics can be a cure or a blessing. There is just one thing for sure: Your change initiative will be part of the game and thus you need to have politics and power on the radar. As mentioned earlier, organizations are very much about resources, priorities and power. Your change initiative can only succeed when you use your political skills (Munyon et al., 2015) to actively take part in this competition.
How to fix it: Hammer out coalitions for your change initiative. Try to understand who the most important stakeholders concerned by your change initiative are and keep them involved and informed. Don't get caught in political infights but stay neutral by focusing on the benefits your change initiative yields for the entire organization.
You are not taking your organization's culture into consideration
Every organization is unique. This is reflected in the stories told by employees, the language used to communicate with each other, the rituals conducted to celebrate success and cope with setbacks, and many more cultural variables. You won’t succeed with your change initiatives if you don’t account for those cultural variables in your implementation approach. In the short run, you might even reach one or another milestone with sufficient top-management support. However, you won’t be able to get into the DNA of the organization, which is the key to truly make your changes stick.
How to fix it: Before you start with your change initiative, try to understand how the organization works by asking the following questions:
How do people talk to each other?
Which stories do they tell you?
What are people proud of?
Which rituals are common in the organization?
What is the heartbeat of the organization (e.g. projects, products, services, systems)
Structure your change initiative in a way such that it is compatible with the organizational culture. Connect it to the stories told in the organization, make it part of the rituals important to people, and use an implementation approach that utilizes the organization’s heartbeat.
References and further reading
Bass, B. M. (1999) ‘Two Decades of Research and Development in Transformational Leadership’, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 9–32.
Deci, E. L., Connell, J. P., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 4, 580-590.
Locke, E. A. and Latham, G. P. (2002) ‘Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey’, American Psychologist, vol. 57, no. 9, pp. 705–717.
Maslach, C. and Leiter, M. P. (2008) ‘Early predictors of job burnout and engagement’, The Journal of applied psychology, vol. 93, no. 3, pp. 498–512.
Munyon, T. P., Summers, J. K., Thompson, K. M. and Ferris, G. R. (2015) ‘Political Skill and Work Outcomes: A Theoretical Extension, Meta-Analytic Investigation, and Agenda for the Future’, Personnel Psychology, vol. 68, no. 1, pp. 143–184.
Ryan and Deci (2000) ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions’, Contemporary educational psychology, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 54–67.
Seijts, G. H. (1998) ‘The Importance of Future Time Perspective in Theories of Work Motivation’, The Journal of Psychology, vol. 132, no. 2, pp. 154–168.
Markus is one of the founders of CQ Net - Management skills for everyone!. He holds a Master and Doctoral Degree from the Technical University of Vienna and a MSc in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, University of London. Being a dedicated "Knowledge Worker", Markus has continued his career with various private sector assignments in the management consulting, automotive and mechanical engineering industry.