In 2010, McKinsey reported the findings of a huge study involving more than 315,000 respondents. They found that 75% of organisations were experiencing change and that 70% of change initiatives were regarded as unsuccessful.
Hundreds of other studies corroborate the 70% failure rate statistic. This statistic is often cited in the change management community as a reason to engage change management professionals as change leaders. But the problem is that the 70% statistic has remained stable for decades, even though change management principles form part of many graduate and post-graduate leadership programs. Maybe the message is not getting through to the right people. Or, in our view, there’s something wrong with the message itself.
Others totally debunk the 70% statistic. Claiming to be ‘superior’ change managers, they apparently experience success in most of the change initiatives they lead. This could, possibly, be realistic – theirs may be among the 30% of change projects that succeed. But it could also be a matter of pride: we all like to think we are successful.
But let’s not get too hung up on the 70% statistic. It is probably dependent on how things are measured and how reasonable initial expectations were. My interest in this article is not on the 70% figure, but on the perceptions of why organisational change fails or succeeds. I want to outline three reasons that are often cited.
The employees are the issue
McKinsey found that employee resistance to change was identified as the single biggest cause of change failure. If change fails, management often blames employees for having bad attitudes, for resisting change, and for disengaging from the process. Just when they should have been involved, they got negative and didn’t want to play ball.
Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. Maybe employees resisted for good reasons. But here’s the point – change leadership shouldn’t be about obedience – forcing people to do what they’re told. It should be about developing readiness for change.
And let’s not just focus on failure. Employees are an organisation’s greatest asset and any change that succeeds does so, in large part, because of support from employees.
The leaders are the issue
Change managers may be delighted with or disappointed with the level of support they receive from senior leaders. Unfortunately, change can fail even though employees support it and skilled change managers lead it. It can fail if senior management pulls back their support for the change – they lose motivation or incentive, or simply under-resource it. Strong and continued support from senior leaders is essential for the success of any change initiative.
The change managers are the issue
Professionally trained change managers rightly take pride in the knowledge and skills they have worked hard to develop over many years. Many change projects underperform due to a lack of such leadership.
But as important as change management is, success requires more than good management. Management can only take you so far – managers can’t make the changes only the employees can make. So, there needs to be a readiness on the part of employees to support the change and engage with the process from beginning to end. And there also needs to be cultural readiness to support and sustain the change.
Let’s look at the organisational landscape so far. It is a challenging landscape that offers many opportunities to fall short. Will the employees support the change, and do they have to capacity to succeed at every step of the change process? Will senior leaders maintain a strong commitment for the change at every step of the process? Do change managers have the knowledge and skills to deliver a successful outcome? And will the culture support and sustain the change long-term?
Look at those questions. Some relate to support and commitment – the enactment of the will to support rather than oppose change. And some relate to capacity. Even if people willingly support and engage in the change project, they also need the psychological capacity to meet the challenging demands of every step of the change process – the capacity to keep going when they are tired and confused and everything inside them wants to quit. And they also relate to the capacity of change managers to follow an evidence-based process, to unlock the potential of the team, and to manage risks posed by the team’s limitations. This mix of will and capacity are aspects of an organisation’s change readiness. And there are other important ingredients in that mix as well.
Readiness incorporates power, capacity, and will. Organisations are not ready for change if their people are not willing to exercise their power to support change and if they don’t have the capacity to succeed at the change process. Change readiness is readiness to succeed at the change process – not just readiness to begin. Sure, that’s important too, but what’s the value of being ready to start if you’re not also ready to succeed?
The 70% failure statistic carries a serious warning – 100% of organisations surveyed started a change project, but only 30% were ready to succeed. I am reminded of the 2015 Optus study that found just 27% of Australian businesses are ready for change. Look, who wants to be one of the 70% of businesses that are ready to fail at change? Where’s the honour in that? And why would you even want that when you can do so much to become ready to succeed?
How to create successful change
Change is inherently risky because it’s easier to fail at things than to succeed. Success depends on doing a few things right bu