Change Management Failure, OD, and the connection to Uncertainty and Risk

I recently participated in a Linkedin discussion (Why Do 70% of All Change Efforts Fail?) on the disappointment that up to 70% of all change management efforts fail in some significant manner or other. I was intrigued for a number of reasons, one of which is that I have read and heard over the years about this seemingly consistent failure rate for change. In fact back in the early 1980,s when I was doing my EMBA my thesis covered this phenomena which not only covered OD type changes but also more business type changes (M&A, new product introductions, IT, new plant investments, etc.). To update my insights on this issue of failure rates in business strategy, I talked to a strategy consultant who I have much respect for. He confirmed that failure in one form or other is very common and blaming others also somewhat common. One ironical observation I have had is that even in the area of personal change, many efforts fail. I can’t recall any specific statistics on this failure rate, but it would not surprise me that it is in this general 70% ballpark too (Terina Allen in her comment below provides some interesting perspectives on failure rates for personal change efforts).

Failure seems to be a recurring experience.  It seems to be present in whatever field or endeavour we participate in. It seems to be present at quite high rates no matter how much smarter we have gotten. Yet, I do not see in the OD literature  or even business strategy literature an acknowledgement that this is the case. Mostly all literature that explores change failure “rails” against failure, often by blaming someone else (often the client or senior leadership). I have a general rule in life: if a phenomena exists over time with different players and within different contexts, then it is probably like gravity. It is a natural occurrence. A natural occurrence is one that happens because of the way nature works. Sanity means we accept and work with the fact. Insanity means we deny or even complain about it.

Perhaps we should just be able to celebrate the 30%. It is because we are as smart as we are that we get average success rates close to this value.

Yet, it is clear, if we accept this notion of common failure there are major implications to any of us who endeavour to make/manage change in one form or other.

  • Who among us wants to consistently embark on important efforts knowing that we statistically speaking are most likely to fail? How do we sell that to ourselves? How do we sell that to others? In fact many consultants promise to help clients do better. It would be interesting to see an independent scorecard on such parties.
  • Even though we are so much smarter/more knowledgeable now (compared to when I did my thesis) why can’t we fundamentally get much better at this? Is there something we have not learned yet that is critical? Is there something we consistently do that gets in the way we do change that we are not aware of?
  • What does it mean to succeed or fail? A common notion is to consider whether we get all the planned benefits, how much does it cost against our expectations/value propositions, how long does it take against our expectations/value propositions? Is this an adequate view on what success or failure looks like? Do we even contemplate that what we want to change was not a great idea in the first place (in other words, “It deserved to fail, thank goodness!”)?
  • Almost all change that we try involves “others” as customers, as employees, as suppliers, as stakeholders, etc. We typically view “pushback” by these “targets” as resistance, is this a helpful conceptual construct? When I did my thesis on change failure, the big topic in change management was how to overcome resistance, and it still seems to be a favourite topic along with noting how others (often senior leaderships’) fail to do what they ought/promised to do. We want something good – great to happen, when others are not as enthralled they become the problem, hmm!
  • We often say that we do our best personal learning through dealing with failure. We sometimes even apply this “failure leads to success” notion to organizations. How does this supposed wisdom relate to change management? Apply to change management going in, midway, and at the end? The irony, maybe even sarcasm, is of course we supposedly need failures in our lives. If so, what failure rate would make for a good learning environment (yes, some sarcasm here)?
  • etc.

For me the notion of success and failure can be a dynamic one. Going in we picture success as (benefits 1, 2, 3, …). Midway, after getting some sometimes sobering feedback we might be really happy if we just got benefits 1,2, 8 & 9. At the end, after seeing all that we had to deal with we realize that we scored really big because we got benefits 1, 8 and 17 (which wasn’t even on the original list of hoped for outcomes).

The other observation for regarding change is connected to my notion on what is at the heart of it. All change somewhere, somehow and at sometime affects someone. All change is social.

Yet, I have participated in many change related efforts (yes even on myself) where upon reflection I realize that I was using a mindset that viewed others in a very static manner. Static in the following ways:

  • Others were reactors in the change. They would respond to what we proposed. Yet we know that this is incorrect. Others do not see the world as we do. They have their own perspectives, often quite different than ours. Different perspectives mean they maybe acting out their change efforts too, even on us.
  • Ours was the only meaningful change effort going on, every other effort was secondary to the “targets”. Yet we know this is untrue as well. At anyone time all of us are dealing with many change demands on our time, bodies, minds and hearts. So we are always competing with urgent and emergent change efforts on others. AND, guess what, on us us too. One of the common finger pointing admonishments made towards sponsors and senior headers is that they do not stay consistent, true, or fully present during our change effort. Yet we know life is exhausting and all encompassing on everyone of our lives.
  • People can and often change their minds, even several times, on an issue. It makes sense that they do, otherwise no learning is taking place. I guess it is okay when it is about something other than our change effort though.
  • The source of almost all significant uncertainty in any change effort is those involved. There is nothing we can do that will fundamentally change that. Disagree, or ignore this observation, I offer up the following certain prediction: your change effort will fail more often than the 70%.

