Why Organizational Change Initiatives REALLY Fail

Burning MoneyPiles of books about organizational change, strategy, and leadership adorn management libraries, yet a satisfactory answer to the question “Why do change initiatives really fail?” remains elusive.

Management books are sometimes interesting and inspiring, but more frequently they are dull, confusing, and full of the author’s self-importance. Many of them are quite voluminous. For the benefit of our busy readers, as well as for my own clarity, I will attempt to provide a very brief summary of what I have learned from my consulting practice and the many books I have read in search of the answer to the question: Why do change initiatives REALLY fail and is there a simple way to avoid failure?

At the beginning of every organizational change initiative stands the realization that such change is desirable or even inevitable. Here we can use the old 5 Whys trick that follows the simple assumption that questioning subsequent answers leads to an ultimate answer, the so-called “root cause”. Let us put it to work:

  1. Q: Why do we need a change?
    A: Because our organization fails to deliver on its promise (whether that is a product or service) in its current state.
  2. Q: Why can’t it deliver?
    A: Because the employees…
    → a) cannot perform their work and/or
    → b) think they don’t have to actually perform their duties.
  3. Q: Why is that?
    A: Because they are detached (confused, generally frustrated, and worn out).
  4. Q: Why are they detached?
    A: Because they do not believe in the goals or do not have any tangible, achievable goals.
  5. Q: Why there are no goals?
    A: Because of a lack of leadership.

Remember that “leadership” is the ability to:

  • … define a goal,
  • … show others the way to achieve this goal,
  • … convince the organization that
    → the goal is valuable, and
    → the goal can be achieved,
  • … demonstrate long-term confidence until the original goal has been achieved.

Leadership must be a continuous activity; a lack of leadership often only becomes obvious later on.

What is the remedy? Finding the right executive (charismatic, skilled, expert in their field, influential, etc…) is an obvious aspect of the solution.

The other essential component, and arguably an even more important one, is defining the right goal. A goal is right when it is objectively credible. Without such a goal, no leadership is possible; i.e. you cannot lie your way through an organizational change. The leading executive must unconditionally believe in the company’s “product.”

Why believe in the product? Because leadership is about salesmanship. As a leader, you must sell the product to yourself, then to your team, customers, and a general audience. For that, two essential prerequisites must be considered:

  • If you want to sell it, then you must honestly believe in your product.
  • If you believe in your product, it truly and objectively must be worth it.

A simple organizational improvement meta-process, as I dare call it, is therefor as follows:

  • See if the company goal is objectively possible.
    → Analyze the market. What does your competition do?
    → Analyze competing products.
    → Define your future product.
  • Find a leader who
    → Has the leadership qualities.
    → Believes in the product.
  • Let the leader do their job.

This simple – maybe too obvious to attract attention – insight is helpful for finding the best solution to improving an organization: establish real leadership. That will prevent disastrous failures of organizational change initiatives.

Interestingly, there are cases where no distinctive leadership is required. It is a perilous simplification to generalize the need for leadership unconditionally. In certain cases, strong leadership is simply unnecessary or may even prove harmful. Bureaucratic organizations, for example, such as many government agencies or most insurance companies, find good management to be much more important than a disruptive, visionary leader. On rare occasions when such organizations must change, due to one-time mega-events such as disruptive legislative changes, an interim manager with the right leadership skills will do.

This implies that preservation, in certain cases, is a much more important value than innovation, and thus management skills can be more important than charismatic leadership abilities.

Thus, the very first question should always be: do we really (REALLY) need an organizational change at all? That is, however, stuff for a different article.


About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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