It happens time and again. I’m sure you’ve either witnessed it or suffered through it — the failed attempt of a large change at an organization. Maybe it was with a new process or switching over to a new technology. Maybe it was a change to the structure or the metrics. Whatever it was, it was difficult and painful for everyone involved. The people who were impacted by it will not soon forget. If you were the one that was trying to implement the change, the tinge of failure is salt in the wound after all your hard work. All your dedication and efforts to try and make a great improvement — and for what?
If this has happened to you, it’s time to do some reflecting to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Allow yourself to be brutally honest and analytical. If you haven’t yet, ask for feedback. This is incredibly important because, with each failure, the inertia of change grows. People may be less willing to buy in as they lose trust in the ability to change. And while the result isn’t always so bleak, if you’re not learning from your failures, then you’re doing yourself (and those around you) a major disservice.
Why do so many initiatives fail — even with what we feel like is proper execution? Why does change continue to be so hard? With the amount of change we’re adapting to all the time, you think we’d be more amenable to it. But we’re not. Humans generally don’t like change and we’ll go out of our way to resist it. We’ll stay in jobs we hate, cities we loathe, and with people who don’t treat us the way we deserve. We’ll continue our relationships with archaic technologies that don’t scale, outdated policies that make everyone’s life tough, and strategies that got us to where we are thinking they’ll take us to the next level. Why?
At the end of the day, it’s easier to not change. Change is the unknown, and that’s scary. What if things go sideways and it’s even worse than it is now? WHAT IF WE CAUSE THE APOCALYPSE? But what if things were…better? While this article will focus on reasons organizational changes fail, if you’re interested in getting a different perspective on change in general, I’d recommend Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson.
Here are some of the top reasons I’ve seen initiatives fail time and again.
1. You didn’t have (or provide) the right motivations.
Why are you proposing this specific initiative? Why is this the change that we need? If you don’t know, no one else will either. Make sure your reasons are the right ones. I’ve seen organizations change for the wrong reasons, it’s really painful to both watch and participate in. Even if it succeeds because it can be forced, no one likes it, or wants it, and you ultimately lose a ton of leadership capital, and potentially great employees. In order to get others motivated, determine how they can benefit and create your argument around that. Focus on how it helps them. Why they should want to help this initiative happen. Data works wonders here, but so does appealing to employees’ emotions.
2. You didn’t evangelize it (enough).
How do you expect people to properly follow through with something they don’t know about? People have a lot of other things going on and the most important thing in your mind is probably not the most important thing to them. Get ready to talk about the same thing multiple times. Do it in different ways so it has the potential to reach more of your audience. Go to various team huddles to talk about it. Bring it up in the leader meetings. Talk at any venue where you can get just a couple of minutes to cover the why, when, and how. Remember that you shouldn’t just be talking about it, you should be inspiring people. And when you think you’ve evangelized it enough, do it more. Chances are, there will always be someone listening for the first time, whether they’ve attended a previous session or not. And to spark their interest, make sure you’re telling a story! Start with the problem or current state, then go to what’s been tried before and failed, then go to your solution. Especially in larger (or poorly communicating) companies, you’ll notice a lot of people don’t really understand what the change is for, what the plan is, etc. It’s kind of like playing the Telephone game. This is also how detractors might be created. Get to know your detractors and work with them to mitigate their concerns — especially if they’re an influencer (see reason #4). You can use their feedback to specially craft any future communications and get ahead of any damage control you might need to perform.
3. It wasn’t the right change.
Does the proposed change actually solve the problem at hand? How can you be sure? If you need some exploratory methods, you can try a proof of concept (POC). From there, you might decide to do a pilot. Both can be incredible assets in determining if your solution is the right one and how it can be improved. Learning the pitfalls is equally important as identifying what works because it helps you iterate and improve the ultimate result. If the first solution you proposed doesn’t work, reflect on why. Did you not do enough research? Was the downfall obvious? Or should you have done the POC in the first place to really find out?
