What kills change?

A question many managers often ask is “Why do so many big change projects fail?”

It’s not so much the steps they take – all follow the same basic steps when under way viz:

  • Record facts
  • Examine findings
  • Develop solutions

But, as detailed in the book ‘Productivity Knowhow’, where most go wrong is with other steps needed before, during and after the above i.e. they’re:

  • Badly set up – unclear terms of reference, unquantified targets, lack of obvious senior management support, no links to corporate plans
  • Badly manned – ‘he got us into this mess’ appointments, lack of people with past success – lack of the right skills, experience and attitude – consultants put in total charge
  • Badly project managed –  lack of a timetable and accountabilities, no focus on the customers, deadlines allowed to drift, too little or too much time and resources made available
  • Badly implemented – employees are just told to implement changes without understanding why and what’s in it for them, little effort is made to ensure the changes work well after day one

Another interesting (and quick) read on this topic is ‘Who killed change?’ by Ken Blanchard of ‘One Minute Manager’ fame – his focus is on why implementing change stumbles so much, not on deciding what changes are needed in the first place, nor why they’re needed

He lists 13 pitfalls that stop major change in its tracks without attaching relative weightings to each one so the reader is left to decide his or her own:

  • Culture = The predominant attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of the organisation:
    • The current culture is not fully understood at first
    • Any disconnect between actual values and those posted on the wall means the latter are ignored
    • Employees become cynical about leaders who say one thing and do another
    • One must determine how to leverage the current culture to support, enable and sustain the change
    • To change the culture requires leadership, measures and incentives
  • Commitment = Employees’ motivation to engage in the new behaviours required by the change:
    • Employees are far more likely to buy in to a change they’ve influenced than one imposed on them by others – their involvement may lengthen implementation but greatly increase the likelihood of success
    • Uncovering and addressing employees’ concerns about any change increases both trust and buy-in
    • Those ignored can derail all
    • “There’s no commitment without involvement”
    • So provide forums for people affected to express their views, listen to bosses, become involved, have doubts removed, not least by others converted – do you want compliance or commitment?
  • Sponsorship = The senior person pushing for the change and with authority over resources needed:
    • He must live and breathe the change in behaviours needed to show he is serious
    • Actions speak louder than words
    • He must assemble a well-qualified change team
    • He must not announce visions such as “To be the leading XYZ company” when all employees know it’s unrealistic given the company is nowhere near that position and steadily falling further behind
  • Change team = They have responsibility for deciding and making the changes – leading people through them and delivering the outcomes wanted:
    • They must speak with one voice ALWAYS and resolve employees’ concerns
    • Members should include advocates for the change – people who have been part of successful projects, have the time, have respect of peers, are highly skilled, will speak the truth, can communicate – people from different areas, and represent diverse points of view
    • They must involve, not ignore, employees affected
  • Communication = Essential dialogue between changers and those affected on why the change is needed:
    • Mixed messages from sponsors, other managers and the change team give employees excuses not to change
    • Don’t focus on getting words out – also listen i.e. take employees’ words in
    • Use all types of media, often
  • Urgency = How quickly employees must change:
    • Employees must be convinced that the status quo is not a viable option – what is wrong with now
    • Present them with the facts, show the gaps between what is and what could be, and then ask them why the need to change
    • Spend lots of time with apparent losers
  • Vision = A clear and compelling picture of the future after the change:
    • Go beyond a slogan and present a clear picture of what the future could look like
    • Ensure (most) employees can see themselves benefiting in future
    • Don’t invent a vision off-site at some exec retreat
    • Involve the maximum number of employees in the visioning process to maximise the number who will want to be part of it
  • Plan = A detailed programme of actions to fully integrate changes into the organisation:
    • Don’t focus on the big picture and ignore the detail, the main stumbling blocks for change projects
    • Always try to include ‘early wins’ – build a momentum of enthusiasm or naysayers will prevail
    • Always include employees affected in the planning process, especially the resisters who will identify what could go wrong
    • “Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan”
  • Budget = The allocation of limited resources:
    • Ensure the project has enough resources for the change to succeed
    • Don’t let he who holds the purse strings run the whole show
  • Training = All employees affected have all the new skills needed:
    • Pilot the changes first – to learn who needs what training
    • Employ trainers whom employees respect and will learn from
  • Incentives = Rewards for desired behaviours and results:
    • They must be meaningful/ relevant – and not necessarily monetary
    • They must be on offer to all, not just a few
    • Employees must not forget their other roles
  • Performance management = Goals and expectations:
    • Track outcomes expected of people – provide feedback and coaching
    • Ensure they have the time and capacity for the extras needed for the changes
    • Some people want change but are not willing to pay for it
    • HR should be the most important division – (not a dumping ground for failures)
  • Accountability = Delegation, follow-up and consequences:
    • Leaders must ‘walk the talk’
    • Avoid lots of action then no follow-up
    • Need clear measures of success for all, not just the leaders – which are  regularly reviewed

