Let’s Not Only Ask “Why Does Change Fail?” Let’s ask “Why Does it Succeed?”

CHANGE MATTERS[su_dropcap style=”flat”]S[/su_dropcap]CARCELY A DAY goes by that I don’t read another article or blog about why a change management initiative has been a desperate failure, or went off the rails, or got hijacked and never lived up to its potential.  That’s fine, as far as it goes – it’s good to understand why things go wrong – but I’ve been involved with all kinds of highly successful change management initiatives and I’m here to tell you that, despite what you may read, failure is not inevitable.

In fact, I think it might be more helpful to ask ourselves why change efforts succeed:  What factors are required for change initiatives to achieve the results they set out to achieve? Not that I don’t think we can learn from our mistakes, I just think that focusing only on the reasons for failure will not help us learn and change our approach for the next change we undertake.

In my 20+ years of change management experience, I’ve learned that the answers to “Why does change succeed?” are the following:

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  1. Success-or-failure
    Provide clear reasons for change
There’s nothing more guaranteed to get employees to dig their
heels in that to announce wholesale changes without explanation, reason or context. People don’t like to be ‘bossed’ around or treated like children.  So take the time to explain why the change is taking place:  Maybe it’s for competitive advantage, maybe it’s because the marketplace has changed, maybe it’s because the shareholders are getting restive.  As long as the reasons are rational and make basic sense, communicating them will make the change process go much more smoothly.
  1.  Strive for engagement
Successful change doesn’t happen when a small team of senior leaders drags the rest of the organization kicking and screaming into the new world. Successful change requires everyone in the organization to be engaged in the process and the results.  By providing clear reasons for the change, you’ve already taken the first step to engaging your workforce; ensuring that they continue to be engaged throughout the process will turn your group into a team which is striving for the same goal.
  1.  Make change make sense
Moving your head office 50 miles from one city to another take advantage of improved transportation, raw materials and tax breaks may make perfect sense in the boardroom when the decision is made.  But it won’t make sense to the 2500 workers who are about to be displaced or saddled with a new two hour each day commute, unless you can explain to them what this change will mean for the organization.  Does it mean you’ll stand a better chance of surviving a difficult economic climate in the next few years? Does it mean you’ll be able to reduce the prices for your product and therefore grow the company, with increased opportunity for everyone?  If you don’t take the time to explain, all you’ll end up with is a resentful workforce.
  1.  Communicate!
Ever notice how sports coaches are always talking to their players?  They talk to them before the game, during the game, after the game – they’re constantly communicating instructions, feedback, motivation and strategy.  The same principle is true for change initiatives:  Change will be more successful when communication is continual and consistent. And at the risk of repeating myself, you need to repeat yourself. Don’t think one communication about a topic is enough. And utilize different channels – not just email or your company website. Maybe include a video or gather everyone for a town hall meeting. People hear different things at different times so repetition, in addition to consistency is critical.
  1.  Stay positive
A positive culture, in general, means a positive bottom line. A positive environment – leaders who are enthusiastic about change, cultivating an attitude of resiliency and adaptability when it comes to change – will go a long way to ensuring that the team can stay focused on the change and not get sidetracked by resistance or delays to address trumped-up obstacles.[/message][su_spacer]

It’s just possible that by focusing on the ways in which change succeeds – and spending a little less time on why it fails – the prospect of change may not seem quite so daunting.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. I do not believe there is any such thing as a purely bad change. That is, all change has a balance of good and bad outcomes. I’ve noticed that resistance to change is often rooted in bad. When implementing change, the good must be emphasized and be the focus.