Why So Many Changes Fail—and What You Can Do About It

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Rick Maurer

Undoubtedly, you know that the ability to get results from new initiatives is vitally important to your organization’s survival, but did you know that about 70% of changes in organizations fail? 

That is an astounding failure rate given that the field of change management has been around for almost two decades. Over those years many books and hundreds of articles have been written. Consulting practices were created just to address the challenge of leading change, and yet the failure rate remains high. What is going on?

When I wrote Beyond the Wall of Resistance in 1996, the failure rate was about the same as it is today. When I was invited to revise the book this year, I decided to look at the reasons why this failure rate persisted. Here’s what I learned.

What to Avoid

Don’t give people another book. There are lots of good resources out there and you probably have many of those books on your shelf already.

Don’t offer new training programs. Training is not the problem. Leaders in your organization probably know what to do. The challenge is putting what you know into action.

Don’t hire motivational speakers. Lack of motivation is not the reason why people are reluctant to follow your lead on new projects. People resist for good reasons. Pep talks only mask the underlying confusion, apathy, fear, or anger. In the life of a change, these issues will crop up well after the motivational speakers’ stories have been forgotten.

Don’t announce a new change with great fanfare. Banners that read “New Technology for the Future and Beyond” just breed fear and cynicism. People say to themselves, “Here we go again.”

Don’t inflict change on the masses. People don’t really resist change, but they do resist being treated like infants and told to follow orders without question.

Don’t drop the ball. Too many leaders get a major new initiative started and then move on to other things. This sends a message that this new change is no longer a high priority. Once that happens, people move to work that they believe is high priority.

What to Do

So you may ask what I should do now that I have suggested you avoid all the typical ways of leading and managing change.

Get a group together that represents a cross-section of your organization and make sure these are men and women who will be willing to talk candidly about real issues that get in the way of leading change. Sit around a table. Tell people that you believe that change fails too often in your organization. See if they agree with you. If so, proceed. If not, ask what they see. It’s possible that they have a more optimistic picture of what’s going on (and wouldn’t that be great?).

Then address four major questions:

1. Do we know how to lead change? Do we know how to make a case for change, to get started on the right foot, to get things back on track in the event we begin to derail?

If you are like most organizations, leaders know a lot about leading change. In my experience, the only area that is pretty consistently weak relates to why people support and why they resist change. This knowledge gap causes leaders to act as if change were a linear and technical process. Leaders who understand why people get excited or why they are afraid of change, are much better at building the support they need for change.

If leaders don’t know how to lead change, they buy a book or two to help their management team learn about change management. Hold discussion groups. Maybe offer a training session or two. But, whatever you do, link what you are learning to real projects.

If leaders know how to lead change, then ask:

2. Can we turn that knowledge into action? Organizations often do a good job of educating people on what it takes to lead change, but they fail to give them a chance to practice these skills. Imagine you love tennis. You watch all the matches on TV. You buy some instructional DVDs. You know a lot about the game. But, you never practice. (Who’s got time for that, right?) And you wonder why you play so poorly.

Organizations make the same mistake. They educate but don’t give people a chance to practice and learn from mistakes. It’s like taking a group tennis lesson and then being told that you will be competing at Wimbledon on Saturday. Of course that could never happen in tennis, but it happens all the time in business. Someone gets a little training and then they are assigned to lead a major project.

People learn by practicing, getting feedback, and practicing some more. This is how great athletes, musicians, martial arts black belts work toward mastery, but sadly, it is missing in much of management development.

If people don’t have the skills, then provide opportunities for people to practice. As the playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

If we know what to do and how to do it, then ask:

3. Does the organization support what we are trying to do? Most would agree that effective change management requires that people at all levels are somehow engaged in helping plan the changes that affect their lives. There are lots of ways to get at that, but engagement is key. Now imagine that your organization is an old Theory X place to work. No trust. No involvement. All decisions are top down. (These places do still exist in spite of the inspirational values statements that hang from their walls.)

If you work in one of these places, it will be extremely difficult to apply what you know about leading change. If that’s the case, then you need to do the hard work of shifting the culture in ways that support change.

If you know what to do, how to do it, and the culture supports you, then ask:

4. What beliefs block us from leading change well? Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey wrote a compelling book titled Immunity to Change. In it they suggest that we have hidden commitments that keep us from working toward the very things we say we want to do. For example, look at how many people make New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, and then ask yourself, “How many of those people get beyond the first month of their new regimen?” Same thing happens in organizations. You need to look at the hidden things that stop the very things you say you want to happen.

My belief is that if you know what to do, know how to do it, work in a place that supports sound change practices, and where hidden obstacles don’t get n the way, your success rate ill be much higher than those who score poorly on any of these questions. I wish you well.

About the Author(s)

Rick Maurer is an advisor to people who lead change in large organizations. The completely revised version of his book, Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Why 70% of Changes Still Fail—and What You Can Do About It (Bard Press 2010) was just released. He hosts the free online Change Management Open Source Project (www.changeOSP.com), which has over 600 members from some 30 countries.