What Can leaders Do To Avoid Change Effort Failure?

Research in the last 15 years demonstrated that between 70-90% of all change efforts fail at achieving their stated goals. Despite the high percentages cited, the failure rate might actually be direr. In fact, during a recent keynote, I asked participants (around 70 attendees) if they had been part of an organization where the change effort achieved 100% of the desired result; not a single person raised their hand. Surprising, but not shocking. What was shocking was when I, subsequently, asked the participants to raise their hand if 50% of the goals were met; not a single hand went up in the air.



So why do change efforts so miserably fail? There are numerous reasons: resistance to change, lack of a (shared) vision, not enough participation, a calcified culture, a lack of dynamic capabilities, bureaucracy, and poor leadership. My own research dissertation was designed to shed light on the latter. Specifically, I asked participants, “if your organization or team underwent a change in values, assumptions, or habits, what is one thing that your boss did that was most conducive to change?” The results are shown in the chart below for the top 20 categories.


What was most intriguing about the results, was that listening and getting input (when combined) were the number one thing that contributed to successful change, closely followed by communicate about change, provide the solution themselves, give the work back(delegating and empowering), and bring people together. Despite the emphasis in recent years on communication skills for leaders, the focus has been skewed towards one-way communication. Instead, what leadership development efforts need to focus on is making sure that the leader listens, and gets input, instead of just issuing vision statements, and motivational speeches. Communication needs to be two-way. Moreover, communication, when possible, needs to tell people what is in it for them, not just why it is important for the company. When they are under a great amount of stress, the impact on the company might be the least of their concerns.


What my research shows, unequivocally, as far as leadership is concerned, is that traditional change management programs do not focus on the highest impact tactics/strategies. Instead, they focus on strategies/tactics with modest impact. For example, providing resources was ranked at ten, and providing training was ranked 16, respectively. Clearly, provided training is important, but not as important as people think.


To get change “right,” organizations have to start targeting high-impact leader behaviors in their change efforts. Otherwise, their change efforts are likely to have the same dismal success rate that has persisted to date.