Change Efforts Fail Over 70% of the Time - Why?

There are many reasons why efforts to transform and change an organization fail.

Whether it’s the whole company or simply a department — over 70% of all change efforts do not succeed.

The reasons why fall into one or more of these broad categories:

• Poor communication
• Lack of top level commitment
• Unfocused or half hearted efforts
• Poor planning

However, I think these are actually symptoms of a more fundamental flaw: the very paradigm we hold of organizations. The current paradigm is that an organization is a machine of production.

When viewed from within this framework, all actions to change are merely efforts to reprogram the machine. Hence, we get a set of instructions from the top about the new change and that is sufficient - the machine has been successfully reprogrammed. Even if we bring in change agent consultants the same underlying belief permeates and guides all behaviors.

Clearly, this is an oversimplification but I hope a useful example to illustrate how the underlying worldview is foundational to the symptoms we all witness and experience.

Even the System Approach, while a step in the right direction, is not sufficient. While the approach looks at the many moving parts, it still holds that an organization is a "machine," a complex machine — but a machine, nevertheless.

It is my view that organizations are living entities. They are organic systems with physiology, emotions, and spiritual context. They are comprised of other living entities (our people) that are in active exchange of energy (the activities they do) in concert with others (relationships) both within the organization (the inside world) and with their environment (the outside world). And all of this is driven by the Context of the organization, its underlying belief systems, which we call culture at the organizational level.

When looking at WHY change efforts fail, it’s because we do not approach the change from this holistic organic view of the organization. We ignore many of the forces (in a simple force field analysis) that are supporting and restraining the change. By looking at the organization as The Living Organization®, we would be able to more clearly identify all the parameters of change, not just what to do or how to do it, but the energy of existing relationships and the energy of the underlying, often unconscious, Context that defines and drives all behaviors.

Norman Wolfe
Quantum Leaders, Inc.
Executing Strategy

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  • Randall Benson

    I applaud you, Norman, for rejecting the popular nostrums for failed change efforts. That freed you up to look for deeper roots and I like the "living organization" path you are pursuing. It makes sense that any social construct is more than simply the sum of it's parts. I think you're on to something big.

    I would caution you not to be too quick in rejecting the systems approach. After all, that was the very framework upon which James Lovelock built the vision of a living planet (i.e. the Gaia Hypothesis), which might be a great analog for the living organization.

    Randall Benson
    Author of The Quest Effect

  • Josh Patrick

    I think you're right on the money. When we work with our Clients and change is on the table we first look at their mission, vision, values and goals. If they don't have a clearly defined mission statement change is almost sure to fail. If the mission is well defined and integrated in the company then there is a better than even chance that the change will be successful. That is of course if the change is congruent with the mission and vision of the company and those working in the company agree with it's mission.

    Josh Patrick

  • Vernon Martin

    Wow Norman, viewing an organization as living, is very good point. As a living thing, it does change, but many times the change is not controlled or realized. Like any relationship, over time we develop ways of interacting or even ways to avoid certain types of interaction. How many companies can remember better times interaction and progress? Yet, finding that point where things went off course seems impossible. Failed efforts to change may actually be misdirected focus. In the business of marriage, as an example, the husband may hear a complaint that suggests that he should, “…at least take out the trash,” and assume that the answer to the situation is, “I will take the trash out!” He comes to this brilliant conclusion because he is not considering all the situations that boiled up to this one complaint. He is not seeing how or why he gradually became less attentive or caring. What happens if the question that needs to be asked is, “How do we stop changing in the negative direction?”