4. You didn’t get buy-in from the influencers.
Everyone is influencing everyone else in some way, shape, or form. Who is your key audience or those most impacted by the change? Who do they listen to and trust the most? If you don’t know, then you’ve already done yourself a disservice. Find out. Build up relationships with them before you need them to love your new idea. If you’re not sure how to do that, I wrote this article previously. If the influencers say nice things about what you’re trying to do (especially to others), then you’ll most likely have a much easier time getting buy-in from everyone else. Additionally, incorporate these people into your strategy group. Finding like-minded individuals who are passionate about the initiative will be to your benefit. And when they contribute, make sure you give them credit — especially publicly. Not only does this show that you can be trusted to share the rewards, but it positively reinforces their help.
5. You didn’t collaborate.
We’ve probably all been there — you hear about a change coming that doesn’t make any sense. It actually does the opposite of what it’s intended to do. Why? Because no one consulted with the subject matter experts or people that it impacts. Sometimes, even just a single conversation with a knowledgeable person would have set the solution on a different path — a better path. Maybe it’s due to ego, inability to delegate, or some other weakness, but this never goes well. It is important to get different perspectives in order for a change to succeed.
6. You didn’t have easily navigable references or reminders.
I get it. Very few people like to create documentation. But this is a non-negotiable of any successful change. How can people know what to expect or follow through if they don’t know what to do or where to go to find it? You need to make it as easy as possible to review documentation or else very few will put in the effort to find it. Don’t bury it five clicks in, come up with a catchy name for the initiative so there’s an assumed word or phrase to search for in your company’s knowledge base. Paste a link to it everywhere, throw it into your internal email signature if you need to, do whatever it takes for everyone to know where it is and for it to be incredibly accessible. Then make sure the documentation is readable, easy to follow, and captivating (enough). Make sure there are as many pictures and images as is reasonable instead of large blocks of text.
7. The process was overly complex.
Let Occam’s Razor be your guide, which states that the simplest answer is usually the right one. Regardless, you may want to have trainings on the new changes. Make sure that as much as feasible, the employees impacted are motivated to follow the process. This could take on a few different looks, whether it’s financially motivated, or quality of life at work, etc. You must make sure it is easy for the adopters to take part in.
8. You didn’t communicate to your colleagues in leadership OR leadership doesn’t (really) support it.
You’re ready to release the change. Your organization is aligned and rearing to go. But what about the others? Have you talked to the leaders and team members of the other parts of the business? Will this change impact them, even if not directly? It’s one thing for the leaders to say “yes, this is good” and another for them to really understand and have the conviction to support it, and to have their org prepare for the change as well. People are smart. If their leaders don’t show that the change is important to them, they’ll notice. This will either cause confusion or conflict or both.
9. There was poor planning/execution.
Arbitrary deadlines can cause the most well-intentioned change to fail. There needs to be thought and reason behind the execution timeline, with a little buffer to account for when things don’t go as planned, people get sick/take vacation time, etc. But aside from the actual planning and performance, it’s possible that this just isn’t the right time for the change. Maybe there are aspects of the company culture that just aren’t ready for it, maybe there’s no leadership buy-in, and maybe the budget won’t allow for it. When you’re thinking about making a large organizational change, you need to think about the cultural, political, and technical landscape. Put yourself in the shoes of all the departments this would impact and think of what message this will send them. Make sure you’re able to cultivate the conversations in the light you’re trying to shine. If you’re having trouble with thinking through the problem, V2MOMs are useful.
10. The value wasn’t properly represented.
Define key data points and measure them before and after the change. It’s important that the metrics chosen aren’t vanity or fluff. I’ve worked in organizations where the metrics either didn’t make sense (calculations were wrong, etc.) or they didn’t actually measure the right things to prove their point. People can see through this, and it creates a distrust of leadership, of the system, and you lose buy-in on the change because people can tell it doesn’t really matter. After the change occurs, review the data. If they didn’t change how you expected them to, maybe you didn’t choose the right path after all. But if there’s a significant difference, you have some major evidence that your change was effective. And it will most likely be a lot easier to get support for the next change you want to lead.
Is successful organizational change even possible?!
Yes! But keep in mind that these kinds of things are difficult. Many leaders and companies struggle with this, especially if they’re used to just telling people what to do from a top-down approach. Now, many companies are working in a more employee-empowered environment, which can be a new experience for some. You can do this! Chances are, you won’t get the change 100% right the first time. You’ll most likely need to make tweaks and adapt. This is normal, so don’t get discouraged. And remember that not every failure has to define you, but every failure is a chance to grow.