Getting Beyond the Wall of Resistance

Did you ever wonder why so many changes in your organization failed? If so, you’re not alone. 70% of all major changes inside organizations fail. For instance, new strategies that result in reorganizations, merger integration, quality improvement efforts, and new software systems.

Of course failed changes are costly in dollars, but they also create missed opportunities, damaged reputations, and increased cynicism among staff. You may have heard people mutter, “Here we go again. It’s just another flavor of the month.”

[wcm_restrict]When the first studies about organizational change started coming out in the early 1990s, the failure rate was 70%. So how come nothing has changed? Since then, most executives and managers have attended change management training, entire consultancies were created to focus on the challenges of change, and many decent books made it onto the shelves of managers. Do an Amazon search on the phrase “change management” and you will get nearly 1400 hits.

How could so many people know what to do and then not do it?

I looked into failures and successes and found four major reasons why changes keep failing. And that prompted me to completely revise my 1996 book, Beyond the Wall of Resistance. I changed the sub-title to reflect the new emphasis: Why 70% of Changes Still Fail – and What You Can Do About It.

Reasons for Failure #1: Leaders Don’t Know What It Takes To Lead Change.

This is a minor reason for failure. Given the popularity of some fine books on change, many leaders do know what it takes. Nevertheless, organizations seem to believe that people still need more knowledge. So they schedule more training events, hire more motivational speakers with handy tips, and give everyone the book du jour. This is a waste of money.

I often create a hypothetical example of someone who leads change poorly. I ask my clients what impact that leader would have on the people he was trying to influence. My clients usually know exactly what problems this guy is creating. I ask, what should he have done? They know the answer to that as well. I then ask if there is anyway he can turn things around so that this change can get started on the right foot. Once again, these men and women come up with sound strategies that the leader could take.

In The Knowing-Doing Gap (2000), Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton argue that organizations have a lot of knowledge but little of that gets turned into action. I believe that is especially true when it comes to the challenge of leading change. May advice: stop wasting money on training and books unless you are certain that’s what people need.

Reason for Failure #2: Leaders Don’t Know How To Apply What They Know.

This is a big one. While organizations may do a great job of providing knowledge, they often do a poor job of helping people apply what they know. No musician would take the stage at Lincoln Center without having spent thousands of hours practicing under the supervision of a great teacher. Most baseball players come up through the minors where they develop their game. Each successive level in the minor league system adds new challenges. Star pitchers are suddenly humbled as they move to the next level. Basic plays that seemed so easy at one level take on new challenges at the next.

Case studies and role plays aren’t enough. Budding leaders need the opportunity to practice, get feedback, and go at it again in increasingly challenging situations. And they need the opportunity to apprentice under leaders who know how to turn resistance into support. Leaders who can read a room and address issues before they ever turn into problems. The very things that demand practice in real situations.

But, let’s say that leaders in your organization know what to do and how to do it and they still fail, then the following reasons for failure probably hold the key.

Reason for Failure #3: They Miss Their Own Competing Commitments.

In Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey suggest that hidden competing commitments that keep us from doing what we say we want to do. If this weren’t the case, there would be no market for yet another miracle diet. All of us who said we wanted to live in a healthy manner, would do just that.

Think of leaders who truly believe it is important to get lots of other stakeholders deeply engaged in planning and implementing change. And yet, they lead change as if they had studied under Attila.

These leaders would do well to confront their hidden commitments. On one hand they believe in employee engagement, but on the other hand, there is something getting in the way. With reflection and deep sober looks into the mirror, they realize they have some equally strong commitments working against employee involvement. Maybe they are committed to staying in control (or they are afraid of losing control). Or they are afraid that employee involvement will be seen as soft and touch-feely. Hidden commitments can stop best intentions in its tracks.

Reasons for Failure #4: They Ignore the Context They Are Working In.

Many change management plans are neat and orderly. They begin with Step 1 and end at Step 10. As valuable as a leadership road map can be, it cannot be used effectively without looking at the actual road you are traveling. I hope no one drives a car with head immersed into the map, and yet, lots of changes get led that way.

A few things that leaders often miss when their heads are buried in their maps. History of change in their organization: Do managers and employees think that past changes were led wisely or that the clowns were running this circus? Timing: Are people worn out? Is this the fifth top priority project in the past few months? Resources: Are there sufficient resources such as time, money, access to key players, and so forth, or are leaders starting this with the hope that those things will magically appear? Culture: Does your culture support your plan for change? For example, there are some highly effective “large systems change” approaches that can get hundred involved in planning. Sounds good on paper, but used in a culture that is afraid of input and involvement, an otherwise fine approach will fail.

If you are satisfied with the success rate of change in your organization – by all means, celebrate and then learn from your own successes so you can repeat them. If you are like most leaders, you probably believe that your organization should increase its success rate. If that’s the case, I encourage you to use the four points listed here to assess how well you are doing. Do we know what to do? How to do it? Are there competing commitments keep us from acting on what we say is important? Do we pay attention to the context and culture of our organization? This assessment could help you greatly improve your success rate. I wish you well.[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember]

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About the Author

Rick Maurer is a renowned change management expert, speaker, and bestselling author. He is an advisor to business leaders from a variety of organizations throughout the world, including major Fortune 500 companies, as well as private and nonprofit institutions in industries such as aerospace, healthcare, government, professional associations, telecommunications, and finance. Rick’s opinion has been sought by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, USA Today, and The Economist. To read Rick’s complete biography, click here.

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