More than 70% of change efforts fail to achieve the goals they originally set to achieve. There is much discussion as to the causes of this high rate of failure. There have been countless studies on this topic from academic institutions to management consulting firms. Most highlight the following three as the most common contributory causes:
1) employee resistance
2) weak Project Management Office and
3) too many competing initiatives.
The cost of failure runs into hundreds of billions of dollars and cost the careers of many an ambitious leader. In response to this, the past 20 years have seen a blizzard of new change management literature. There are now over 7,000 change management books on Amazon.com and innumerable methodologies and tools. Most global organizations through necessity have matured their change management strategies as a response. Kotter’s eight step Change Management model is a common feature for most organizations embarking on change initiatives. Still most programs do not come close to achieving their desired outcome.
In this paper we challenge whether leaders are approaching this topic correctly. We will challenge the extent to which humans are rational and predictable. We will question why leaders show surprise when unexpected outcomes arise. We offer four counterintuitive insights and propose alternative approaches. We believe in
turning the iceberg on its head and addressing the true underlying challenges that employees face in uncertain times. By incorporating an effective coaching and team dynamics model and culture change, we illustrate how organizations can reverse the 70% failure statistic through a deeper, more genuine dialogue with staff. In the harsh economic realities of today, organizations and governments can no longer afford such failures.
1. Case Study
- The Program Manager is comfortable with his MS Project plan. The deliverables and milestones have been defined and interdependencies agreed between the Project Managers. His detailed budget and benefits case have been signed off by the Steering Committee.
- The Change Manager has developed a comprehensive Stakeholder map, with strategies to align the “Blockers” into an advocacy position.
- The Communications Manager has completed her detailed communication plan.
- The Program Sponsor has held the kick-off presentation with all employees: a series of slides with detailed timelines, methodologies and expectations.
The measurable elements of the program appear to be in good order, with all program documentation prepared and signed off. The Program team is confident they have the program under control. This is a necessary however insufficient condition for success.
There are many less tangible factors that need to be addressed. For example, many employees will be working extra hours over and above their usual 9-5 role. Aside from the extra hours they will have to work, they feel indignant that the extra effort has not been acknowledged by the Sponsor. Most employees feel insecure about the impact a change program will have on their careers. Some may be required to re-locate permanently or during the program. For many this can be stressful.
Sometimes when a new leader creates the “burning platform” for change, older employees are offended, seeing it as a criticism of their performance. Most are scared, tired, cynical, and focused on keeping their job. Few are excited. What motivated the Sponsor is not what motivated the employees.
Using the iceberg metaphor, it is typical for the visible elements of the program such as the technical and program plans and budgets to be crafted with scientific precision and the invisible elements neglected. Typically the environment is not conducive to employees sharing their true emotions. This suppression usually leads to insidious behaviors such as aggression and withdrawal as we will see in the next phase. An example of this would be a stakeholder who identifies a major program risk and does not share it with the program team. Neglecting these less tangible factors is common with new leaders keen to make an early impression. They embark on change initiatives before making time to build trust within the organization. Many employees who have been with the organization for many years are resentful, seeing the change as a departure from the company’s true purpose.
The program has started to fall behind schedule. The design of the new system did not meet the End Users
satisfaction and this has caused a delay in the implementation. The End Users would not sign-off the blueprint until the new processes had been properly configured in the system. These End Users did not see it as their responsibility to help make the changes; after all they had a day job to focus on.
The Project Manager started to get frustrated. The Steering Committee meeting was next week and the project was already three weeks behind schedule, causing ripple effects throughout the program. He became defensive and was nervous about providing the Steering Committee with a completely honest update. Besides, he did not think it to be fault; he only managed the plan and reported progress.
The problem was exacerbated when a number of key Stakeholders that had previously been silent decided to speak up. The Change Manager tried to contain the bad news, however now many more employees were expressing their discontent. A couple of Dissenters were fired, causing further resentment and so the vicious circle continued….
Familiar story? This is how most programs play out. Much of the reason 70% of programs fail is
contained within this scenario. The Project Manager had spent most of his time developing the project
plan and little building relationships with the End Users. Consequently they did not see themselves as
integral to the program success, so naturally did not want to put in the extra effort required. The Project
Manager had not factored in this response from the End Users and so was surprised and frustrated by
their refusal to sign off the blueprint.
The Steering Committee had been assured by the Project Managers that the project would be delivered
on time. The previous month’s Traffic Light Report was green and amber, so naturally they would be
frustrated when they heard about the delay. The Project Manager started preparing his rationalizations.
We will see later in section 4 how through coaching he is able to overcome these challenges.
The Dissenters had been waiting on the sidelines until now. Feeling vindicated, they now felt confident
in sharing their convictions.
