Fail at Organizational Change in 3 Easy Steps!

80% of all organizational change initiatives fail. Either they fail to get off the ground, or they work only superficially and then fade away.

I think we can do much, much better better than 80%.   Why not shoot for a 100% failure rate?  We’re so close.  Here is my top 3 list for failing at organizational change:


#3. Underfund the change, either in terms of time or money. The more severely you underfund, the more quickly the change will tank. Unfortunately, if you overfund it, you can also sink your change initiative.  Luckily, there’s a key to getting it wrong 100% of the time:  Don’t review your original assumptions.  Yes, it really is that simple!  Just stick unwaveringly to your original plans, ignoring new information.  Extra credit:  call people names when they disagree.

Overfunding and underfunding are two sides of the same coin. We underfund, because we are in denial about what it will take to get what we want. We overfund because the change feels big to us, so it must be big.  And, we do one of these because we’re keeping the change at arms distance. It’s not close enough to us to know it well. No need to fuss about which it is. If your project is sputtering from neglect or drowning in personnel without achieving commensurate results, take another look. It’s probably this second key to failing at Organizational Change:


#2. Fail to define goals for the change that are clear, specific and measurable.Instead, use words like “better,” more,” and “less.” Or, say “we’re going to implement this model and leave it up to each person to operationalize.”

This is a fine place to start exploration and change, not the place to leave it. It’s a cop-out not to push through to clarity, to the place where your simple, single-pointed message vibrates, it’s so alive. You’ll know you’ve got it when you can easily see how to measure it – both that it is happening (the behavior changes) and that it makes a difference (your business goals).

Pushing for clarity of what to measure is the number one way to find out what you really want out of this. Do it early. It will improve everything and chew your project down to size. If you don’t know how to measure it, or can’t find the time, what does that tell you about your commitment level? Exactly. Which leads us to the number 1 way to guarantee an organizational change initiative fails:

#1. Fail to change yourself. It’s the you-change-I-don’t-have-to model. Works like a hot knife through butter. If leadership isn’t changing, it telegraphs to the entire organization that it’s business as usual. No matter what else you do, people will follow your lead. Your behavioral lead. They’ll watch what you do, rather than listen to what you say. After all, you aren’t listening to you. Why should they?

I hear people bemoan the terrible communication in their organization. To which I say HA! Gossip is a fabulous communication system, always working, always free. Imitation is the same: always working, always free. It’s built in to the human organism through something called mirror neurons, and popularized in the phrase “monkey see, monkey do.” Employee see, employee do. It’s simple: If you ask them to make uncomfortable changes and you yourself stay in the comfortable tracks of habit and certainty, monkey see, monkey do. If the change isn’t taking hold, look at the face in the mirror and start there.

That’s why you go through the agony of #3 and #2. Because it changes you.

Er, I mean, that’s why you refuse to go through 2 and 3. So you can refuse to change. At all. So you can get to 100% failure.

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