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Why Change Fails

2021 June 27
by Greg Satell

Never has the need for transformation been so dire or so clear. Still, that’s no guarantee that we will muster the wisdom to make the changes we need to. After all, President Bush warned us about the risks of a global pandemic way back in 2005 and, in the end, we were left wholly vulnerable and exposed.

It’s not like pandemics are the only thing to worry about either. A 2018 climate assessment warns of major economic impacts unless we make some serious shifts. Public debt, already high before the current crisis, is now exploding upwards. Our electricity grid is insecure and vulnerable to cyberattack. The list goes on.

All too often, we assume that mere necessity can drive change forward, yet history has shown that not to be the case. There’s a reason why nations fail and businesses go bankrupt. The truth is that if a change is important, some people won’t like it and they will work to undermine it in underhanded and insidious ways. That’s what we need to overcome.

A Short History Of Change

For most of history, until the industrial revolution, people existed as they had for millennia and could live their entire lives without seeing much change. They farmed or herded for a living, used animals for power and rarely travelled far from home. Even in the 20th century, most people worked in an industry that changed little during their career.

In the 1980s, management consultants began to notice that industries were beginning to evolve more rapidly and firms that didn’t adapt would lose out in the marketplace. One famous case study showed how Burroughs moved aggressively into electronic computing and prospered while its competitor NCR lagged and faded into obscurity.

In 1983, McKinsey consultant Julien Phillips published a paper in the journal, Human Resource Management, that described an “adoption penalty” for firms that didn’t adapt to changes in the marketplace quickly enough. His ideas became McKinsey’s first change management model that it sold to clients.

Yet consider that research shows in 1975, during the period Phillips studied, 83% of the average US corporation’s assets were tangible, such as plant, machinery and buildings, while by 2015, 84% of corporate assets were intangible, such as licenses, patents and human capital. In other words, change today involves mostly people, their knowledge and behaviors than it does strategic assets.

Clearly, that changes the game entirely.

What Change Looks Like Today

Think about how America was transformed after World War II. We created the Interstate Highway System to tie our nation together. We established a new scientific infrastructure that made us a technological superpower. We built airports, shopping malls and department stores. We even sent a man to the moon.

Despite the enormous impact of these accomplishments, none of those things demanded that people had to dramatically change their behavior. Nobody had to drive on an Interstate highway, work in a lab, travel in space or move to the suburbs. Many chose to do those things, but others did not and paid little or no penalty for their failure to change with the times.

Today the story is vastly different. A crisis like Covid-19 required us to significantly alter our behavior and, not surprisingly, some people didn’t like it and resisted. We could, as individuals, choose to wear a mask, but if others didn’t follow suit the danger remained. We can, as a society, invest billions in a vaccine, but if a significant portion don’t take it, the virus will continue to mutate at a rapid rate, undermining the effectiveness of the entire enterprise.

Organizations face similar challenges. Sure they invest in tangible assets, such as plant and equipment, but any significant change will involve changing people’s beliefs and behaviors and that is a different matter altogether. Today, even technological transformations have a significant human component.

Making Room For Identity And Dignity 

In the early 19th century, a movement of textile workers known as the Luddites smashed machines to protest the new, automated mode of work. As skilled workers, they saw their way of life being destroyed in the name of progress because the new technology could make fabrics faster and cheaper with less workers of lower skill.

Today, “Luddite” has become a pejorative term to describe people who are unable or unwilling to accept technological change. Many observers point out that the rise of industry created new and different jobs and increased overall prosperity. Yet that largely misses the point. Weavers were skilled artisans who worked for years to hone their craft. What they did wasn’t just a job, it was who they were and what they took pride in.

One of the great misconceptions of our modern age is that people make decisions based on rational calculations of utility and that, by engineering the right incentives, we can control behavior. Yet people are far more than economic entities, They crave dignity and recognition, to be valued, in other words, as ends in themselves rather than as merely means to an end.

That’s why changing behaviors can be such a tricky thing. While some may see being told to wear a mask or socially distance as simply doing what “science says,” for others it is an imposition on their identity and dignity from outside their community. Perhaps not surprisingly, they rebel and demand to have their right to choose be recognized.

Building Change On Common Ground

The biggest misconception about change is that once people understand it, they will embrace and so the best way to drive change forward is to explain the need for change in a very convincing and persuasive way. Change, in this view, is essentially a communication exercise and the right combination of words and images is all that is required.

Yet as should be clear by now that is clearly not true. People will often oppose change because it asks them to alter their identity. The Luddites didn’t just oppose textile machinery on economic grounds, but because it failed to recognize their skills as weavers. People don’t necessarily oppose wearing masks because they are “anti-science,” but because they resent having their behavior mandated from outside their community.

