Why Change Management Efforts 'Really' Fail!

My response to CIO article about why change management fails

Bruce Harpham recently wrote an article published in CIO called “8 ways you’re failing at change management “ (Jan 3, 2018).

The article explores the 8 most common ways that change management efforts fail.

Whilst I agree with some of what Harpham has written, I think some of his observations fail to reflect the world in which are currently living. This is one in which change is constant, complex, unpredictable, fluid and can change direction at any point in time.

I am not going to replicate in detail what Harpham has written but rather respond to it, so I recommend that you read his article first, before continuing with this one.

1.     Poor understanding of stakeholders

Harpham says that we need strong input from stakeholders. I agree.

But he spends a lot of time explaining how we need to create a stakeholder map, which will inform training and communication. Whilst I don't disagree that we need a stakeholder map, what fails to be acknowledged is that in times of constant change, artefacts such as stakeholder maps and communication plans have to be a lot less formal than they have been in the past.

They are subject to change as business priorities change which could be on a weekly basis when external and internal factors drive dynamic change.

Therefore they have to be living documents and fluid in nature. We have to engage the right people in the right way whilst being cognisant that those people may change and the engagement approach may also change.

We also need to stop creating our change management plans to overcome resistance to change. Rather organisational change practitioners need to be creating resilience to change across the workforce.

I have started writing more posts in this space recently and there will be more to come.

Resilience isn’t just one thing. It's a variety of skills and coping mechanisms that employees need to enable them to bounce back from bumps in the road as well as failures, that they will experience in a world of constant change and rapid change accompanied with many changes in direction at short notice.

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So whilst we may have created stakeholder maps to determine stakeholder impacts in the past, today we don't have the luxury of creating detailed resistance management plans as an outcome.

When change is constant and variable, detailed plans will become of no value very quickly.

2.     Letting leaders off the hook

I agree. The only thing I would add is that we need to create a workplace in which everyone leads.

Robert Townsend, successful Director at American Express, President of car rental company Avis and author of ‘Up the Organisation’ summed it up.

“If people are coming to work excited… if they know they’re making a difference in the world…if they’re making mistakes freely and fearlessly…if they’re having fun…if they’re concentrating on getting things done, rather than preparing reports — then somewhere (perhaps everywhere) you have leaders”. 

Organisations must give employees autonomy to lead. This needs trust and commitment and also a breaking down of the hierarchy. Everyone can make decisions, initiate and drive change.

There may be principles to guide employees or guardrails within which they can operate, but everyone is encouraged to lead to the extent that makes good sense for the organisation.

When everyone leads, they are held accountable for their actions and there is a no-blame culture.

Leadership is an action many can take, not a position few can hold.

Paul Schmitz


If the organisation is going to survive in a world of constant and complex change, power has to be distributed and not retained by a designated few.

3.     Staying silent about uncertainties

Totally agree!

In “The Power of Saying I don't Know”, Gaurav Gupta says:

“Effective leaders are able to set a vision and direction, get others to buy into this vision and mobilize them to produce the change required to achieve this vision. None of this requires having all the answers. Yet, many people’s idea of a leader involves someone who has foresight and insight - someone who is able to see what others don’t. This can often translate to never saying, “I don’t know.”

4.     Failing to explain the purpose of change

Harpham describes a situation where executives have lived with and planned for a change initiative for so long, that they see the ‘why’ as obvious whilst the rest of the workforce has no idea for the reason behind the change.

Harpham notes that executives forget that employees have typically no visibility into a fundamental problem or the months of planning that led to the change. He suggests that when communicating with employees, the organisation must start at the beginning and walk them through the problem and why the proposed changes are going to fix it.

To me, this is the epitome of change been “done to, rather than with.”

Also, if organisational executives think they can lock themselves away for months on end to resolve a problem or plan a change in today’s environment, they are living in cuckoo land! The chances are the problem has resolved itself or is no longer relevant and the change being planned has been usurped by a change in market conditions or customer demands.

