Top 10 Ways to Ensure Epic Organizational Change Failures

Most approaches to managing, mandating, or dictating change just don’t work, and some create catastrophically bad outcomes.

by Bob Tipton

Recently I’ve analyzed the “Epic Change Failures” I’ve seen, and I’ve developed my “hall of shame” Top 10 list related to them as a result.

Just ONE on my list of ten is enough, by itself, to virtually guarantee failure – but I rarely see only one on display. Usually I see three or four together, and still other times, I’ll see eight or nine on the list being used by the SAME group, for the SAME change effort. Needless to say, those failures are incredibly EPIC — think nitro meeting glycerin, and then shaking vigorously!

1. I Know, Let’s Reorg, Again!

What is this? “Those two just don’t get along.” Or, “that person has too many people reporting to them.” THAT must be the problem. As such, you’ll choose to move the ‘boxes and sticks’ in your organization chart as a primary means to create change (make the problem “go away” by moving the person).

What can I do to mitigate it? Solving performance or personality clashes by changing bosses or reporting structures almost NEVER works. Why? Because you’re solving the wrong problem usually. Take the time to understand the REAL problem you are really trying to solve. Use the “7 levels of why” employed in Asian cultures, or better still, just act like a two-year old, and keep asking “Why?” until the right problem surfaces.

2. Test Reactions to the Change by Leaking Parts of It In Advance

What is this? Allow the news about the change to leak through the organization’s grapevine before a formal announcement is made. This is done for one of three reasons: 1) you can do “damage control” in a hurry to mitigate the effects of a poorly-received change idea; 2) you can pour on the fertilizer (see #3 below) to hurry up the benefits of a well-received change; or 3) you have lousy confidentiality control. All three reasons are bad reasons.

What can I do to mitigate it? Don’t seek buy-in. It’s the wrong goal — and it’s too late in the process. Seeking buy-in implies “selling, or coercing” (arm-twisting). Instead, look to create investment, participation, and ownership in the change on behalf of the organization. The best way for a change to be well-received is for the organization to WANT it. Oh, and get GOOD at being sophisticated with confidentiality. It’s leadership 101.

3. Pour On the Fertilizer!

What is this? Make sure to have lots of branded give-aways (like t-shirts, coffee cups, etc.), well-crafted talking points/FAQs, and upfront “face time” by executives at the start of the change effort, but then do almost nothing “after the change announcement.” Assume that buy-in is a surrogate for ownership, and that if you reach someone with a catchy tag line (and get them to wear the T-shirt), you own their heart and head.

What can I do to mitigate it? Recognize that change is more like growing a plant than building a Madison Avenue-quality marketing campaign. It takes care and feeding, diligence, time, etc. to get a healthy plant to grow. Sure — change can happen like pouring fertilizer on a plant, but growing TOO fast creates an unsustainable plant in the long run. Commit to continuous acceleration in the energy from the start of the change effort to the end of the change effort (see the JUMP! Innovative Change Model for more information).

4. Because I Said So

What causes this? Including only those with the authority to ‘make the change’ in the process of designing the change. Watch out for incestuous, personality, politically-correct outcomes as the authority figures involved here don’t feel they can “trust” their underlings with participation. Don’t think this applies to you? Have you ever said, “Because I said so” to one of your kids? (Me too.) Case made.

What can I do to mitigate it? Be intentionally inclusive, be invitational. Take the risk to include all levels in your organization in designing the change. The ultimate outcome in the design might only be a bit better, but you’ll dramatically increase ownership in the change from the start. And — isn’t that the goal? Repeat after me: reduced resistance is aided by increased ownership.

5. Creative? Not Us… We Just “Gotta” Do It.

What causes this? Who has time to look at a LOT of answers? We have deadlines, pressures! Let’s settle on the ‘first’ or ‘easiest’ right answer instead… Or — let’s agree with the answer our boss has suggested. That’s a good idea — that way “they’ll” be on the hook, not us.

What can I do to mitigate it? Don’t mix up idea generation with idea evaluation. The more ideas we can create before we start evaluating which idea might be better, gives us the opportunity to have more than one right answer available to us. Once this has happened, THEN — we can use objective, critical thinking (evaluating) skills at the right point in time to help find the BEST right answer. There’s always more than one right answer!

