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why Organizational Change is unsucessful

7 more reasons why Organizational Change is unsuccessful

  • 22 September 2016
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Are you frustrated about change? Many people are. Both in our personal and in our work lives, it can be a challenge. In my last post, I discussed ten reasons why organizational change is not working and in this post, I’ll serve you another seven. This is not meant to discourage you. This is to alert and prepare you so you can improve your change skills. Because it is important for positive change to succeed. Let’s continue and learn how to avoid as many causes of wasted energy as we can.

Plan for predictability (#11)

As you know, organizations have learned to design and plan, instead of allowing for emergence and development. Understandable from a planning and control point of view - derived from a linear model of a predictable world and machine-like organizations. But not necessarily helpful in change processes. They see a straight travel plan ahead. But the minute they start the change process (the journey) they change the scenery by moving forward. Thus, you cannot determine and define with certainty what phase 12 will look like when you are at phase 1. Unexpected things will emerge. You won’t have a plan ready for those. You’ll have to respond as they happen, keeping your desired destination in focus to stay on course.

The OCAI culture map does not prescribe something like “three things you must do” to change the culture in your specific organization. Every situation is different. What works for one organization, may not yield results in another, even when both organizations look alike. This goes for culture change especially. Culture involves people. There is no way that two people are identical, or two teams are alike. People and systems of people can be unpredictable. You have to know your people, and thoroughly understand your situation to discover interventions that will work.

You have to customize the best practices and theories. You have to apply the knowledge from business books to your everyday business. You have to do the work. This, of course, is a big reason that culture change often is a big failure. (Causing many critics and cynics to doubt whether culture can be changed at all and dismissing it as a fad).

Stay generic and abstract (#12)

Organizations do not look at palpable specifics but seem to adore abstract values and spreadsheets. That’s a bold statement, but I see it a lot. Culture or other change projects tend to use abstract values and ambitions that are generic and that everyone can agree with. Sure, who wouldn’t want integrity at work? Failing to operationalize this value into specific behaviors will not enhance any change. Failing to explore and solve the dilemmas that come with this change, is another failure reason. What does integrity mean when your biggest client account asks to change the date on invoices to pimp their quarter results - or they will look for another vendor?

Specifics matter big time. And so does behavior. Looking at the spreadsheet the numbers may look great, but walking through the company’s corridors, you see the frowns and the discontentment building up. Sensory information is vital. Plans and methods on paper (did we tick all the right boxes?) matter much less to achieving real change.

Count on rational logic (#13)

Likewise, organizations overvalue the rational part that we bring to work and disregard the emotional and spiritual parts. But we are whole human beings and not robots - as the organization-as-machine mindset would like to see. We have motives, hopes, dreams, fears, dislikes… Organizational change means working with people, whether you like it or not. The rational approach may look straightforward - but the group dynamics, the emotional responses, the politics or lacking a sense of purpose can jeopardize what you try to accomplish.

Being blind to the elephant in the room (#14)

Many managers do not “see” behaviors. They are not trained as teachers, therapists or social workers. True. But it is essential to see what is happening in the room to respond effectively and create the conditions for successful change. Try to notice behaviors during meetings, for starters. Do those behaviors support the advocated change? For example: do we say that we want an innovative culture but do we interrupt people who debate our ideas or who question assumptions…?Go fast

Tell and force others to change (#15)

Often, organizations still use a form of the tell-and-force approach. That’s a guarantee for a failed or disappointing change project as well. This flows directly from the top-down machine-mindset as well. Simply put: The boss tells you what to change. If you don’t do it (correctly), you will be forced by punishments and rewards.

This only works for as long as the boss is in sight. Turn your back, and people will go back to their daily habits. If you want sustainable change, you need to engage people and develop the change with them, not for them.

This insight goes with the famous motto: You can’t change the others. The only person you can change is yourself. So, you may need to change your preferred change management approach from telling to asking. Ask what people want, how they would solve this challenge, what they could do to contribute to this change, and so on. Oh, and there are even more reasons for failure. I try to assess them before I start any project. Recognize any of these:

Do too much at the same time (#16)

Organizations do too many projects at the same time - people are exhausted, and they can’t put in any consistent effort for the current change project. Always check the timing and the expected scope of the project.

Go for fast and cheap (#17)

This is where organizations like to believe in non-linearity. Organizations want big results with minimum effort and money spent. They are all too human.

But you can’t expect lasting results if you give one speech, send out a newsletter and gather for one meeting. Change takes continuous effort, and you can’t cut on workshop days, engagement, re-engagement, and putting in consistent energy and attention. You won’t have the same effects from one day with 100 people in a room as compared to 10 days with ten people in a room. It takes one person at a time to change (some of) their beliefs and behaviors - and to practice and integrate those behaviors.

If you want to go fast - travel alone and blame the laggards behind you. But if you seriously want to go far - travel together in small bands of 10 people so you can lead and support them. So, no, dear client, we can’t put more people in a room and spend 4 hours instead of 8 per team. Did you ever ask your surgeon to give you the 15-minute surgery to save time and money? I bet you didn’t. You want your health restored. Dear organization: do you want positive change? Then do what it takes to change really.

As I summarized in my post on successful organizational change, change that works well is “deep” and is:

  • Bottom-up and inclusive: Engage everyone Personal and collective change (in a team, in an organization) at the same time
  • Focused on specific, daily behaviors
  • Allowing for emergence, non-linear effects and the network nature of an organizational system

By contrast, unsuccessful change is “wide” and is often:

  • Top-down and exclusive: A small group decides and tells the others what to do
  • De-personalized, rational and analytical: focus on procedures, structures, processes, numbers, and plans on paper, but not on people
  • Focused on wide-spread, generic, abstract values and concepts - that don’t easily translate to everyday behaviors and organizational dilemmas
  • Rooted in linear thinking, predictability, an expert mindset, and a view of machine-hierarchies with leader-engineers and rational robot-employees.

The prevalent, mechanistic way of thinking is the underlying cause. It is conventional wisdom - more outdated than ever before - and it’s wasting a lot of time, money, energy, and motivation in our workplaces.

Do you like what you're reading? Check out my eBook: How to lead Positive Change with Culture and Positive Leadership. This eBook discusses not only the reasons why change fails but, above all, how change can succeed. Read this before you start any change or new goal to prepare your organization for successful change. 

In my next post, I’ll look at where to start a change process. My answer: where people are. Stay tuned…

  • Did you discover other features that cause a change to fail or falter?
  • How did you solve or bypass some of these issues?

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

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.