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Employees should be involved in determining the changes that are needed within the organisation. They are often the closest to the problems and opportunities than the executives.

Take W.L. Gore for example.

Gore has more than 10,000 employees, with basically three levels in their organizational hierarchy - CEO (elected democratically), a handful of functional heads, and everyone else. 

All decision-making is done through self-managing teams of 8-12 people: hiring, pay, which projects to work on, everything. 

Rather than relying on a command-and-control structure, current CEO Terri Kelly says:

 “It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.”

If you are not ready to adopt a Gore approach you can still involve employees in strategic, tactical and operational change through effective communication. As plans are being formulated, tell employees the intended direction and explain the purpose. Engage them by asking for feedback remembering that communication is 2-way.

Provide platforms for easy, effective ad efficient collaboration. And most of all respond to feedback else it will stop coming and you will end up with employee disengagement – which is costly.

5.     Looping in business users only at launch

Totally agree.

It’s called user-centred design (UCD) or user-driven development (UDD).

User-centred design tries to optimise the product or service around how users can, want, or need to use the it, rather than forcing the users to change their behaviour to accommodate the product or service. 

UCD, as a concept, became widely popular after the publication of Donald A. Norman’s book "User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction" in 1986! Now that’s not new!

6.     The project team looks only inward

See number 5.

Project should not only involve users in the design and development but also those that will have to support it.

7.     Inadequate resources for change management

Could not agree more! But I don't think it is a project manager’s role to have to fight for change management resources every time they are needed!

What is needed is organisational-wide recognition of the importance of organisational change management and commitment to provision of adequate resources to enable it.

I believe that if we build resilience to change across the entire workforce where it is recognise that change is now constant and complex and subject to rapid change and people say ‘Bring it on!’ we will can reduce the need for extensive change management resources on individual projects and change initiatives.

If we don't have a resilient workforce, then we will have a resourcing issue.

“If organisational resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back, or to recover from challenges in a manner that leaves the organisation more flexible and better able to adapt to future challenges, then organisational resilience is a quality that leaders and managers in all organisations should seek to foster at all times”

(Denhardt & Denhardt, 2010)

 8.     Failure to realise change is personal

Somewhat agree.

Everyone will always want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’

Harpham refers to leaders needing to communicate on a personal level to their employees what the changes means to them else they wont adopt the change.

This again sounds to me a little like ‘done to, rather than done with’.

If employees are actively involved on the change journey from conception through to implementation, they already know what it means and why it is taking place. You already have their buy-in because you have engaged them from the outset and listened to what they have had to say. You have listened and responded.

They are often the ones who know best!

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Communication has been transparent, open and honest and has covered what we do know but also what we don't know and the progress we are making.

Everyone has an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making process.

Realising that change is personal and communicating accordingly is not something that is done after the change has been set in stone!


Harpham is writing about technology changes and how they fail due to poor change management. To be fair, Harpham has interviewed a number of people in the formulation of this article so these views are shared views.

I think what he has written about (and my responses) apply to any change – technology, process, or position related.

What has been missed is the recognition of the new world, which we are faced with. Change will be fast paced, complex, volatile, unpredictable and often ambiguous. Organisations will be faced with uncertainty as to direction and will have to become adept at reading signals and adapt accordingly.

The traditional approaches to organisational change management are not suited to this brave new world.

Change management has to be a flexible, adaptable, organic and living-breathing practice matched to the cadence of change taking place within the organisation.

It’s time for a wake-up and shake-up.

Open invitation

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If you are in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia on Friday 16th February 2018, I invite you to a breakfast seminar at which I am presenting ‘Change Management is Broken!’

It is a free event and all attendees will receive an advance copy of my white paper of the same name.

I will be exploring what has been written about here plus more!

You can find all the details here.



Karen Ferris1 Comment