6. Allow Process to be a Surrogate for Leadership

What is this? Start your “change management” meetings or discussions with statements like, ‘we won’t have time for questions — please consult the FAQ on the website’ — or — ‘contact HR to learn more.’ Insecure, transactional managers believe that any form of disagreement is to be feared, all conflict must be avoided, and a missed “thing” represents failure to plan effectively.

What can I do to mitigate it? Yes, change can create fear. Yes, change is often difficult. However, change involves PEOPLE — those imperfect, feeling, messy, uncontrollable human beings. Maybe you can create incredibly detailed plans, processes, etc. related to change — but there’s NO WAY you can control feelings or emotional reactions. Rather than having every answer in advance, have the 90% most important — and then leave room to be human yourself. People lead people, processes don’t lead people!

7. Rationalize Sweeping Changes Using Only One Dimension

What is this? The VAST number of change efforts are driven by financial triggers. Poor profitability, dropping market share, out of control spending, etc. Okay — but rationalizing sweeping organizational changes by using only one dimension as proof (like financial results, or lack thereof), is the same as suggesting that because a fish can’t climb a ladder, it must be stupid (thank you Albert Einstein!).

What can I do to mitigate it? Look at at every change effort from at least FOUR dimensions – stakeholders (people), products/services (what you offer), market (where you play), and operations (how you do things internally). Even then if you’re STILL driven primarily by numbers, look at things like ruining morale, destroying employee engagement (which leads to high turnover) — things like that DO have costs associated with them.

8. I’m Sorry, YOU Just Don’t Understand

What is this? Assume that people who disagree or misunderstand something you see as obvious to you, perfectly clear, or beyond reproach: 1) don’t have the facts (they’re ignorant); 2) have the facts, but can’t understand them (they’re stupid), or 3) they have the facts, understand them, and then CHOOSE not to agree (because they hate me, or taken to an extreme — they’re evil). Call this the clash of ideologies.

What can I do to mitigate it? Sometimes we’re blinded to our own beliefs — we see them as facts, or non-negotiable truths. However, MANY things we see as “true” are beliefs masquerading as purely logical arguments. Be willing to dig deep, to look plainly and humbly at someone else’s viewpoint, and be open to being wrong about your own perspective. Being vulnerable is a sign of strength. Furthermore — it’s a clear sign of mature leadership.

9. Grief is a Sign of Weakness

What is this? Have you heard anything like these four statements? “There’s no crying in business! Just be glad you have this job! If you don’t go along with the change, your replacement will! It’s just business after all, right?” Assuming there is no grieving in the change process is to totally miss the human side of things — and far too many managers seem to do that.

What can I do to mitigate it? Understand the “nine stages of transformational change” — where the first four stages of change involve something very much like the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross “grief and death cycle.” Change is a series of endings followed by beginnings. We must end something before we start something. Effective leaders will allow their teams to grieve appropriately.

10. Hide Behind Non-Human-to-Human “Communication”

What is this? Mandate or announce the change through an edict, an ‘FYI’ email, a webinar, or other one-way communication. Worse yet, don’t really take into consideration anyone’s “feelings” in the matter — just dehumanize the communication… After all, it’s easier that way, right?

What can I do to mitigate it? This is the “Chicken Sh*t Approach” to announcing change – people who do this have also probably ended a relationship through voicemail, or an email/text message at one point in their lives. What’s needed? Bi-directional, conversation-based approaches. Show up! Be present. Share, then listen. Most of our negative emotions (about 80%) will drop off once we feel that we’ve been heard. Try it.

BONUS 11. Drop the Bomb and Wait for the Sheep

What causes this? Dropping the bomb and “waiting out” any resistance is one of the most arrogant approaches to change out there. The essence of it is this: when you need to announce an unpopular change, just “RIP OFF THE BAND-AID” and drop the bomb. Then wait. Wait for the passive sheep response to take over from the masses — where no one really wants to take on those that developed and announced the change. Yeah, there will be some whining, but eventually sheep will appear, and presto-changeo, it’s the “new normal!” BAAAAD idea.

What can I do to mitigate it? First — you have to “not” see the people in the organization as sheep. If you’re not able to do that, then stop reading now. I can’t help you. People ARE NOT SHEEP! We have opinions, we grieve (see #9 above), we want to be included — and more than anything, we want to be respected. Don’t just drop the bomb — be inclusive, be transparent, be respectful, and be aware that bomb-dropping sucks.

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