10 Reasons Organizational Change Fails… or Succeeds

Linda, Chris and I have just returned from an always-full, dynamic annual summit for the Women Business Leaders of the US Health Care Industry Foundation — or WBL, as its associates love to call it. In a session called “Leading Change that’s Worth It,” we had the privilege of facilitating this amazing group of executives in a conversation about just that kind of change – the kind where the juice is worth the squeeze.

Like many leaders we meet, most in this group stand readily when asked if they have been through or led a major change initiative. Yet far fewer say yes when asked if they believe their organizations do a good job of leading and managing change. Here, Chris shares that she’s been asking these questions for 20 years, and sadly, the results haven’t changed much.

What’s behind the struggle to change?

We’ve found 10 common themes, or reasons organization change fails. The good news is that they work in reverse, too. Done well, these can be the 10 reasons change succeeds in your organization. In no particular order:

1. Clear performance focus
Success comes from a tight, clear connection between change expectations and business results. Failures come when an organization is overly focused on activities, skills and culture, or structural changes without creating a tight linkage to business results.

2. A winning strategy
Projects & organizations succeed when the strategies play to strengths. Failure happens when there is an overestimation of strength(s) and/or no ability to document concrete ‘wins.’

3. A compelling and urgent case for change
Success happens because there is a widely accepted ‘felt’ need for change. Failure occurs when there is no demonstrated commitment to the need for change. There is no clear ‘pain’ for remaining in the status quo.

4. Specific change criteria
In successful efforts, the underlying performance criteria and change requirements are clear, documented and not negotiable. If the ‘rules’ shift or evolve or can be negotiated, failure follows.

5. Distinction between decision-driven and behavior-dependent change
Some change can be ‘decided’ – restructuring, purchases, hires/fires, etc. Other change is ‘behavior-dependent’ – skills development, new processes, implementing new accountabilities, etc. Organizations that over ‘decide’ and underinvest in ‘behavior’ changes fail.

6. Structure and systems requirements
Structure and systems (particularly IT) changes may be required for change but are almost always overused as either the answer or the excuse. Overdependence on structure and systems results in confusion and sapped energy, and is a great technique for stalling progress.

7. Appropriate skills and resources
Successful change often demands new skills that are being created; requiring some level of transition resources until new skills are fully functional. Lack of the right talent (skills) and resources against an opportunity is certain failure; yet organizations consistently repeat this shortcoming.

8. Mobilized and engaged pivotal groups
Organizations that succeed tap critical internal influencers to champion the change and actively engage staff in driving the change. Getting beyond basic change rhetoric requires a compelling employee value proposition (“what’s in this for me,”) achievable goals, tools and shared information.

9. Tight integration and alignment of all initiatives
Major change inevitably requires dozens of initiatives (strategy projects, re-engineering efforts, training, leadership development, communications, technical redesign, new measurements, etc.). The result is a massive integration challenge. Failure results from locally and globally isolated projects, cross-project conflicts, resource competition, and confusion as to how projects do or don’t relate.

10. Leader ability and willingness to change
The ceiling on any attempt to change at the project, department or organization level is set at the leaders’ willingness to embrace and embody the change. Whatever behaviors individual project or leader team members cannot adopt, become effectively impossible for the organization.

How would you rate your organization on these 10 reasons organization change fails or succeeds? Take the Change Readiness Assessment here.

See all of the detailed 10 Reasons Organizational Change Succeeds or Fails posts here.