Why Organization Change Fails And What To Do About It

Close to 70% of all organization change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives — and that's only half the story. As bad as missing the objectives might be, the loss of leadership credibility and employee engagement can be even more costly. (This picture gets even more discouraging when you consider that the benefits of so-called “successful” change initiatives often have a short lifespan.)

Pause for a second to reflect on the implications: There are thousands of very smart change management consultants and experts doing change work, companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their change efforts every year, the lives of millions are affected by restructuring, downsizing, pivoting, merging, reorganizing, process re-engineering, etc. The waste of energy, resources and opportunity is truly enormous. How can we then tolerate such a poor success rate? Are the consultants and experts not smart enough to get it right? Or could it be that there is something fundamentally flawed in how we see people and organizations, and approach organization change?

I’ve come to believe that the answer to the last question is, quite simply, yes. I’m convinced that the root cause of the high failure rate of organizational change initiatives is what my colleagues and I call a ‘mechanistic mindset’ — seeing the ideal organization as a well-oiled machine, and unconsciously seeing employees as machine parts.

Let me provide a simple example. A colleague of mine recently posted this question in an online forum: “How do you drive innovation and engagement in your organization?” My quick response was, start with examining the meaning and implications of using the word “drive.” Would you like anything driven into you, by anyone, no matter how well meaning, especially when it comes to engagement? Would you ever ask at home, with your kids around the dinner table: “How do we drive more caring, love and compassion in our family?”

Our mechanistic view of organizations and organization change is truly pervasive. Consider that most of our organization change initiatives tend to be —

  • Top-down — “driven” by senior leadership, HR and/or external consultants
  • Problem-centric — attempting to fix something that is broken or not working as smoothly as it should
  • Obsessed with structural change — and ignoring all the other very real dimensions of organizational health and wellbeing
  • Episodic and reactive — rather than woven into every day operations
  • Isolated and separate from “real work” — seen as a distraction
  • Programmatic, linear and prescribed — with external vendors “deploying modules” and “cascading change” down the organization
  • Imposing change on people — rather than creating conditions where people are inspired to take on voluntary commitments to stretch and change
  • Fragmented and reductionist — focusing on an isolated aspect of the organization’s life and failing to see the organization as a living, interconnected whole; for example, many companies implement employee engagement or leadership development programs as separate, stand-alone efforts

If the mechanistic view of organizations and organization change is failing us, what is a more viable alternative?

Here is the good news:

  • Our organizations are not machines. They are “social organisms” that have mostly unrecognized and underdeveloped potential to self-evolve to ever-higher levels of passion, creativity, adaptiveness and contribution
  • Though most people resist being changed, they love to be challenged, to learn and grow, to innovate, collaborate, and to contribute to something larger than themselves

This is the view of people and organizations that we choose to hold and operate from at 10X Shift and 10X Changemakers. And we have become convinced that generative approaches to organizational learning and change can be vastly superior to traditional mechanistic approaches.

To distinguish generative approaches, we contrast them with mechanistic approaches below. We’ve made the comparisons somewhat extreme to highlight the two ends of the spectrum of change approaches. In reality, change initiatives can lie at any point along that spectrum.

The differences between generative and mechanistic approaches to change:

Mechanistic approaches to change invariably cost more than expected and rarely deliver the desired benefits. More importantly, the opportunity costs from inept organization change efforts can be enormous. Not only are direct business benefits at risk, but the erosion of trust, energy, and creativity can become irreversible.

With generative approaches you have to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, provide plenty of light and nutrients, and be patient. However, once you've grown the organization's capacity for generative learning and change, it keeps on growing—gradually becoming self-regulating, self-improving, and self-evolving. The true benefits keep appreciating while the true costs essentially disappear.

IN CONCLUSION

Pioneering and evolving generative approaches to organization design and change holds tremendous promise of unleashing the full creative and productive potential of people and organizations everywhere. Pioneering this new organizational territory is not for the fainthearted — it will require courage, perseverance, deep self-inquiry, and a lot of co-creative action-learning. The good news is that not only the potential benefits are huge, but the journey itself will be tremendously rewarding for all involved.

If you’re ready for a deeper dive into generative approaches, frameworks and strategies, we invite you to explore these additional resources.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

My deep appreciation goes to Bill Veltrop, a true pioneer and veteran of generative approaches to organizational learning and change. His ideas and lenses served as a source and inspiration for this post.

Notes:

McKinsey and Company … A recent survey of business executives indicates that the percent of change programs that are a success today is… still 30%.

IBM … Nearly 60 percent of projects aimed at achieving business change do not fully meet their objectives.

Harvard Business Review … The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail.

Forbes/Towers Watson … A new study by Towers Watson has found that only 25% of change management initiatives are successful over the long term.

Connor Partners … Change practitioners have some culpability for the atrocious 70% failure rate of change initiatives.