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Why Do Organizational Change Efforts Often Fail? 8 Common Reasons

written by: •edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 4/9/2011

Ever been involved in an organizational change effort which failed? Then you may recognize some of the eight common reasons in this article. Whether you’re a CEO or a change management advisor, you can take this opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes before you embark on your own change program.

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    Why Do We Resist Change?

    Change is a balancing act 

    Let’s face it, human beings don’t like change very much. Even if a proposed change at work is likely to benefit us we know there will be some discomfort for us to tolerate. What’s even worse is the situation which arises when a previous organizational change effort has failed and we are therefore suspicious of the next ‘initiative’ that our managers are planning for us.

    So, why do organizational change efforts so often fail? Check this list and see if it reminds you of your own organization’s situation:

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    1. Lack of Clarity About the Purpose and Outcome of the Change Effort

    Some change initiatives start with a vague intention of improving something about the organization’s performance or functioning. Here are some questions you should be asking:

    a) Have you established the link between your planned change and the organization’s strategic plan?

    b) Do you have a clear picture of your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and how the change effort will influence them?

    c) Can you measure the intended outcomes and benefits?

    d) Which changes will have the greatest impact with the least risk?

    e) Are you trying to change too much at once or being unrealistic about the timescale?

    When organizations are under pressure to improve their performance or survive in an increasingly competitive environment, the temptation is to rush into a change program without having undertaken this essential stage of analysis and preparation.

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    2. The Change Effort Has Insufficient Support

    There is a network of stakeholders in and around the organization whose commitment you need in order to ensure that your change effort does not fail. Shareholders, customers, the board of directors, employees and suppliers – each of these groups has an important role to play in ensuring the success of your organization’s planned changes. They will have their own (sometimes conflicting) agendas and needs which require delicate balancing. Some will be unconvinced about the benefits of change, and others may feel quite threatened. A project sponsor, who possesses the right level of cognitive capability to manage the complexities of these challenges and whose credibility and wisdom enhance their influencing skills, will be required to ensure top-level support--not only to initiate the planned change program but also to sustain it through the inevitable ups and downs.

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    3. Key Players in the Change Program Are Underperforming

    As an external advisor to companies, I have often come across situations where the roles of project sponsor and change project manager have been poorly defined so that they are unclear about their tasks, how their roles interlink with others or, even worse, they have not been given sufficient authority to resolve problems within the scope of their roles. In addition, I have seen these two roles confused with each other. A lot of time and effort is wasted as a consequence.

    The individuals are then accused of failing in their duties when, in fact, it’s a systems problem. Poorly defined work roles and reporting structures lead to confusion and frustration. It may also be that the wrong individuals have been selected for these roles. Sometimes, a change project manager or sponsor is chosen because of his or her specialist knowledge without due attention being paid to the whole range of skills required and, of course, the essential element of cognitive capability: Is he capable of handling the complexities of his role?

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    4. The Change Program Implementation Plan Is Weak

    The rules of effective project planning apply here, too. There is bound to be pressure to take swift action and to cut corners to save time and resources, but careful planning and monitoring are essential. Milestones need to be defined clearly and problems anticipated and acted upon swiftly. There may be resistance to changes in pace or direction, and therefore the change project manager will need the on-going support of the project sponsor to secure stakeholders’ commitment, additional resources or whatever else is required to ensure that the organizational change effort does not fail.

    Please continue on page 2 to answer the question - Why do organizational change efforts often fail?

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    You are no doubt asking yourself, "Why do organizational change efforts often fail?" Do you want to ensure that your organizational change program is successful? This article will walk you through the most common reasons why change efforts can fail and how to prevent this from happening to your change initiatives. You will understand the importance of strategic planning, securing employees' emotional commitment, and gaining stakeholder support through change project sponsorship at the right level.
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    5. Failure to Acknowledge the Importance of Emotional Commitment to the Change Effort

    Change needs commitment 

    People need to be able to engage with the change effort on an emotional level. Their rational mind may understand the business benefits--and what that means to them personally--but their heart plays an even greater role in accepting change. All key players in the change program have to take this into consideration throughout the change management process; every opportunity to communicate with employees and other stakeholders should reflect this point. It’s never easy, and you certainly won’t be able to keep everyone happy. The power of the ‘unofficial network’ in organizations should not be underestimated--a whispering campaign against your change effort can seriously undermine its success. The ability to build and sustain trust is critical.

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    6. Poor Communication Strategy

    Ever had the feeling that you were being kept in the dark or that others were receiving a message different than the one you've received about the organizational change effort? Poor communication planning and implementation are guaranteed to jeopardize your change program. Be consistent and transparent--even when the news is bad, it’s better for employee motivation to be honest. Balance the bad news with some hope, though: ‘Here’s the problem and here’s how we’re going to fix it.’ Otherwise, you risk leaving people with the impression that the change effort is bound to fail.

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    7. Lack of Staying Power

    On an intellectual level, change initiatives can appear to be easy to create and plan--even to produce templates for, right? But what happens when problems start to occur, as they inevitably will? How can you prevent one mistake from turning into major failure of the whole change effort? Sustaining a change program requires courage--sometimes the courage to admit that it was the wrong plan, or that you should change direction. Other times, it’s a question of perseverance; keep going even when the going is tough. A change effort that fails because you gave up on it will affect your credibility to execute any future programs. People will wonder whether it’s worth the extra attention because you didn’t demonstrate the staying power before.

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    8. Ignoring the Mistakes in the Change Program – Or Blaming Others For Them

    Discuss changes 

    Admit that, sometimes, you get things wrong – and learn from your mistakes. It takes emotional maturity to do this. If the organizational culture has a tendency to blame and impose sanctions then you’re in for a rocky time. Accountability for the change effort’s success starts at the top of the organization and should be part of the remit of all key players. It’s too easy for one business team or function to blame another for the failure of a change program. It’s up to the CEO to ensure that there is coordination of effort and that everyone shares successes and problems. Easier to say, perhaps, than do--but then leadership is about courage and perseverance too, isn’t it?

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    Summary

    Why do organizational change efforts so often fail? As we have seen, change programs require huge investment to be successful. Sometimes the emotional investment feels like the greatest element of all. But what price failure? Organizational change programs may vary in complexity – from the basic form of transactional change when you’re simply looking to improve upon what you already do to the highest levels of transformational change when the organization undergoes a true metamorphosis. But the critical success factors are essentially the same. Some of the reasons for failure in change programs given in this article may seem pure common-sense. They are. But please don’t underestimate their power or assume that your plans are okay just because these ideas may sound obvious.

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    Resources

    Requisite Development. http://www.requisite-development.com/our-services/change-management

    Conner Partners. http://www.connerpartners.com

    Image credits:

    Page 1 - freedigitalphotos, jscreationzs

    Page 2 - freedigitalphotos, africa

    Page 3 - freedigitalphotos, photostock