The behaviors described above are natural, common and dysfunctional. In change management
language it is often termed “Management Sabotage”. Employees labeled “Passive Dependents”
suddenly emerge. Unexpressed emotions start to surface. As Goleman states in his seminal book
“Emotional Intelligence”, “Emotions are contagious”. Once a key stakeholder has spoken up, the
floodgates open. Comments like “I said it wouldn’t work!” are common. This is typical in a patriarchal
organization where leadership has created a dependency culture with little employee engagement.
Employees, often unaware of the program goals and objectives, suddenly find themselves responsible
for “going the extra mile” to deliver the program on time
Insight 1: Think more broadly about the “What’s in it for me?” question
Most office dialogue is based on what can be seen and said. However this is often not what we feel or
think. The traditional “What’s in it for me?” paradigm assumes that humans can be manipulated and
that through negotiation will become change advocates. The truth is manipulation can be effective in
the short-term but is not sustainable. Also people resent being manipulated.
In the case study there was scant consideration for the End Users. What motivation did they have to
expend extra energy? If the program team spent time with them at the beginning listening and
acknowledging their concerns, their engagement would have increased significantly.
- 1:1 Coaching to allow employees to develop and share their own purpose.
- Think more broadly than traditional “carrot and stick” measures when considering “What’s in it
for me?” Rather than second guess, ask employees what they want.
- Listen and engage with your organization. Conduct culture surveys, interview and promote more
Insight 2: Assess the dynamics of the Program Team
The Program team, led by the Program Manager, is ultimately responsible for the success of the program. They are the change team with the plan, leading the charge and bringing the rest of the organization along with them.
The program team has a mammoth task, rarely recognized by the organization. Change is significantly more complex than most of us give it credit. When viewed on a neat, linear, sequential MS Project Plan, it appears manageable. In reality we are changing a system and like any stable system, it follows the laws of homeostasis: it will resist change. Any system that has humans involved is a complex system: Emotions are not rational and assumptions are rarely understood.
This is exacerbated by program teams usually made up from a mixture of external consultants and internal staff. The latter have often risked the security of their day job to join the project team. They are usually selected from different functional teams, such as Finance, IT, HR and Operations brought together at short notice. Often these are virtual teams that have not had any personal interaction.
The program team relies heavily on the support of the organization in making the project a success. They have to balance task and relationships. If employees have not bought into the change, it is down to the Project Manager to use negotiation or coercion tactics, often resented by staff.
Conduct a team assessment survey and bring awareness of different styles to the team.
Select a team based on EQ, IQ (team members need both) and team dynamics.
- Create a “Design Alliance”, agreeing on a process for recognizing and managing conflict. Align personal motivations around shared goals.
- Provide 1:1 Coaching for each team member.
- Change programs are likely to be stressful so team members should be provided an outlet share and develop better perspectives.
- Train the team in coaching skills, such as powerful questioning, listening and acknowledging.
Insight 3: Focus on the whole person
Typically when leaders change direction, they focus only on the logic of change and not the emotional dimensions. This is in the form of a business case with the new vision articulated as a series of bullet points.
Effective leaders are able to rally the organization using a range of methods such as images, metaphors and stories. They are adept at monitoring their own expression of emotion and keenly attuned to how others are reacting. If the leader can access and communicate his truth and deepest emotions, then “walk his own talk”, there is a much greater chance the organization will follow. Emotions are contagious, so getting this right is critical. The energy required for most herculean change efforts stems from “e-motions”, our innate impulses to act. A powerful leader can invoke and sustain that release of energy in his workforce throughout the rollercoaster of change.
Earlier in the case study we saw how the End Users viewed the Program Sponsor as trying to make his mark. Their engagement would help serve his career trajectory more than the organization. Many employees who have a long term loyalty to the organization will resent this.
Imagine the impact if the Program Sponsor had authentically engaged with the End Users and addressed their emotional needs in his presentation?
- Be creative in selling the change. Use stories, metaphors and images to stoke emotional responses.
- Practice key speeches, have the program team help script them.
- Connect to purpose; think about a creative platform aligned to purpose rather than one that is “burning”.
- Continually check the “pulse” of the organization through anonymous surveys and interviews.
Insight 4: Accept and learn from failure. Expect unpredictability.
This may at first sound like a paradox. The ultimate goal is a successful program; however we should be ready for setbacks along the way, learn from them and be prepared to change course.
The reality is that with change comes uncertainty and with uncertainty unpredictability in people. So we should not be surprised when this happens, it is natural and expected. Humans are not always rational as Economists have always assumed. The organization and program teams should be prepared for it. Often Program Managers are reluctant to re-baseline the plan, conscious that it might reflect poorly on them. Consequently they deploy dysfunctional behaviors such as blame, denial and dishonesty. These are hugely destructive to a program and do not move the employees, program or organization forward.
By accepting potential failure and uncertainty as close cousins, overall program success is much more likely in the long run. If failure is a necessary part of change, then the way people understand failure is critical. To the extent it arises, accept them as natural human reactions.
- Create a “growth” culture, where team members see failure as part of their personal growth path. Have fun with failure, explore it, learn and develop.