With so many important factors to consider, it makes one wonder about the chances of success for any big improvement initiatives, especially those sought at national level – each one is usually announced with considerable fanfare, just as many companies announce any big changes within – but initial enthusiasm for them soon wanes, effort becomes half-hearted and any measured results are usually meagre – hence interest moves on

In particular, over the last two years the UK has announced the following grand initiatives:

  • PLG – Productivity Leadership Group – aka ‘Be the Business’ – led by a group of business leaders – main output is inspiring others with ‘best practice’ stories – now well into its second year of existence, but to what quantifiable effect?
  • PIN – Productivity Insights Network – set up this year – sponsored by Sheffield University and Lord Jim O’Neill – no known output as yet
  • Andy Haldane, Bank of England chief economist, recently appointed to lead the UK government’s drive to improve UK productivity – given HMG can only impact some 20% of national productivity via investment in infrastructure, R&D and training, Andy’s chances of quick quantifiable wins are slim

And only today, New Zealand has announced a similar venture

Some of the biggest names in New Zealand business are to form a Business Advisory Council and advise Prime MinisterJacinda Ardern (see below) on how to supercharge the New Zealand economy

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has named her business advisory council members.

The council is designed to advise the Government on how to build a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy that improves the well-being of New Zealanders

“New Zealand needs a modern economy that has the investment, innovation and skills required to ensure we can all share in prosperity and opportunity in a sustainable way” Ardern said.

A mix of six women and seven men with small to large business experience, from across New Zealand, have been selected to provide advice

The council is expected to meet three times a year with the prime minister and her representatives – it will provide high-level, free and frank advice on policies that directly affect business, harness the expertise of the private sector to inform government policy and build closer relationships between government and business

“I will also be asking the council to gather advice from their peers in the domestic and international business community on some of the most important issues facing New Zealand including how we best grow and share our prosperity, support regional development, and transition to a clean, green New Zealand” Ardern said.

Again, another grand, well-intentioned initiative, plus another feather-in- the-cap for those council members chosen – easy to set up and announce, easy to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about a well-known problem, easy for the government to park responsibility elsewhere, but unlikely to make any noticeable difference to the well-being of all

Why so cynical?

Because there are many other avenues of worthy advice that government ministers can and do tap before making their decisions – and re-election, not long term national health, is too often uppermost in many minds


  • The above national initiatives are a start, but improving productivity, even at organisation level, is invariably a long haul, not a quick fix
  • Once major initiatives are announced, few get down to the detail to ‘make the hard yards’ – and even fewer try to quantify what % difference they targeted or made
  • It reminds one of being a participant in the Fastnet race – there’s much publicity and excitement at the start off Cowes as thousands of spectators watch the 200 or so boats begin their adventure – however, soon after and when past the Needles, each boat usually finds itself all alone out at sea with some 600 miles to go – whether they reach their target, off Plymouth Hoe, depends on just the skipper, crew and boat – and that’s when most of Blanchard’s 13 pitfalls become relevant for their success
  • Everyone loves the glamour of grand new initiatives – few love the hard graft that must then follow to even finish the job, never mind come in ahead of others

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