Why Organizational Change Initiatives Fail and Ways to Improve

Written by David Crouch

Organizational change initiatives rarely fail due to lack of good ideas; instead, they are stifled by weak leadership, inappropriate organizational structures, and poor reinforcement of positive behaviors.  Indeed, a recent Harvard Business Review article cites some of the same reasons why leadership training often fails.  Learn some of the main reasons for organizational change failure and how to improve change initiatives.

“Fish Recognize a Bad Leader.”

Comedian Conan O’Brien said it well, “Fish recognize a bad leader.”  Even fish!  One of the most significant factors that contribute to failure is leadership letdown.  Leadership fails organizational change in several ways.

Even fish know a bad leaderFirst, weak leadership does not set a clear vision for the improvement.  People define “vision” in different ways.  For our purposes, let us define “vision” as a picture of the future state if our organization is successful.  Quite often executives know they want to improve but set the vision too broadly or too narrowly.  For example, I recently interviewed the CIO of a major client.  When I asked him “What does a successful IT transformation look like to you,” he said he wanted to improve customer satisfaction.  I asked him to explain more.  He said that satisfaction scores in the last annual survey were low and he was getting pressure from the CEO to improve.

I pressed further.

Me:
“What do your customers want from IT?  What are their pain points?”

Silence punctuated by blank stare.

Me: “Let me ask you in another way . . . how would your customers describe IT?”

CIO: “Well, I guess they want us to speed up the time it takes to resolve incidents and provide more complete and consistent service,” he said.

Me: “That’s a good start.  But are customers concerned with ‘break-fix’ incidents or service requests [orders for new items]?”

CIO: “Well, I guess it’s not so much the incidents that are the problem,” he said.  “It’s more the service requests, especially when customers order new laptops and devices.”

Me: “You mentioned resolution time, completeness, and consistency.  Are all three pain points?”

CIO: “Well, customers aren’t too upset about the time it takes to get a new laptop.  They are more upset that the laptop is delivered without all of the software they need on it and sometimes the laptop itself is not one the customer really likes.”

Eureka!  So, speed is not the issue after all.  The bigger issue is one of delivering the best laptop for a particular customer and ensuring that the right software is on the laptop from the start.  That’s a far cry from, “we need to improve customer satisfaction.”  Left unrefined, the CIO’s vision or pseudo-vision would likely lead to confusion in terms of priorities, lack of measurable outcomes, and possibly no improvement.  It even could have made the situation worse.  Even when the leader has a definite vision, it needs to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders.  We often use the metaphor of a flashlight.  The light is brightest at the bulb, but the further away from the bulb, the more diffuse the light.  So too with vision – the further away from the leader, the more diluted the message.

Urgency is the Uncle of Change

A television writer once said, “If necessity is the mother of invention, urgency is the uncle of change.”  Related to lack of vision, failure to communicate a sense of urgency also dooms change initiatives.  The roots of this failure are mysterious.  Presumably, it either indicates a lack of commitment on the part of the leader or a fear of push-back from employees.  The former is inexcusable – leaders are hired for many reasons, one of which is to make decisions.  The latter, resistance, is inevitable and should be expected.  The previously-mentioned CIO was afraid of poor customer satisfaction scores because there had been increasingly loud whispers about outsourcing all or parts of IT.  It is difficult to find a more compelling argument for trying to improve.  Yet the CIO was concerned that raising the specter of lay-offs would discourage employees and precipitate a prompt and premature exodus of talent.  A better idea is to take the approach suggested by ITIL 4 Guiding Principles and “Be Transparent.”  Although there is a risk that an employee might run in the opposite direction, the likelihood that such an employee would actively contribute to progress is negligible.  This step is so critical that famed change guru, John Kotter, considers “establishing a sense of urgency” as the first step in his famed 8-step process for change management (developing a vision is step 3).  The best message not only demonstrates the necessity of changing for the organization’s benefit; but also speaks to what’s in it for the individual employee.

It should be obvious, but the leader should “live” the behaviors they want to encourage in other employees.  Call it “walking the talk” or “practicing what you preach,” leaders who ignore the advice do so at their own peril.  In one organization, a director of service management wanted to reduce the number of technical changes that were implemented without first being reviewed and approved.  As it turns out, the director was one of the most egregious offenders and routinely implemented technical changes “under the radar.”  It is wise to remember that the leader holds the loudest microphone.

Pyramid, Complex Web, or House of Cards?

Even when leadership is adequate, organizational structures and culture can significantly impact and impede change initiatives.  Organizations are structured in so many different ways that it would be difficult to describe them in a short essay.  However, consider three basic types of structures: the pyramid, the web, and the house of cards.  Roughly-speaking, each structure speaks to a different command-and-control structure and varying amounts of direct interactions with senior leadership.  Each empowers workers to greater or lesser extents.

