Why Does Change Have To Be Comprehensible To Succeed?

CHANGE MATTERSMy Obsession with Change

I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE. I’m obsessed with change. Maybe it is because I’ve seen too many changes fail for preventable reasons. Maybe because change handled badly is never over and I’ve seen companies struggle financially for years because of this, without knowing why. Maybe because I know that all change can have a positive outcome, even change that involves people losing their jobs. For whatever reason, helping companies be successful through change is my life’s work.

I’m here because through my experiences I’ve found that there are three critical elements that lead to successful change. Just three. Yet big box consulting companies will tell you it is way more complicated than that. I work in this field because I know I can make a difference in the way organizations create and sustain change.

When I speak to groups and I talk about the three critical elements to a successful change. They are often skeptical. When I say it is possible to have a successful outcome for every change, every time they often don’t believe me. But it is true. So suspend your disbelief for a little while and let me share the first of the three critical elements.


Yes, you read the heading correctly. Critical Element #1 is that it needs to be Comprehensible. It must make sense. ‘That’s it?’ You might be saying to yourself. ‘Everyone knows that!’ Ah, but here’s the catch. Of course, it must make sense to you, the person who is creating the change. That can go without saying. What I’m talking about is that it must make sense to EVERY employee. Not just your leadership team, not just the top tier consulting firm you hired to come up with the plan, not even just to the team charged with implementing the change. Rather, the change must make sense to EVERY SINGLE EMPLOYEE that is in your company.

It must make sense to me, Joe or Jane Employee who works in the mailroom or in finance or in sales. Every employee – from the highest to the lowest in the hierarchy.

So yes, everyone might know that (although I have to say, having worked around the world on changes – that obviousness sometimes escapes people) but everyone doesn’t always know how far that needs to go. And often leaders make the mistake of thinking that if it makes sense to them, it will make sense to all employees.

Sometimes the decisions and the change only make sense if you are sitting in a certain place in the company. I’ll give you an example. I once worked with a marketing team in a large pharmaceutical company. One day one of the team leaders came to me and mentioned that the company President had just announced that in order for the company to be more like Google, they were going to be creating common areas with fun furniture and décor in order to spark creativity and innovation. The team leader was puzzled. First of all, how could a pharmaceutical company be more like Google? It was like comparing apples to oranges. Pharmaceutical companies by their nature and under the law are quite regulated. And you hire people into that company who are rule followers by nature because without that there would be chaos. Not to mention the potential for lawsuits.  Secondly, who thought that changing the furniture and layout of different spaces would spark creativity and innovation? To this employee, that change didn’t make sense. It made sense, clearly to the President, and maybe even to her direct reports, but it didn’t make sense to many other people.

Needless to say, that change did not meet its desired results. The company didn’t become more like Google and it didn’t see a rise in innovation and creativity from their efforts. Now I’m not saying that a pharmaceutical company can’t be innovative and creative, they certainly can. I’m just saying that this way of going about it didn’t achieve the desired results because it didn’t make sense to everyone involved.

Change at all levels

It is important for a company contemplating a change to understand how that change will be felt and understood at all levels of the company. Anticipating the impact will go a long way in setting the change up for success. I once worked on a project in a manufacturing plant that included something unprecedented for this company – team members from every department that would be affected by the change. And not just engineers and QA folks, but those who worked on the manufacturing floor and those in shipping and distribution and other related departments. It was a complex redesign of how work would get done, and because they included all voices – and listened to all voices – the project was a great success. They also did comprehensibility testing up and down the hierarchy – because they knew that everyone needed to think their recommendations made sense – not just the people on the project team.

Comprehensibility and Culture

And the last thing I’ll say about a change being comprehensible is how that relates to culture. Sometimes a company culture is so strong that it will destroy any changes that go against it. It is important to remember that culture is made up of actions that individuals take on a daily basis. And if the changes don’t align with the culture, it may not happen. The Google example I gave earlier is a good example of that. That culture was not Google. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be creative and innovative, there are plenty of companies out there that are. Google isn’t the only company out there that is creative and innovative. It’s just that the company culture was one of tradition and adhering to the rules, and acting like Google would fly in the face of those two things. They would have been better off using their company values of putting the patient first to drive a change towards more innovation and creativity – that aligned much better with their culture.

The most important take away from this critical element to change success is that a company and project teams need to do the work to make sure their recommendations pass the comprehensibility test across the board. There are no shortcuts to this but the rewards will be immeasurable when your change succeeds.



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. Totally agree. Not much I can really add. Just when executing change, do not use people that have their own “system” on how to do changes. Every system I’ve seen as failed when it involved the most critical changes. When I mean critical, I mean when the change doesn’t work out, people don’t get their bonuses. And others get fired.

    • Couldn’t agree more Chris. I like to stay away from ‘systems’ and rather focus on customizing the solution to match the change and resulting challenges.