why do change initiatives fail?

Between 60% and 70% of all change initiatives fail to meet one or more of their stated objectives.

The key reasons for failure are:

  • lack of effective leadership
  • treating the change in isolation, not considering its impact on the rest of the organisation
  • poor programme and project management
  • insufficient training in change management, programme/project management and leadership skills
  • poor communication

Other failings include concentrating on process and not on people; a lack of visible sponsorship or rationale for change which leads employees to believe it will not happen; or a flurry of activity around change for a couple of weeks before everything goes quiet, again leading to people believing it won’t happen.

Imposing change also tends to lead to resistance, as it can assume that employees’ personal objectives are aligned with the organisation’s, or that employees prioritise organisational needs over their own.

There are two types of resistance to change:

• resistance to the content of change – e.g. an objection to the system or process that is being introduced

• resistance to the process of change – e.g. the way a change is introduced

Resistance can be due to lack of clarity, lack of consultation, shock or the sense of having no control, inconvenience, loss of a role or status, or resistance based on historical evidence (e.g. “we tried this before and it didn’t work then, so it won’t work now”). The line manager’s role in leading his or her team through change is again vital.

engagement during change tips

keeping it simple

Leaders need to make the vision clear. Create a compelling story to explain why change is needed and what it’s going to deliver, without using business jargon. If people don’t understand the vision or strategy they can’t follow it: one piece of research revealed 99% of employees said they were working to fulfill the vision and goals...but only 50% knew what the vision and goals were.

keeping it simple: part 2

Big, complex programmes are likely to fail: if you’re trying to introduce a complex change, break it down into simple steps. Lord Coe described staging the London Olympics and Paralympics as putting on 28 world championships. To cope with this scale, they broke the work down into individual projects by venue and programme-wide services such as procurement and security.

silence isn't golden

Encourage employees to speak out by giving them opportunities to do so e.g. focus groups, dedicated email addresses. Employees’ commitment and enthusiasm for change comes through contributing their own insights. At the London Olympics, the athletes’ village was hugely successful because the organising team invited athletes’ advice – which provided easily-overlooked insights such as extra-long beds.


The best source of information about patients’ ailments is often the patient. Yet the average doctor interrupts patients within just 18 seconds. Are you an 18-second-type manager? In the words of management guru Tom Peters: “Strategic listening and asking people what they really think is all you need to know about managing and leading change”.


It’s not enough to hear what employees are saying – you need to do something about it – and acting on feedback shows you value employees’ voices. It may not be possible to act in the way suggested, so it’s important to explain why. Asking for opinions and feedback and ignoring them is guaranteed to build disengagement.

What does it mean for employees? – everyone reacts to change differently and goes through the change curve at different speeds. Remember three things:

  •  people tend to know what’s going on so will be expecting change
  •  uncertainty is harder to deal with than bad news so let people know what’s happening as soon as possible
  •  everyone wants to know what change means for them:address the question ‘what does it mean for me?’

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