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why Organizational Change is not working well

10 reasons why Organizational Change is not working well

  • 19 September 2016
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Why would we even look at what is not working well in organizational change?

Looking at what went wrong can help us learn how to improve our personal and organization’s change competence. I’ve learned from reflecting on my consulting projects that were hard, those that got stuck, those that took way too much effort and sapped my energy, and those that left me feeling dissatisfied. Even when clients seemed happy, I wasn’t always….

I’ll discuss a few things that I discovered to help people and organizations change for “real.” (You’ll find more examples and cases in my book Organizational Culture Change).

In my earlier post, I listed seven conditions for successful organizational change. These conditions are based on organizational culture and leadership. Hence, the opposite of this list is not working well to achieve change success:

  1. No commitment from leaders
  2. No clarity on the status quo, the desired change and why to change now
  3. No consensus and thus, no engagement
  4. Not enough communication
  5. Not responding to what happens between people and group dynamics
  6. Not reaching critical mass in an organizational system
  7. Not seeing it through and quitting too soon

Checklist to improve your change project

You can use this checklist when a change process is stagnating to see where you could adjust your approach to unstuck the process. Check and ask yourself some questions to see what could be improved.

  • What is not clear?
  • What has not been communicated enough?
  • Why is there no consensus?
  • Are all the actors in the process committed to change?
  • What is missing in response to people’s behaviors and interactions?
  • Do they need more role models to copy?
  • Are people coaching each other, and is it safe enough?
  • Why is it hard to reach a critical mass of people consistently displaying the new behaviors?
  • Because there’s no consensus, commitment, clarity or because these behaviors require too much effort?
  • Or are people stuck in the talking trap? Talk about change but not do it?
  • Are leaders backing out, busy with other priorities?

The above checklist and these questions may be useful while you’re already engaged in a change process. But there are more fundamental reasons why organizational change fails or disappoints too often.

They are rooted in the conventional way of thinking that is still prevalent in the (business) world. This thinking runs deep in people and structures, and you’ll be surprised how often you encounter variants of this thinking in intelligent people and good-willing organizations…

You can’t bypass all these reasons nor avoid them all before you start a change project. But they may help to prepare yourself. You can decide which ones would be showstoppers for you - and not do projects if they don’t meet your “successful-positive-change criteria.” Here’s what I observed over the years that is not working well for organizational change.

Delegate change (cause #8)

Often, organizations want the consultant to do the work and/or tell the organization what to do, as an expert. “Can you change my organization for me?”, a CEO would ask me (not literally but this is what it came down to). This relates to success condition #1: commitment from top executives. Many top leaders excluded themselves from the change, arguing that they were also not a part of current culture because their employees had their separate culture and they were busy with strategy and on a totally different level…Besides, they didn’t have the time.

This also raises the issue of whether or not leaders can delegate (culture) change. My answer: you can’t. If I can’t work with the top leaders of an organization, I don’t accept the assignment. Leaders must be fully committed to personal and organizational change, even if they can’t do it alone (because eventually, they have to engage a critical mass of organizational members to change).Linear planning and control mindset

Rely on science and one-answer-fits-all (cause #9)

This expert-mindset (the consultant knows best) also explains why organizations tend to rely on proven methods, certifications, and best practices. They assume that there must be one best way to change in this or that direction. There should be one correct answer and one truth.

Wrong. Most organizational change projects (maybe highly technical projects are the exception) involve more art than science, despite all the scientifically proven change methods. Organizations are not machines, and consultants and managers are not engineers.

Proven methods are important, such as the OCAI culture survey. But they provide the tools to work with. You have to use those tools to build an organization, to create positive change. You cannot reproach the tools that they don’t work when you don’t work your situation.

Short example: clients tend to mistake the map for the territory. When they’ve done the OCAI culture survey, they have a validated map of their current and preferred culture. But that is not the same as the actual territory: the landscape with its hills and valleys, the stakeholders working in this scenery, their visions and behaviors, the best road to travel and change… You use the OCAI map to plan your journey - but the actual traveling may surprise you and is asking you to apply the model to what is happening on an everyday basis. You need to change behaviors and adjust interventions…

Think in a linear way (cause #10)

One big impediment to positive change is thinking in a linear way. If the organization is a machine, the leaders are the engineers and people are rational, the world predictable, and things can be designed and planned with an expert mindset - then big change needs a big bang to launch. Put a sage on a stage to tell the obedient audience what to do. Hire an army of consultants and use a logical method and tick all of the boxes. Plan your progress from A to B. And encounter the infamous failure rate of organizational change - or at least the disappointing outcome.

What if the change was fuzzy? Could it be complex and chaotic? Could small changes in initial conditions lead to completely different outcomes for the organizational system? What if organizational systems and change were non-linear? Well, they could be, when you think of them as networks where people are connected in a myriad of ways, and they influence each other all the time. One thing is leading to another. One new behavior is spreading through a system until a critical mass is reached…

I am not saying that you should not be rational, that you should not plan for outcomes, that you should discard all proven methods. I’m saying: be open to seeing a different model of reality when you look through these glasses. It might yield big results to see your organization as a network and use small levers to achieve big change…

Do you have enough? Maybe you do, for now. But I discovered at least seven more causes why organizational change is not working well in many organizations. I’ll save them for my next post and give you a break. Right now, I’d like to know:

  • Do you recognize any of these features that cause a change to fail or falter?
  • Where in your life and work do you need to improve your change approach, based on these checks and warnings?
  • What could you adjust?

I’d be curious to hear your examples and thoughts!

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.