Why Do So Many Change Management Initiatives Fail?

Claire Schooley
December 30, 2012

The data shows that 70% of corporate change efforts either totally fail, have lukewarm results, or the change never becomes an integral part of the company culture. As I talk to clients about their change efforts, what’s worked and what hasn’t, some clear patterns emerge.

  • Change is not an event — it’s a process. You make plans for the executive to announce the change to employees. The executive talks about why it’s important for the company to make the change, what the change will look like, and the assistance the company will provide employees during this transformation process. The executive responds to employee questions and recommends that employees discuss any additional questions with their managers. A thoughtful speech, well delivered with empathy around challenges of change . . . it’s good, but it’s not enough. The executives have been thinking about and planning this transformation for weeks or months and know it well. The employees are hearing about the change for the first time, in this hour-long, all-hands company presentation. Anxiety, shock, and fear are typical reactions. Rather than this one-time announcement, make sure executives explain that today’s meeting is the first of many that will be held periodically using different media (web, in-person, email, social network, etc.) to provide updates and answer questions. Remember, half the audience may have heard nothing beyond the statement that major change is going to happen. Fear set in and they began to think about how this change will affect them.
  • Make sure the urgency of the change is communicated. The change management guru John Kotter says, “[An error companies make is] not establishing a great enough sense of urgency.” Employees ask the question, “Why are we doing this?” They must understand why the change must happen, why it’s crucial to the business, customers, etc., and what the dangers are if the change is not made. Unless employees are motivated, they will not get on board with the change. If, for example, the CFO explains the decline in revenue and customer base, employees will more likely cooperate, because they know that a continued slide will affect their employment.
  • Employees must go through the four phases of change. These are 1) holding on, 2) resisting, 3) exploring, and 4) committing. You should expect this four-phase transition curve for business change management initiatives, know that it will take time, and don’t try to skip steps — employees need to go through each stage, but guard against getting stuck in any phase, especially the resisting stage. Provide support needed for employees to move on. At the beginning, employees will hold on to what they have and will not change, then they resist. There will be fear triggered by questions like: “Am I going to be as successful as in the past?” and “Will I keep my job as a result of the change?” Then employees  start exploring but probably negatively; finally, they accept and move forward when they see that the change is working.

Do these change patterns resonate with you? Have you seen other patterns?  Let me know what your experiences have been with change efforts — especially dealing with resistance.

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