Why Organizations Fail to Change

Generations of Books, MBA’s and Consultants have attempted to explain how changes fail within an organization. Here are some concrete signs that your change is destined for failure…and tips to prevent it.

Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. These are the words which define the world of business in 2018. In many ways, these words define the world in general in 2018. In this kind of Operating Environment, flexibility is key. To survive, you have to be able to quickly pivot when the context changes.

But, if change is so important, why are organizations so bad at it?

A legion of books, MBA classes and Organizational Change Consultants have built careers and handsome profits off of opining on this question. Now I’m not an MBA (although I do believe one graduate certification in Public Administration plus one graduate certification in Nonprofit Management roughly equals one MBA) and I don’t have degrees in Organizational Change or an expensive consulting firm to make me look important. But what I do have is valuable perspective on Organizational Change gleaned from over a decade of first-hand experience in the trenches of Change Management.

I’ve been at the head of a nonprofit organization implementing badly needed change. In this role I was fighting not only against the forces of organizational structure and regulatory compliance, but also against the natural resistance to change baked into a small, rural Midwestern town. It was a challenge that taught me a lot about implementing change as an outsider, and how to succeed in getting the change you want.

I’ve also been a part of Organizational Change as a participant, working with dozens of clients across the country as they implement new software platforms to run their businesses; a huge organizational change that I have seen go smoothly and not-so-smoothly. I have also been a developer and advocate for change within my own organization, changing processes and procedures within my own team and pushing for changes in the broader organization. I’ve had a front row seat to see changes succeed and fail.

Here are some concrete signs that your change efforts are heading for failure and some tips to prevent that failure.


hierarchyCommand-And-Control Mindset

You know this type of organization. This is the org where there is a leader or set of leaders at the top who make all of the decisions, and then simply push those decisions down the chain. This top-down management style has tons of issues, from recruiting and retaining talent to successfully implementing change. Inflexibility is a key feature of this management style, since control and flexibility are anathema to each other. Without flexibility, change efforts will fail.

So how do you deal with this in your workplace? Longer term, this management style will need to change for the organization to survive. But in the short to medium term, focus on trying to incorporate more flexibility into the decision making process.

Here is one method to help you get started: Gather feedback from sources outside of the top, even if it’s through informal conversations. It will help you locate people in the organization with valuable insight and expertise into some of the issues you face. Once you have identified them, work to incorporate them into the decision making process. If you can’t start directly inviting them to meetings without facing blow back, work to gradually open up the process by doing things like presenting their insights while giving them full credit. For example, say something like, “I was chatting with Tim the other day about this and he brought up….”. It may take a while, but eventually Tim start to benefit from the Halo Effect, and you can then add him to meetings without risking anger from the top.  Adding new perspectives in this way not only decreases the risk of Group Think, it also gets the Command-and-Control type manager comfortable with adding some flexibility to the status quo.

RiskRisk Management that Isn’t Managing Risk

Risk management is often seen as The Department of No. Because the nature of risk management is to identify risk to an organization, any change that is run by this department often brings up red flags.  I have seen two common issues that arise from the Risk Management function which doom changes to failure:

  • Risk Management isn’t just about avoiding risk; it’s also identifying and prioritizing risk. Some [lazy] Risk Managers use “No” as a substitute for doing a proper risk assessment, which should include the risks of not making a change, as well as making the change.
  • Risk Management is too focused on specific areas rather than the entire organization. This myopic focus is often the result of lack of staff, lack of training or lack of guidance from the department or the organization.

So what can you do when Risk Management is tanking change efforts? One of the biggest things you can do is incorporate them into your change efforts from the beginning by building relationships with them. This is far more productive than trying to end-run your change around them, which only results in ruined relationships and dooms future change efforts to failure.

HazyVision is Hazy

The organization is having problems. Innovation is down. Sales are down. Morale is down. Something has to be done, so why not get a new product or new tool that outside Sales Reps say will solve all of your problems, right?

When you see this situation within an organization, you are about to witness one expensive failure. Why? Because there is no clear data on the root cause of the problem. Innovation or Sales or Morale being down is a symptom…not the disease. Treating the symptoms rather than the disease is a futile waste of resources.

If you find yourself in this situation, one of the best things you can do is to borrow from the Socratic Method to get to the root cause. You need a clear vision for your change to succeed, and you can’t see clearly without data. To get yourself started, get comfortable with the idea of asking for more information by asking questions like:

  • How do we know that?
  • Why is that important?
  • What evidence do we have for that?
  • How does this tool solve for [insert data point here]

And don’t be satisfied until you have clear answers, with measurable data, for these questions.








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