Why Change Can Fail
Knowing What Not to Do
There's no denying it – change is tough!
When thinking about change, we often look for "how to" tips: how do you start a change process? How do you engage people in change? How do you make sure you follow through on your change plans?
With something as complex as change, forward-thinking "how-tos" are usually only half of the picture. So don't just ask how change succeeds, ask why it fails: tis can offer valuable lessons as well!
Look back on a recent change initiative. Have you ever caught yourself saying, "We should have done this." or "If only we'd done that."? If yes, you can probably appreciate exploring change from a failure perspective. There are so many variables to consider in any change project – and so many things that can go wrong!
So let's consider "what goes wrong." Learning from experience is very powerful, and it's worth applying the lessons from other people's mistakes before you start down the path of change.
Here are seven main reasons that change can fail.
Change Can Fail Because...
1. It's Not Compelling
Change needs a clear and valid reason. Don't "push it through" – it's much better to convince people that it's important and urgent – only that way can you get a clear commitment from others. To ensure that you have a solid foundation to build a change movement, identify the reasons for the change.
- What conditions create the need for change?
- What are the underlying causes?
- Have you identified and made a case for the change?
- Have you identified the one crucial reason for the change?
Do the necessary work up-front to gain people's commitment and build their desire to see the change through to its completion.
Get the right people on board, and start with a clear rationale and well-defined objectives. Kotter's 8-Step Change Model calls this the need to create a sense of urgency. After all, it's normal human nature to resist change unless you see a clear reason for it.
For detailed ideas on figuring out where change needs to happen, see the Burke-Litwin Change Model. This gives you a framework for understanding the dynamics of organizational change, and for applying it to your situation.
2. It's Not Required
Change cannot be an option. People often don't want to change, and they often won't, unless they have good reason to. This means that top management must commit wholeheartedly to the change, and they should accept nothing less from everyone else.
- Do your company's leaders openly support the change?
- Do they "walk the talk" and do as they say?
- Do they demand commitment to change?
- Do you have a way to measure staff engagement and participation?
Asking people to change isn't enough – it needs to be a requirement.
3. It's Not Communicated
You can demand change and create a convincing reason for it, but you also need excellent communication. Many people may, for good reasons, prefer the status quo – they'd rather leave things as they are. So make sure that the reason for change is frequently and effectively communicated.
- Do your company leaders talk about the change with passion?
- Do they express the vision associated with the change?
- Do they focus on what's in it for individuals, as well as the overall rationale?
Design communication to win people over. Be sure to address the reasons not to change – if allowed, they may become more important than the reasons to proceed.
The idea of the change curve suggests that support for change usually rises slightly at first, then drops down before heading back up again. Fear, anger, and resentment are common at this lower stage, and there's a decrease in commitment. Open, honest, and sincere communication can play a large role in getting past this.
4. It Doesn't Involve the Right People
Leaders are important to change. But many other people are also critical to pushing forward the change process. To avoid an "us verus them" mindset, seek change agents throughout your organization.
- Are the people expected to execute the change also involved in the planning stages?
- Do you seek their opinions for implementation ideas?
- Do you use insiders to implement the change?
- Do you use managers and supervisors to help win support for the process?
- Do you engage informal and formal leaders (Kotter's coalition for change) in the process?
Look throughout your organization. Identify the people who are most affected by the change as well as individuals who are in a position to champion the change. By combining these forces, you can effectively convince people that the change is aligned with their personal agendas.
5. The Implementation Is Poorly Planned
You may prepare people perfectly. However, unless your change plan is workable and effective, it probably won't be successful. The road to change has many obstacles, so your planning has to be as thorough as possible.
- Have you considered the impact on people – not just on finances and operations?
- Does your methodology fit your business?
- Does your methodology fit your corporate culture?
- What reward systems (bonuses, recognition, feedback, scorecards) can you use to support the change?
- What are your contingency plans, in case things go wrong or need adjustments?
- Do you have enough resources?
- What are the consequences of the change to other parts of your organization?
- What is the cultural impact of the change? What should you adjust to support the change?
- Is your approach flexible enough to survive the unexpected and inevitable problems?
- Do you know when to stop talking and start doing?
Lewin's Change Management Model shows change as a three-stage process:
- Unfreeze (prepare the organization for change).
- Change (help people embrace change).
- Refreeze (help the changes settle in and become the new reality).
Look at your planning and implementation from this perspective. This may help you see the bigger picture and keep your vision, despite the struggles you face.
6. Success Takes Too Long to Arrive
Success can motivate. For people to keep going through the pain of change, it helps to have some obvious "wins" spread throughout the change process. Include some ways to achieve a few key results early in your implementation plan.
7. There's Too Little Follow-through
Change projects usually get lots of attention up front, but then they can fade out well before completion. If done well, change can create lots of buzz and excitement. Then, if you have some quick wins, the momentum can build.
However, this is when change leaders can get lazy. They may consider their work done and move onto the next project, or they may get bored with the humdrum activities of implementation, and lose focus on the things that are important. Don't let this happen! Follow through to the end, and make sure your plan is implemented.
- Who is responsible for follow-through?
- Is there a clear project manager whose job is to see the project to completion?
- What is your plan to ensure that victory isn't declared too soon?
- Are the change agents as motivated and passionate as the leaders? Have the leaders given the responsibility for passion to other people?
- Have you thought about ways to keep high levels of commitment and determination?
Many of the reasons that change fails can be "turned around" to make change work. Be aware of both sides of the issue, and you can better prepare for the challenge of change.
See our articles on Change Management to learn how to manage the change process from start to finish. You'll find tips on what change involves, who should participate, and how to build an effective change process. This article, and the others mentioned above, will help you prepare for the changes you need to implement.
It isn't easy to lead or participate in change, and change can fail for many reasons.
Understand what contributes to success – and learn what contributes to failure, so you'll know what to avoid. Then you'll have a more well-rounded and comprehensive approach to planning and preparation. That's really the key to a successful change.