The classic pyramid structure relies on top-down, hierarchical control.  It places great emphasis on strong leadership and clear direction.  In this way, the pyramid structure, much maligned in organizational development literature over the past several decades, can lead to successful change initiatives when leadership is strong, vision and mission are clear, and teams and individuals have well-defined roles.  Despite its benefits, this structure is suboptimal when complex problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, when teams need to work across boundaries, and when roles are poorly-defined.

The web or network structure describes an organization where work gets accomplished through interactions amongst multiple teams typically organized along product or service lines, customer-types, or geography.  The web model is complex and in many ways better-suited than the pyramid to address complex problems.  On the other hand, tension over the best approach can exist between teams, and given the decentralized nature of leadership, conflict can arise over which direction to pursue.  In short, workers have more input into the vision, but it is not always clear whose vision to pursue for a large initiative.

The house of cards or inverted pyramid model places even more control in the hands of employees, with leaders serving in a largely oversight role.  This form of employee empowerment (often described as a type of “transformational” leadership) is appealing since employees are presumably closest to customers and to the daily work that needs to be accomplished.  The challenge is that employees do not have the “big picture” view of the organization that leaders typically do.  In this structure, where every employee is encouraged to “own” a solution, it can be challenging to efficiently mobilize employees around “big picture” and shared goals.  When the base of the house of cards falters, the entire organization shakes and potentially collapses.

There is no “pure” organizational structure that exists (except perhaps in the smallest of organizations), and there is no one “right” structure.  It is important for the authors of organizational change to recognize the predominant structure of the organization and the implications of each on change initiatives.

Beyond Structure is Culture

Beyond structure – though greatly influenced by it – is organizational culture.  Do employees generally believe leadership is open, honest, and communicates well?  Are employees expected to contribute novel ideas or are they sanctioned for dissent?  Does the organization follow a “fail fast” approach and welcome experimentation or does it adhere to a slower approach that favors the “tried and true?”  It may not be possible for senior leaders to fully understand culture, especially in a large organization.  Although an overarching culture may exist, according to Gallup, culture,  employee engagement, and real change often occur in small workgroups of just five to six employees. To some extent, the vision of leadership inevitably will be diluted.  To counter this, a wise leader creates feedback mechanisms with lower-level leaders, who help shape culture and can serve as “reinforcing sponsors” of change.

Repetition is the Mother of Learning

“Repetition is the mother of learning” is an old Russian proverb commonly used to encourage new language students to practice pronunciation until foreign sounds become second nature.  The same can be said of organizational change.  At its core, organizational change is about changing the way people work, changing behaviors.  For change to last, new behaviors must be consistently practiced and reinforced until they become the new way of working.  As I’m sure you will agree, people love change . . . people love change when it applies to somebody else. The role of the local reinforcing sponsor becomes that much more important in monitoring adoption of new work practices and behaviors and preventing backsliding.

Nothing Changes, Everything is Different

C.S. Lewis once said, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when we look back, everything is different.”  Indeed, change initiatives that take on too much at once are doomed to failure.  Small, gradual incremental changes tend to be more sustainable and over time have greater impact.  With that in mind, there are some tools that can help to keep changes on track.

Continual Service Improvement Register

One of the simplest yet most powerful tools is the Continual Service Improvement (CSI) register.  At a basic level, the CSI register is a document or spreadsheet that lists the top change and improvement opportunities, prioritizes or ranks them, and assigns ownership for each initiative.  It can be a great starting point prior to creating a full-fledged project plan and can also be used in status update meetings.

Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change

More conceptual than the CSI register, change leaders are well-advised to learn Kotter’s 8-Step process for leading change.  Easy to learn and much harder to execute on, at a minimum, Kotter reminds leaders that successful changes tend to follow a predictable high-level process.

 

1. Create a sense of urgency

2. Build a guiding coalition

3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

4. Enlist a volunteer army

5. Enable action by removing barriers

6. Generate short-term wins

7. Sustain acceleration

8. Institute change

 

Ownership

Many organizations like to say, “improvement is part of everybody’s job description.”  Although the spirit of this phrase is well-understood, it is hardly useful in terms of executing on an initiative.  In order for a change initiative to be successful, an owner must be appointed.  Just as conceptions of organizational structures vary greatly, so too do “ownership” models.  Based on experience, what seems to work best in most cases is to have one overall change initiative owner and a small group of people who are guiding or driving the initiative from the top.  In turn, having local managers of small teams can serve as “owners” or reinforcing sponsors for their teams’ contribution to the initiative.  In larger initiatives, senior leaders should work frequently and closely with local leaders to ensure alignment between team work and larger initiative goals.

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Originally published June 06 2019, updated December 12 2019