Why Change Fails: 3 Things to Think About

Jon Kotter, Ken Blanchard and McKinsey & Company say 70% of change or transformational programmes fail. IBM are more optimistic, suggesting about 60% fail. Harvard Business Review notes that this rate of failure has been consistent for 45 years. Reviewing this, they note:

The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped.

This, of course, places the blame squarely on the leaders, managers and organizations that fail to change. The change agent gets off scott free, having delivered a working model and only been let down by entrenched and resistant attitudes. Is this a fair summary? Let’s hope so.  What would be terrible would be an industry worth billions of dollars per annum promising one thing (evidence-based, professionally managed successful change) and delivering something else (chaotic, ambiguous uncertainty that requires mental fortitude, wittily innovative thinking and, possibly, blind luck to struggle through).

They say it is a sign of insanity to continue doing the same thing and expecting different results. Is the change management industry insane or is it right to criticise poor leadership and management for its continuous failure to successfully deliver change?

Change Management Models are Smoke and Mirrors

As I wrote last week, research by Todd BridgmanStephen Cummings and Kenneth Brown has revealed that the foundational model of change, on which pretty much all subsequent models were built, does not exist. The three-step change model (Kurt Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze) that underpins pretty much the whole change management industry is, at best, an afterthought. To comprehend just how ethereal it is, consider the following:

  1. The only time Lewin even references a change model is the “24th of 25 sub-sections in a 37-page article”
  2. There is no empirical evidence supporting it and Lewin merely regards it “as a way that ‘planned social change may be thought of’”
  3. Lewin only wrote the word “unfreeze”; the rest is just attributed to him
  4. Ron Lippet, the man who popularised the model and introduced the phrase “change agents” failed to mention this change model in his tribute to Lewin after his death, only to remember how important it was to Lewin a decade later when he used it to underpin his own change model

It also needs to be noted that a huge number of social scientists and change management researchers/experts who built upon this model failed to actually reference the work in which Lewin introduced the model (how could they; it didn’t exist!) and just commented on his and its general influence on the discipline. In recent years, leading critical management scholars have been increasingly criticising models influenced by Lewin’s “model” as insufficient when dealing with contemporary conditions of constant change and the fluidity, ambiguity and uncertainty that are its unavoidable companions. Given the above and that the simplicity of the “model” falls well short of the usual reflective complexity of Lewin’s research, it is not too big a step to feel somebody was looking to use Lewin’s name to build a career, and that, consequently, we’ve been following a bum steer for far too long. We seriously need to start critically reflecting on the practices and models of change and transformation, rather than just blaming all the failure on the client.

Please note, that all the above is presented more fully in Bridgman, Cummings & Brown’s exceptional paper, which can be downloaded here. Please, please read it if the above interests you as it is an exemplary piece of scholarship and beautifully written to boot. It certainly needs to be taken into consideration by anyone seeking to invest or work in change. 

Conditions of Uncertainty, Ambiguity and Contradiction

Change management firms promise to deliver flexible, agile, lean organization staffed by mindful, resilient and authentic employees. Fitness and health metaphors are everywhere, stretching across bodily health (the organization) to mental health (the employees). It’s a very compelling bunch of images. Yet, have you ever looked at a job advert for a change professional? Nearly every single one says “must be able to handle ambiguity”. That’s because the practice of change will unavoidably deliver an ambiguous, uncertain and contradictory organizational environment.

The practice of change management, as described above, discards and replaces old, “irrational” ways of doing things and delivers new “rational” ways. Packaged up in powerful metaphors and supported by enthusiastic researchers and consultants, they are sold to management as the new “one best way” of doing things. However, no matter how well it is delivered, the process of replacing one process with another process creates ambiguity. There are now two, not one, ways of doing things. If the change manager is reflective and open to feedback from experienced or enthusiastic employees, a third hybrid way of doing things might emerge, or you might develop even a new, unexpected way of doing things, leaving your less enlightened colleagues having to cope with even more ambiguity.  Over the long-term, newer, more innovative ways might emerge, adding even more ambiguity.

