The Top Five Reasons Change Management Strategies Fail

According to the Harvard Business Review, upwards of 70% of change management initiatives fail; a statistic that has stayed steady since the 1970s. Despite the fact that more than 80,000 books have been published on the subject, organizations still struggle to move the needle.

In our experience, the causation for this endemic failure rate is rooted in not understanding and executing on the following five issues.

Biology ~ We all know people are inherently resistant to change, but why? There’s a biological reason for this characteristic and the answer lies in our neurobiology. It turns out the brain is a gas guzzler. The brain consumes more than 25% of the available blood glucose in our bodies at any given time. The vast majority of this energy is used by the visual cortex and in processing short-term memory. After that, the brain is very conservative in its use of energy. It takes far less energy for a person to follow well established neural pathways than to develop new ones. Established ways of thinking are easier to follow than adaptive, innovative thinking. Our brain’s default pattern is to stay in the neurological rut.

How important is it for us to development of adaptive thinking? The U.S. Army thinks it is paramount. Extensive research conducted by Wake Forest University and the U.S. Army found that officers that have high levels of neural complexity (many novel neural pathways and the ability to quickly establish new neural pathways) had the best brains for leading troops in combat situations. High neural complexity leads to adaptive thinking in rapidly changing, high-stress environments.

Neuroscience-based, leadership development programs (such as our Accretive Coaching Process℠) can deliver higher levels of adaptive thinking in as little as six months. Adaptive thinking drives adaptive enterprises.

Strategic Alignment ~ Are your change objectives aligned with organizational strategy and core competencies? Sustainable change cannot emerge independent of day-to-day operations or beyond the scope of existing skill sets. Change objectives must be woven into the very fabric of the organization; in both people and processes.

We witnessed this with a recent client. They wanted to expand their scope of business in two areas that fell outside of their core competencies. Unfortunately, in attempting to execute this expansion, they failed to cultivate the new core competencies they would need in order to meet customer expectations. The expansion was “tacked on” to the existing value proposition and never fully integrated into the natural life cycle of the customers’ progression through the organization. The result was the erosion of core value, eclectic internal hand-offs, and the disruption of their customers’ quality of experience.

Communication ~ Have you developed a comprehensive communications strategy and are you over-communicating at every opportunity? Ambiguity and uncertainty cultivates fear. Working as an executive with highly acquisitive companies in the 1990s, I’ve witnessed this firsthand. The associates of the companies we were buying rapidly disengaged (and often left) as they struggled to figure out what the future held for them.

Actions also speak louder than words. By ensuring the communication strategy incorporates the capture and publicizing of short-term wins, associates will quickly recognize leadership’s support of, and clarity of, positive change.

Ownership ~ Have you cultivated buy-in for the change initiative throughout the organization? Top-down, dictatorial change inevitably falls flat in its implementation. Change can be seen as high-risk and career-threatening, leaving people to distance themselves from feeling any sense of ownership for the strategy.

By parsing the responsibility for the development of the strategy throughout the organization, ownership can be imparted at the outset. Here’s an approach that has worked for us:

Goals ~ Responsibility for setting the strategic goals lies with executive management. Leadership sets the vision, intention and direction.

Objectives ~ Delegate the creation of the change objectives (measurable outcomes within a set timeframe) with senior management.

Strategies ~ Once the objectives are set, engage middle management to define the strategies that will be necessary to achieve the objectives within the targeted timeframes.

Tactics ~ Look to the front-line associates to shape the tactics required to initiate the strategies. No one knows the customer better or how the company’s operations influence the customer experience better than the front-line associates.

Following this development process will ensure buy-in and also reveal potential blind spots that could derail the change initiative before it even begins. Plan from the top down, then the bottom up. You'll be amazed at the organizational learning that will emerge!

Groupthink ~ Research demonstrates that groups of like-minded people tend to move to the extreme when brought together. Risk-takers surrounded by risk-takers become more risky and conservative people, surrounded by fellow conversative people, become more conservative. This human tendency can stop change before it has a chance to start. You can avoid this by gathering cross-functional, multi-cultural, multi-generational teams during the planning process (see ownership). Top down, bottom up planning will also help alleviate groupthink.

© 2015, Performance Transformation, LLC™. All Rights Reserved.

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