Five (predictable) reasons change initiatives fail

Organizations must be able to change to stay alive. But most change efforts, no matter how sincerely attempted, fail.

Here are five reasons why change fails:

  1. Solving the “wrong” problem.

“Solutions” only work if they solve the right problem. And identifying the right problem to solve isn’t always as easy as it seems. Even though the desired outcomes for a change initiative may seem straightforward, the organizational problems that are fueling the need for change are often elusive. Identifying these problems requires high-quality, “courageous” conversations. People must be able to raise sensitive issues, give and receive honest (and sometimes difficult) feedback, question long-held assumptions and test hypotheses together. If they can’t do this, they won’t arrive at shared understanding about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Many teams don’t have the skills or resolve to have these kinds of conversations. Instead they end up designing “solutions” that by-pass real problems. The company may commit tons of organizational time and resources to work-arounds that look like solution but that don’t actually work. There may be some incremental improvement (just focusing executive attention often gives a temporary performance boost), but the same or similar problems always resurface., along with renewed cynicism about “yet another failed change initiative.”

  1.  Manufacturing disengagement

When senior executives feel the pressure to change now, the temptation is to just figure out what needs to change and then make it happen. Even in “participatory” organizations, change often still ends up being designed, planned and rolled out by a small subset of folks. Who then push the change down to the rank and file. With predictable results. 


Let’s say you really want to learn something new or to change something in your life—you’ll put your whole self into it, right? It’s your life, your future, your change, so you keep moving forward despite set backs, despite days of discouragement.

Now imagine that somebody comes along and tells you that a steering team made up of smart folks (not including you) has gotten together and determined that you need to start thinking and behaving differently because they have figured out what is wrong with your work and what you need to change. Right now. There are some people who simply want to be told what to do, but most don’t. For all but the most simple changes it just doesn’t work.

Real engagement is non-assignable and non-transferable. It requires designing a change process in which the actual people who are expected to change can participate and experience a sense of personal investment in the game. It does take more time and planning up front, but going slower up front enables the organization to go much faster and farther later on.

  1. Confusing resistance with commitment.

Let’s say you are working hard to effect the change mandated from on high. You want to change and help the company but instead of enthusiasm, all you feel is anxiety, resentment, perhaps even despair. Ironically these experiences are an expression of commitment.

But managers (and most consultants) interpret these experiences as resistance. And the typical reaction is to try to make it go away, to fight it, to resist the resistance. As in…

Buying it off – with bonuses, incentive packages or promotions

Scaring it away – with overt or buried threats and mixed messages to the effect that “you’re either with us or your against us”

Talking it away – explaining why the change is necessary and how good it will be for the company, the employees and even the customers (this may all be true, but it rarely helps)

Some of these management tactics may alleviate symptoms, but overall they don’t work. Instead, they drive the so-called “resistant” emotions and behaviors underground and increase the sense of distrust, fear and cynicism about change. It makes the problem worse.

So now you’ve got two problems–the original problem (the one the change initiative was intended to address), and the problem of employee disengagement, distrust and the cynicism that goes with it. And a new “us/them” arms race with management turning up the pressure in response to employees ratcheting up “the resistance.” (see #1, above – “Solving the wrong problem”).

People rarely “resist” change just to resist—they’re not trying to undermine or thwart the organization. They’re just trying to retain a healthy sense of control in their lives, to handle the discomfort of uncertainty and change. They are expressing an understandable desire to feel included, valued and respected. In biological terms, this is called homeostasis—a organism’s healthy response to circumstances it perceives as potentially threatening (even if the changes are for the better). In fact, the managers and consultants who are leading the change have identical concerns, but because they are “in control” of the change, they generally don’t feel as threatened in the process.

4. Conflicting commitments.

Let’s say that your company’s new change initiative aims to generate new sources of revenue growth. One of the prongs of this initiative is to have every agent in the Tech Support department up-sell or cross-sell opportunities with the customers they help. Makes total sense to leverage all of those customer encounters into new sales opportunities, right? It’s obvious that the agents will need some sales training. And of course, they’ll need some metrics and performance targets to monitor how they’re doing. So management launches the initiative, creates a new performance dashboard, kicks off the training and…the new sales aren’t happening. Management did everything “right,” but its not working.

What management didn’t recognize was that in order for the agents to be successful at generating new sales opportunities, it would (they believe) require them to less successful in doing their “real” job, which is resolving the customer’s technical problems as quickly as possible, documenting the interaction appropriately for the knowledge base, and so on. After all, that what they were originally hired and trained to do, and more importantly, its what their boss, the VP of Technical Support, evaluates and compensates them for. Sure they’d like to help generate revenue for the company, but taking the time to do that would actually diminish their performance in their real job. While their boss understands and supports the idea of revenue growth, the last thing she is willing to do is compromise her department’s performance (and her own executive performance and bonus) in the process.

There are literally countless examples of these types of conflicting commitments. Scratch the surface of most disappointing change initiatives (and most organizational performance problems) and you’ll find one or more conflicting commitments within and between an organization’s…

•   Business objectives, metrics, compensation and incentive plans
•   Hiring, orienting and training programs
•   Stated cultural values and actual behaviors, beliefs, policies and processes

As with the other reasons outlined here, identifying conflicting commitments within the organization requires a high degree of “conversational competence.” When leadership conversations inhibit candor, sidestep around sensitive issues, or don’t encourage collaborative reflection about real problems, commitments that may conflict with one another never get addressed. They remain hidden and then leaders wonder why their change efforts flounder.

5. Leading with impatience.

When change is driven by impatience, the first organizational casualty is focus. Except in the simplest types of change efforts, it takes time for people throughout the organization to absorb and integrate the new thinking, understanding and behaviors required for successful change. Pushing for immediate results forces people into a short-term mindset, which spawns incomplete and rushed conversations, short-sighted metrics, unrealistic targets and defensiveness. It inhibits the ongoing assessment, reflection and course-correction (learning) that must be built in to any successful change effort. Leading with high standards and a sense of urgency is important, but that’s not the same as leading with impatience. Usually, moving too quickly slows you down.

Welcome to the typical change initiative. These are five ways that most change efforts actually generate and reinforce the very behaviors that the change leaders try so hard to avoid. Because many of these patterns are embedded within the organization’s culture, they can be difficult to observe from the inside, much less to change.

This is why we say that the most important leadership skill is the capacity to design and manage effective conversations. Because good conversations are where learning happens. It’s where leaders build shared vision about the future and make good decisions. It’s where they make meaningful commitments to one another and manage those commitments in ways that build engagement, trust and confidence. It’s where collaborative change and leadership happens.


January 17, 2015 by Grayson James

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