- In coaching, exploring the perspective of failure and learning as part of a growth trajectory.
- Hold “Lessons learned” sessions throughout the project, not just at the end.
- Build in redundancy and feedback throughout the implementation.
- Align developmental training to the program, where the project team can experiment with real scenarios and try out new methods.
The Relationship – Values, Emotions, Assumptions and Beliefs
By acknowledging his emotions, so Steve is able to fully express them. By surfacing his assumption “Program failure = my failure”, so he realizes this belief is not going to help him achieve his longer term quest to be a leader in this organization. He is creative and resourceful and immediately shifts to a more helpful perspective, allowing him to make more resonant choices in dealing with this particular issue. She reminds him of his personal and career goals: to be a Leader of the organization. She champions him, “I know you can do this”. During stressful programs it is rare that managers receive this encouragement.
The Results – Action and Accountability
At the end his Coach calls him into action. By focusing most of the coaching on the “Co”, his values and beliefs, so he is energized and motivated to get into action, the “Active”: have the tough conversations. If the Coach only pushed him to action, it would be a lot harder for him to make these personal changes. It starts from deep inside you. There will still be resistance however; we are after all creatures of habit. Until these become new habits that are engrained “in the bones”, hardwired assumptions and beliefs, he is likely to revert back to old ways. The Coach recognizes this, making him accountable for action and aware of the shift that takes place within him. This is what we call personal transformation, a new, permanent and effective map that guides you to success.
Without this coaching session, Steve would have continued on his downward trajectory. His energy would be focused on reacting and rather than creating. Time spent fabricating the evidence before the Steering Committee, coercing the End Users and blaming others would have taken him away from him building trusted relationships, collaborating and confronting reality.
The coaching has provided an outlet for self-discovery, perspective and ultimately purposeful action. Notice the Coach did not give advice. Imagine if the Coach said, “What you need to do is give an honest status update at the Steering Committee”. How motivated would Steve be to do this? This is a common style of “coaching” which we believe to be much less effective than CoActive. Hearing it from someone else would not have given him the same motivation. Also, the Coach doesn’t know all the nuances of the program, so advising would probably not hit the mark. Rather, she was with him, acknowledging, holding a safe and confidential space, listening not just to the words, also the non-verbal clues. She held him naturally creative and able to figure it out for himself, which he did. She tied his current issues back to his larger vision, his ambitions and values.
Coaching in itself is probably still not enough to resolve this situation. We recommend you have team coaching sessions as well. This would include the Program team and stakeholders elsewhere in the organization, such as the End Users. You want the new energy felt by Steve for the whole program team then to the rest of the organization. The program team’s role is to inspire, lead and support as well as manage and control.
This was a dialogue with Steve, a fairly junior Project Manager identified by the organization as an emerging leader. We could have done the same for an End User, Program Manager, Sponsor or anyone else impacted by the program. Each one would come to the coaching with a unique set of personal challenges. The Co-Active coaching principles described here can be applied to any client problem.
We started by asking why 70% of large change initiatives fail to achieve their desired results. By examining a typical case study, we have elicited some of the deeper, more insidious elements of human behavior not found in project plans or change management documentation. Through four insights and a coaching dialogue, we have demonstrated how coaching gets to the root cause of program failure.
There are many definition of coaching. It often is thought of as mentoring or counseling. Here we refer to a specific kind, called Co-Active. If coaching has not worked for you in the past it is probably because it was something else. By unlocking and surfacing limiting beliefs, emotions and aligning to purpose, you allow both personal and organizational transformation. Traditional methods, such as Kotter’s model are necessary, but they do not go far enough. Embellished with Co-Active coaching, your program will be in the 30% success category. In these harsh times you can no longer afford to be in the 70%. Failure is not an option. If you are asked to produce a business case and ROI on coaching, quantify the reactive behaviors in this paper. Use the case study as an example. We leave you with some leadership challenges to consider if you are about to embark on a major change initiative.
1) Challenge your current assumptions about what motivates your employees.
Employees are looking for meaning, purpose and fulfillment in their careers more than utility maximization. What’s really “in it for them”? Think about alignment to organizational purpose, recognition, professional development and engagement as well as monetary rewards. Focus on the whole person, the Rider and the Elephant. See your employees change from Poker face to fully expressive. Accommodate failure as part of learning and growth. Simulate, rehearse and play with different media to project your message.
2) Ask yourself: “How much organizational energy is expended on reactive behavior”?
Find out how much energy is expended on defensiveness, disengagement and stress. Consider what the business case would look like with this energy channeled into creativity. Think of the benefits of having employees lock their knowledge and creativity into the organizational processes and systems rather than have it walk out the door.
3) A traditional change management approach is necessary but not sufficient.
It’s assumed you will have a detailed project plan and compelling case for change. This in itself is unlikely to realize a successful outcome. Think of your organization as a complex system; look for feedback in the system. Expect change resistance. Look for points of high leverage.
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