My central thesis here is that because we have people involved in change, we imbed uncertainty (NO, not risk) into our change management lives. People contribute to our uncertainties in the following venues:

  • They make the environment for change dynamic rather than static. Not only can people pushback, they can deflect, redirect, redefine, wrest ownership, as well as accept or reject our brilliant proposals. AND, the notion of dynamic means that this is not just a onetime event.
  • People will, for very sensible reasons to themselves, chose to be overt or covert in their reasons and motivations for what they do. AND, these can shift over time as well. So setting up a simple “for” and “against” spreadsheet is a recipe for self delusion. One painful lesson I have learned in life is that the more I suggest that people “should” (in a moral like sense) be for what I am advocating, the more likely they will go covert.
  • People cannot guarantee their commitments overtime. “SHIT HAPPENS” and when it does they (and we) will respond. AND, we should. Yet, I have not seen too many change management plans concerning sponsorship intelligently prepare for this. Why I do know? Because all to many comments on change failure blames someone for their lack of ongoing support. Maybe if the commentators were in the sponsor’s shoes they may find themselves acting much the same way. If a critical change effort is so at risk (YES risk not uncertainty) to fluctuations in sponsor support, then it is a vulnerable process to begin with. We should know by now (because of all the reports about its occurrence) that sponsorship support will be a varying commodity and we should learn how to deal with it going into the change effort.
  • Time and people! The longer a change effort is planned for, the greater the opportunities for the above mentioned vagaries to arise. Time is a variable that can be used when planning and undergoing change. Uncertainty has less chance to emerge or at least surprise us if we adopt shorter time frames in our change management activities.
  • Size and people! The more complex a change effort the more nuances it will have for those affected. Nuances introduce uncertainty as they often mean consequences for those impacted that we cannot foresee and anticipate. Simpler change efforts will likely have a narrower set of nuance impactions, more of which we can foresee and anticipate.
  • The “cast” in any meaningful change effort includes four sub cast groups: those directly impacted (i.e., targets); those on the sidelines  who influence and can choose to become interested and involved (and this can be a nightmare); other members of the change management team and their close associates; and of course, ourselves. these four groups and their members are a dynamic stew of varying involvements, motivations, capacity, distractions, etc. Remember, we often cannot anticipate others dynamic shifts (as noted above) but we often cannot even anticipate ours as well.

This is why I think of change management as an exercise of navigation, literally!

This is why I think that 30% success rate can reasonably be viewed as almost miraculous. A testimony to the skills fortitude, and generosity of those who pursue, support and accept change.



About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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One Response to Change Management Failure, OD, and the connection to Uncertainty and Risk

  1. Terina Allen says:

    Sheer brilliance Mark! I mean it. Your post here should be mandatory reading for all change navigators. That is it – after reading this post, I don’t know that we should even be calling it change management. You have me rethinking that! Would it not be more fitting to call the entire discipline change navigation or navigating change, and we, the practitioners, are change navigators.

    When you consider all the dynamics, uncertainties and risks associated with any event, our goal is to navigate through as successfully as we can (to achieve/realize as many beneficial outcomes as we can for the organization, the team, the culture, the leaders, etc.).

    You are right on point – the fail rate is exceedingly high for many ventures and factors (personal and professional) that involve human dynamics. The typical success rates are extremely low, around 5 to 10 percent, for most change – especially anything that requires a change in human behavior or addictive behaviors (which is nearly everything!). For example, human beings are pressed to even reach a 10 percent success rate in areas such as diet, weight loss, drug and alcohol use, exercise, etc. These things fail at substantially higher rates than organizational change management.

    So then why aren’t we celebrating that 30 percent more. That is the message. Yes, we can and should strive to improve, but we need to be aware that this is a “natural occurrence,” by which celebration needs to be had for the high percentage that we actually do realize given the myriad factors you address! We also have to consider the time, scope and cast like you discuss and factor that in to what we define as success and failure. Also, all failure is not bad. I have been researching and writing on that topic lately.

    You give so many great insights in this article; I feel that it deserves its own workshop for discussion, dialogue and debate. But this statement “I feel that People cannot guarantee their commitments overtime. “SHIT HAPPENS” and when it does they (and we) will respond. AND, we should” is a good start. Marriages fail. Relationships fail. Diets fail. Drug and alcohol programs fail. Financial management and savings fail. All things that involve human beings fail because human beings are so very dynamic. And because human beings are so very dynamic, “our notion of success or failure needs to be too.”

    Wow, sheer brilliance Mark. You certainly had me engrossed in the read and have changed my perspective on the whole concept.

    Thank you for that!

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