In other words, change is always, at some level, about what people value. That’s why to bring change about you need to identify shared values that reaffirm, rather than undermine, people’s sense of identity. Recognition is often a more powerful incentive than even financial rewards. In the final analysis, lasting change always needs to be built on common ground.

Over the next decade, we will undergo some of the most profound shifts in history, encompassing technology, resources, migration patterns and demography and, if we are to compete, we will need to achieve enormous transformation in business and society. Whether we are able to do that or not depends less on economics or “science” than it does on our ability to trust each other again.

– Greg


Image: Pixabay





6 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2021

    When changes fail, a number of things can factor into the equation. One of the most critical factors is the resistance to change. People usually resist change because they don’t understand how change will benefit them. They also resist change because their needs won’t be met by the change. Resistance is important to understand and be sensitive to in order to be able to more effectively communicate the benefits of change.

    Communication and empathy are also crucial for facilitating change. If those don’t exist, then changes may fail because people don’t understand the reasons for the change or the benefits of the change. Other key elements of successful change are a willingness to do whatever it takes to make the necessary changes, and a willingness to stay with the change until it is deployed.

    Also change ideas from larger group should be taken before pusing the change.

  2. June 29, 2021

    Thanks for sharing Shiv.

  3. Armando Sobalvarro permalink
    July 7, 2021

    Thanks Greg, Shiv. What is not being said is that enterprises can also resist change or not react fast enough to circumstances that affect them. Take for example the Business Center model and the Real State model. Office space is now in a high supply situation because people/employees have adjusted quite well to working from home and employers have realized huge savings, by just following the social distancing imposed by the pandemia. What are this two business models to do? It is obvious there is a need to reinvent themselves. Are you guys seeing that happening? Because I do not. Quite the contrary I would say, as in spite of the evidence, I see more and more office space buildings going up! As for Business Centers… by year end 2021 we will know if all the hype and investment behind new redesigning of available space has paid off. Because essentially, the business model remains the same.

  4. July 9, 2021

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Armando.


  5. Jeff Piestrak permalink
    July 21, 2021

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights here Greg. I agree that people’s beliefs and behaviors play a huge role in how change is embraced or resisted, and that those always play a part in technological change.

    In my work at Cornell University Library and in community and economic development contexts, I find it quite useful however to ask the question in reverse – instead of asking how a better understanding of human nature can facilitate willingness to accept technological change, what if we asked how can technological change bring out the best of humanity, or what some call “augmented humanity”? I believe such an approach will lead to much more innovative, sustainable, fair, and resilient enterprises and economies.

    There’s a lot to draw on, including the field of socio-technical systems, going back to Trist and Bamforth’s pioneering action research in post-WWII British coal mines. What they and more recent research around self-determination theory suggest is that we should acknowledge our universal need for some degree of autonomy, mastery, and connectedness (solidarity) in our work and life.

    If we look closely at examples like the Luddites, we can see that they did not in fact resist technology itself, but how it was implemented, working against those universal needs. Clive Thompson writes about this in the Smithsonian here: They were most concerned with the fairness of the situation, with labor increasingly subservient to capital, as well as the quality of the work done and produced by them. Thompson ends the article by asking how cabdrivers will respond to a Uber “robot fleet”. He suggests one response might be hacking their online services, missing one possibility many overlook – that of different ownership and governance approaches which bring the social and technical elements together in more compatible and synergistic ways.

    I think this area of socio-technical co-evolution is the real change we need, and which is increasingly visible if we look close enough. It’s something Marjorie Kelly writes about in her book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution. It can be seen in the still small but growing worker ownership movement, and broader Social and Solidarity economy. One recent example related to cabdrivers is the Drivers Coop in NYC (

    Another area of relevant emerging research and practice is the transdisciplinary field of “Prosocial” ( It builds on the Nobel Prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom, evolutionary theory, and cognitive behavioral science. One goal (most closely related to the latter) is to enhance the psychological flexibility of groups and groups of groups so that they might work more effectively toward shared goals and values.

    Cheers, Jeff Piestrak

  6. July 23, 2021

    I see your point, Jeff. What we find in our transformation work is that it’s important to focus on shared values, rather than differentiating ones.

    To your point, in many (if not most) digital transformation initiatives, change leaders tend to focus on the technology itself, because that’s what makes them passionate about the change (not surprisingly, those chosen to lead digital transformations tend to be technophiles). Yet most people aren’t that crazy about technology, so it’s important to identify shred values, such as becoming more productive, serving customers better, making work easier, etc.

    The interesting we’ve found in our work is that the best way to identify shared values is by listening to your opposition and redefining their objections as shared values. For example, you mentioned that the Luddites were less concerned about the technology than they were about fairness and the impact on their way of life. Co clearly, if you wanted to quelll the riots in a peaceful way, working to address those concerns would probably be a good strategy.


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