What’s the problem, you might ask. Well, unfortunately, modern humans are hard-wired into finding ambiguity uncomfortable. Modernity’s promise was to deliver permanence and certainty and we are products of institutional environments embedded in this promise. We did not expect to produce the uncertain and ambiguous techno-society that defines our time.  Consequently, change programs delivering ambiguity also deliver a multitude of psychological and emotional stresses, requiring huge levels of psychological facilitation whilst your staff are trying to work out what the hell is the best way of working.  Rather than having a flexible, agile, lean organization staffed by mindful, resilient and authentic employees, you might find you have delivered a dystopian environment in which processes are so ambiguous nothing gets done properly, systems require complex workarounds to function, and your newly toxic culture is staffed by disenchanted employees, confused specialists and rapidly burning out managers.

Pretty much all change programmes will deliver ambiguous and uncertain environments. They are inherent to the step-based process. If the change fails or is left incomplete, that’s all you’ll be left with, which might have extremely serious long-term consequences. Finding a more insightful change agent who fully comprehends the conditions of constant change that characterise the contemporary organizational environment can help employees cope with ambiguity, but doesn’t lessen how much of it there is. Leaders need to think about how they might handle this very carefully before committing to a change initiative. 

Resistance is Futile (and it shouldn’t be)

In uncertain and ambiguous environments, three things happen. Firstly, there is confusion about how to do things, requiring constant teaching and mentoring. Secondly, there are a lot of emotional, stressed people exhibiting unhealthy mental behaviours, ranging from neurotic defences to full-on breakdowns. This requires constant psychological monitoring and coaching. Thirdly, some people start to exhibit behaviours consistent with healthy coping strategies for ambiguity and its attendant emotions and stresses, often manifesting as a form of humorous ironic detachment (although it can manifest in other ways). Because management is on edge due to the increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty (which they were possibly highly unprepared for), this type of coping method is seen as damning the whole process and regarded as resistance.

This is a major problem, as it prevents leadership from listening to engaged critique from the employees who are actually best coping with the changing environment. Although the below list is deliberately provocative and only captures a single, perhaps slight, dimension of five possible responses, it hopefully helps towards how you might comprehend this detached ironic sensibility:

  1. Irony: When there’s a gap between the expected environment and the reality that’s actually being created
  2. Cynicism: When leaders aren’t practising what they are preaching
  3. Sarcasm: When you are indirectly telling somebody what they are trying to achieve is foolish
  4. Mockery: When you are illustrating to somebody else how another person or situation is foolish
  5. Ridicule: When the whole caboodle has become so foolish you’ve given up hope

As you can see, this form of critique, if ignored, can escalate into a destructive force that can rapidly undermine organizational values, culture, leadership and environment. It needs to be taken seriously as it first manifests as it reveals absurdities in the process and environment that might be fixed and improved before they become too dysfunctional.

There’s a wealth of organizational research investigating how humorous, cynical and ironic responses to organizational pressures are actually vital, insightful commentaries. This research looks at how jesters could raise issues with the king that would cost anybody else their head, how engaged cynics (or kynics) try to challenge illegitimate uses of power, how humorous commentary can release psychological tension and surface unmentionables, and my own, and others, work on the importance of the organizational ironist.

Unfortunately, very little of this critical thought has established itself in the Change Management mainstream, perhaps partly down the need to vigorously defend models that seem not to work very well from authentic critique. Despite this, great change managers do take local, experienced knowledge seriously, and listen to and use this type of “resistance”, seeing off serious problems before they arrive and better facilitating the change. Working out how to find the right one for your organization is the trick and requires careful thought. 

The End

Hey! This is about irony (or at least some of it is), so the meaning is all in the interpretation. Draw your own conclusions. Tell me I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Take some of it onboard and leave the rest behind. Or be inspired. Whatever reaction you choose, I hope you didn’t feel reading it was a total waste of your time.

Having spent over a decade trying to develop a holistic perspective on the opportunities and perils of organisational change, I try my best to stand back and reflect upon the reams of supposed “best way” practices inundating the change management and transformational leadership market. I hope to meld techniques and tools of business transformation with a deeper appreciation of the value of the experience and skill sets of those going through change, reduce the psycho-emotional stresses accompanying change and inject some humour, sensitivity and critical thinking into the process of change.

Illustrating the importance of irony for organizations and management is my life’s work. Without trying to be a Machiavellian manipulator or provocatively tugging at heartstrings, please, if you enjoyed this article or found it interesting in any way, take a second to comment, like or share it. Thanks.