Top Ten Reasons Why Change Initiatives Fail


As unfortunate as it is, most leadership teams aren’t very good at driving change initiatives. Just consider the following facts:

  • An Ernst and Young study of 584 companies found that the majority of quality initiatives failed to achieve significant improvement.

  • Michael Hammer and James Champ estimate that “as many as 50 to 70% of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.”

  • Kepner-Tregoe found that only 20% of respondents to a survey on change initiatives indicated that their initiatives met or exceeded expectations.

  • Another Kepner-Tregoe study found that nearly 2/3 of executives surveyed felt that employee morale was “worse” or “the same” as a result of the change initiatives.

  • More than 60% rated their employees’ reactions to organizational change as neutral, skeptical, or actively resistant.

Now think of a successful organizational change that you’ve experienced (if you can). What were the key factors that contributed to the success of the change effort?

Most people will tell you that people fear change. That flat out, is not the case. People don’t fear change, they fear being changed! It is not the change that scares them, it’s the transition! Change is an extraordinarily natural and normal practice that people routinely embrace . . . on their own terms. When people are in the driver’s seat of change, seeking out learning, opportunity, and growth, they usually view change as their ally to their personal success.

Here are the top ten reasons change initiatives fail in business:

#10: A Lack of Urgency. Many change efforts fail because they have failed to create a “felt need” or a sense of urgency throughout the organization. Before selling people on the opportunities and benefits of a change, people must first experience the need to change.

#9: An Absence of Measurable Outcomes. As Vince Lombardi said, “If you’re not keeping score, you’re only practicing.” Change efforts often fail because they neglect to define and focus on specific and measurable outcomes. Every change effort must have clear metrics that enable everyone from those in the boardroom to those on the frontline to know if and when progress is being made on the change objectives.

#8: A Failure to Communicate a Shared Vision. It’s not enough to have a vision of the change and effective measures of the change outcomes. Stakeholders must understand and share this vision. They must understand the “whys” of the change, and they need to know the organizational and personal benefits resulting from a change. It must be communicated over and over again via:

  • Town Hall

  • Conference Call

  • Weekly One on Ones

#7: Not Anticipating Pushback on the Change. Every change, no matter how positively it is viewed by change leaders and others throughout the organization, will create emotional stress for some. If not anticipated or understood, this emotional stress is likely to result in higher levels of change resistance.

#6: Failure to Integrate Dissident Feedback. The questions, issues, and concerns of the dissidents and other resisters who lead the “push back” on the change can help improve and strengthen any change effort — but only if they are encouraged to offer up their concerns. Successful change leaders pay attention to what the change nay-sayers are concerned about — and then do their best to integrate these dissident perspectives into the change vision.

#5: Failure to Anticipate Obstacles to Change. All organizational change initiatives experience more than a few bumps in the road. One characteristic of successful efforts is that the change leaders proactively anticipate, identify, and directly confront systemic and structural obstacles to the change vision and plan.

#4: Failure to Make the Necessary Adjustments. Successful change initiatives benefit most when change leaders have a high level of self-awareness that results from a critical assessment of the successes, missteps, and inevitable setbacks that they experience throughout the change implementation process. Then, based upon this self-assessment, change leaders change what they do next.

#3: Failure to Assess an Organization’s Culture. Culture plays a powerful and often underestimated role in the success or failure of a change initiative. Successful changes are guided by leaders who have a deep respect for and understanding of the organization’s culture and its role in the change process. Cultural readiness is a central contributor to the success or failure of every change.

#2: Failure to Establish Interim Benchmarks of Success. “Progressive improvement is better than postponed perfection.” Interim measures bring the added benefit of helping people see and feel progress —something that may be especially important for maintaining stakeholder motivation during a long-term change initiative.

#1: Lack of Reinforcing Activities to Sustain Change. The most significant cause leading to the failure of change initiatives is the failure to create organizational infrastructure to help stabilize the change and reinforce the new ways of thinking and acting. Without system of reinforcing activities, change leaders, those on the front line, and everyone in between will tend to drift back into old mindsets and behaviors.

At Butler Street, our years as executives driving change have taught us the best way to do so is to make key stakeholders part of the process through Knowledge Teams. Click here for our white paper on how to use Knowledge Teams to Drive Organizational Change.

Next week—Eight Key Steps to Leading Organizational Change