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3 Reasons Why Change Fails

2023 February 26
by Greg Satell

There’s no question we have entered a transformative age, with major shifts in technology, resources, demography and migration. Over the next decades, we will have to move from digital from post-digital, from carbon to zero-carbon and from the Boomer values to those of Millennials and Zoomers. Migration will strain societies’ social compact.

Unfortunately, we’re really bad at adapting to change. We’ve known about the climate threat for decades, but have done little about it. The digital revolution, for all the hoopla, has been a big disappointment, falling far short of its promise to change the world for the better. Even at the level of individual firms, McKinsey finds that the vast majority of initiatives fail.

One key factor is that we too often assume that change is inevitable. It’s not. Change dies every day. New ideas are weak, fragile, and in need of protection. If we’re going to bring about genuine transformation, we need to take that into account. The first step is to learn the reasons why change fails in the first place. These three are a good place to start.

1. A Flawed Idea

One obvious reason that change fails is that the idea itself is flawed in some way. Barry Libenson found this out when he was hired to be CIO at the industrial conglomerate Ingersoll Rand. It was his first CIO role and Barry was eager to please the CEO, who he saw as a mentor. So he agreed to aggressive very performance targets for modernizing systems.

Yet while Barry was being financially incentivized to upgrade technology, each of the division leaders were financially incentivized to maximize profit growth. Every dollar they invested in modernizing systems would eat into their performance bonus. Perhaps not surprisingly, Barry’s modernization program didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.

There are a number of tools that can help to troubleshoot ideas and uncover flaws. Pre-mortems force you to imagine how a project could fail. Red Teams set up a parallel group specifically to look for flaws. Howard Tierski, CEO of the digital transformation agency From Digital and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Winning Digital Customers, often uses de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to help the team take different perspectives.

Most of all, we need to come to terms with the reality that our ideas are always wrong. Sometimes they’re off by a little and sometimes they’re off by a lot, but they’re always wrong, so we always need to be on the lookout for problems. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it.“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that.”

2. Failure To Build Trust

Proposed in 1983 by Ira Magaziner, the Rhode Island’s Greenhouse Compact is still considered to be an impressive policy even today, 40 years later. In fact, the recently passed, bipartisan CHIPS Act is based on the same principle, that targeted, strategic government investments can help simulate economic development in the private sector.

The plan in Rhode Island was to establish four research centers or “greenhouses” throughout the state to help drive development in new technologies, like robotics, medicine and thin film materials, as well as existing industries in which the state had built-in advantages, such as tourism, boatbuilding and fishing. It quickly gained support among the state’s elite

Yet things quickly soured. There were a number of political scandals that reduced faith in Rhode Island’s government and fed into the laissez-faire zeitgeist of the Reagan era. Critics called the plan “elitist,” for taxing “ordinary” citizens to subsidize greedy corporations. When the referendum was held, it plan got less than a fifth of the vote.

Magaziner’s mistake—one he would repeat with the healthcare plan during the Clinton Administration—was ignoring the need to build trust among constituencies. Getting the plan right is never enough. You need to methodically build trust and support as you go.

3. Identity and Dignity

One of the biggest mistakes change leaders make is assuming that resistance to change has a rational basis. They feel that if they listen to concerns and address them, they will be able to build trust and win over skeptics. Unfortunately, while doing those things is certainly necessary for a successful change effort, it is rarely sufficient.

The simple fact is that human beings form attachments to people, ideas and things and when they feel those attachments are threatened, it offends their identity, dignity and sense of self. This is the most visceral kind of resistance. We can argue the merits of a particular idea and methodically build trust, but we can’t ask people to stop being who they think they are.

Don’t waste your time trying to convince the inconvincible. Your efforts will be very unlikely to succeed and very likely to exhaust and frustrate you. The good news is that irrational resistors, if left to their own devices, will often discredit themselves eventually. You can also speed up the process by designing a dilemma action.

What can be hardest about change, especially when we feel passionately about it, is that at some point, we need to accept that others will not embrace it and we will have to leave some behind. Not every change is for everybody. Some will have to pursue a different journey, one to which they can devote their passions and seek out their own truths.

Change Is Not Inevitable

People like to quote the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said things like “the only constant is change” and “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” They’re clever quotes and they give us confidence that the change we seek is not only possible, but inevitable.

Yet while change in general may be inevitable, the prospects for any particular change initiative are decidedly poor and the failure to recognize that simple fact is why so many transformation efforts fall short. The first step toward making change succeed is to understand and internalize just how fragile a new, unproven initiative really is.

To bring genuine change about you can’t expect to just push forward and have everyone fall in line. No amount of executive sponsorship or program budget will guarantee victory. To move forward, you will need to listen to skeptics, identify and fix flaws in your idea to methodically build trust. Even then, you will have to outsmart those who have an irrational lust to kill change and who act in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.

Change is always, at some level, about what people value. That’s why to make it happen 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.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

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