It’s been almost 10 years since John Kotter published his excellent and well-respected Harvard Business Review article detailing his hypothesis and rationale for why change efforts fail. In his work, Kotter states that 60%-90% of all change efforts fail and the reasons for this failure rate is a combination of factors including:
- Organizations make unreasonable assumptions and don’t see the big picture of how change happens
- Middle management does not support the change
- Employees are resistant to change
- Change strategy, objectives and tactics lack clarity
During the last 10 years, one would have thought that leaders and organizations would have figured out how to make change work based on this research, other research, and other practical experiences. Unfortunately as we all know, change is more difficult now than it was 10 years ago for a number of reasons and factors. In conducting extensive research for the design and authoring of our new Change Leadership Business Simulation, we discovered why leading change efforts are still failing and it’s not what you think. Here are just three critical reasons why change efforts are still failing:
Inability to see hear the weak signals of change which prevent seeing the big picture
In an age of infinite information where you can Google anything, it is now easy to “see the big picture.” The big picture is in front of us 24/7 and we have the ability to take a snapshot whenever we want to. However, the big picture we see is a picture that is taken today and doesn’t provide the insights needed to see and understand tomorrow. There is an old saying that “Today is tomorrow’s yesterday” which is a pretty cool way of thinking about strategy and trends. The secret to successful change leadership is hearing the weak signals in the business ecosystem, making sense of them, and then creating the disruptive change that is going to share tomorrow.
Gaming the Change Game
Over the past 10 years people have listened and reacted to the change literature and have adapted their styles to be effective change leaders. One of the tenants of effective change leadership is called “managing expectations” where you are always totally transparent and communicate with people by acknowledging the realities and being transparent and authentic. Unfortunately, some leaders have taken this core change element and have interpreted this to mean something else. For the past few years I have heard very well-intentioned leaders state the following: “Oh I get it, if I under promise people and then over-deliver, then I am really doing an even better job of leading change…”
No, no, no.
Overpromising and under-delivering in the change leadership as a tactic is gaming the system which will lead to ineffective change and leadership. Think about what happens when (not if) people find out that you were less than authentic; you will lose their trust and the next time you are involved with change people won’t believe the way you are managing expectations or acknowledging reality.
Trying too Hard to Figure Out Ways of Preventing People from Leaving
One of the biggest fears leaders involved in a change initiative have is that their people will get upset and leave. So what do they do? They coddle them, the pacify them, and they give into them. All at the expense of the true change effort and other people in the organization or on the team. The recommendation here is very clear; either you find a way to get your people to become more resilient to change or you let them leave. Creating a culture of resiliency is all about being proactive, focused, flexible, organized, and positive. If your people threaten to leave because of change, why would you change your plans to keep them? You have just created a self-fulfilling prophesy of failure. If people can’t or won’t adapt to your changes, there is a good chance they are the wrong people anyway. As tough as that may sound, it is probably better for everyone if they exit and you find people with different skills, tools, and approaches.