Why change programmes fail in their tracks

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Blaire Palmer
Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams
That People Thing
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Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a "secret weapon", a "business muse" and "that lady who does the leadership and team stuff". She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.

The figure of 80% failure rate that’s often quoted when anyone talks about change programmes is probably mythical. But it certainly feels accurate.

Changing systems and processes, structure, even a new business strategy, isn’t terribly difficult. It’s the people aspect that’s tough.

Getting people to adopt the new systems and processes, overcoming their resistance to a new structure, getting them to do things differently as a result...that’s the difficult thing.

The change programme is supposed to help them with that. But it doesn’t.

Firstly, even with consultation with employees, change programmes tend to be designed at the top of the organization, often with input from externals consultants and HR.

It’s all very rational. A change is needed. We need to tell people what change is needed and then get them thinking about how they need to change to bring about this change.

Having been through the programme they will understand “the why” and they have discussed what they need to do to make it happen.

The big 'but'

But people don’t just crack on once they’ve been through the programme.

Workshops are often an opportunity for people to express a lot of pent up frustration with the leadership, with the way they’ve been treated, with expectations put upon them that are only going to get more severe as a result of this change.

The leaders they would like to address those grievances with aren’t usually in the room.

So those grievances get channeled through the consultants…people like me. We become the go-betweens, sharing these insights with the leadership and, hopefully, influencing something in the style of leadership that shows people they’ve been heard.

Changing systems and processes, structure, even a new business strategy, isn’t terribly difficult. It’s the people aspect that’s tough.

Of course, all of this gets in the way of change.

Leaders are annoyed that, rather than focusing on the future, people are using the process to complain about the past. Meanwhile, people aren’t ready to move forward because of their baggage. In lieu of any other forum to openly discuss these issues, the change programme fills the vacuum.

Secondly, such programmes fail because leaders believe change comes from everyone but them. The senior team don’t do the change workshop (or they do it to be seen to be doing it).

They designed the change so they assume they don’t need to get their heads around it.

Except that they do. Those rumblings I mentioned previously need to be heard and acted upon. There’s probably more change in style and attitude required from the top than anywhere else in the business. Your people will only change as much as you are willing to change.

Thirdly, change isn’t a change for everyone.

I recall working with a company that resulted out of a merger between two legacy businesses. Some were from an old-fashioned, long established business we will call ABC.

Others were from a funky online business we will call XYZ. Those from XYZ were most enthusiastic about change. Those from ABC were most resistant. The people from XYZ couldn’t understand this resistance. But change was easy for them.

In fact, no change was needed. For XYZ the “new way” would be the way they’d been doing it in their company for years. Meanwhile those from the ABC were having to do a massive volte face.

They [leaders] designed the change so they assume they don’t need to get their heads around it.

It was then that I realized that the enthusiastic people have it easy – they are built for the new world, it’s what they’ve always wanted, it doesn’t require much change for them at all!   

But even if you address all of this you’ll still have a problem with change programmes. Because a change programme is a programme and that’s the whole issue.

Change as a constant

We all blithely say that change is a constant and yet we have not built in to the DNA of our businesses the ability for change to happen constantly.

Agile methodology is an attempt to make change more systematic but it tends to be used in pockets and for specific projects.

We talk about encouraging people to take risks but it is rarely safe for people to do so. We talk about empowering decision-making but maintain the prerogative to over-rule those decisions if we don’t like them.

We have created businesses where change is almost impossible until it’s imposed as part of a programme, at which point is huge, it’s urgent and it’s led from the top. 

And we do it this way because we carry a number of limiting beliefs about people and change:

  • We believe people are resistant to change. We believe it’s the human condition. But is it? I don't believe people are inherently resistant to change. They make changes in their own lives all the time. They have babies and they move house and they get a dog and they go on holiday. People love change. What they don’t love is being told to do things differently, particularly by people who don’t intimately know what they have been doing up until now.
  • We believe people can’t see problems for themselves, they have to be pointed out to them. Really? When I run these workshops people have a very clear idea of the constraints they operate within and very good ideas about how to resolve them. But that resolution will require those at the top letting go of power, distributing decision-making, accepting an amount of short-term failure and there’s no precedent for that. In new, self-managing models of business, people have the authority to identify and resolve “tensions” as and when they arise. Opportunities to talk about those tensions are built in. Roles and accountabilities are clear but always evolving. And consensus is not required so, if it lies in your remit, you can just decide (having sought advice). The business changes, shifting shape all the time.
  • We don’t trust people with change. Little changes should be occurring all the time. But we don’t trust people to make the right changes. Won’t there be chaos? Won’t we have people pulling in different directions? Again, the problem here is lack of clarity from the top. If the company has a very clear purpose and decisions are made respectfully, in pursuit of that purpose, then people make wise choices. But where there’s a stated purpose and then a bundle of unspoken conflicting purposes (personal ambition, fighting for limited resources, or a high share price, for instance) the “right” decision to deliver one of these purposes will be the wrong decision to deliver another (doing the right thing to deliver on the company’s purpose may be the wrong thing for your boss’s need to get a promotion in the next 18 months).

Yes, change is a constant. But you don’t need a change programme to bring about change...

  • You need to look hard at your business and remove any obstacles to people being able to make change.
  • You need to look hard at your behaviours and the behaviours of other senior people and see how these disempower people. You need to look at the criteria by which priorities are set.
  • You need to get super clear about your purpose and then doggedly defend that purpose above and beyond personal agendas. You need to get out of the way of your people and believe in their capacity to make your business great.
  • You need to let go of control.

If you do that you’ll never need a change programme again.

About Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author, podcaster and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast changing times. You can talk to Blaire about her leadership coaching or find out more about her work at www.thatpeoplething.com

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23rd Aug 2016 11:15

Thank you Blaire, this is a brilliant article on what change is all about. Jackie

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01st Sep 2016 11:50

I agree with your insight but there is one piece missing. The leaders of change rarely know what the employees really think and feel about the change they want to make and they are therefore blind. We in HR know that people have their 'work masks', they do not fully expose their real thoughts and feelings. Engagement and other surveys and even structured interviews talk only to the masks. Until change starts with understanding the true thoughts and feeling about the particular change in question, most change will continue to fail, it is just common sense!

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