• Simon Phillips

Mission Impossible? Call The Change Makers!

As a recognised discipline, change management is over 50 years old now. Yet most studies still show that between 60% and 70% of change projects fail to deliver stated business benefits or even make the situation worse [1].

A few years ago, one systematic study which compared 49 published reports of the success of organisational change, representing over 40,000 organisations concluded that published success rates vary significantly per type of change and that culture change programmes fail much more often than strategy implementations and redesign projects [2].

So, why do change management initiatives fail so often? Who are the usual ‘murder suspects’ in change management? Well, the simple answer to this question is: ‘It depends.’ There are so many things and their combinations that can hinder the implementation and success of change initiatives.

For example, Buchanan and his colleagues identified 11 sets of factors that can affect change. They defined those factors as:

  • substantial (perceived centrality, scale and fit with organisation);

  • individual (commitment, competencies, emotions and expectations);

  • managerial (style, approach, preferences and behaviours);

  • financial (contribution, balance of costs and benefits);

  • leadership (setting vision; values, purpose, goals and challenges);

  • organisational (policies, mechanisms, procedures, systems and structures);

  • cultural (shared beliefs, perceptions, norms, values and priorities);

  • political (stakeholder and coalition power and influence);

  • processual (implementation methods, project management structures);

  • contextual (external conditions, stability, threats and wider social norms); and the last but not the least

  • temporal (timing, pacing, flow of events).

Apparently, the outcome of change will depend on the configuration of those factors and on their interplay with other internal and external contextual properties over time [3].

We also should not forget that planned change initiatives can fail just because it is not an appropriate change. And, if this is the case, the organisation needs to ‘own up’ to a failed change and to learn from it rather than just try to rectify the problem or look for a scapegoat [4].

There are now quite a few theories around that are trying to explain why change fails. One of my personal favorites is a congruence model proposed by David Nadler. He identified the following main aspects of the organisation which should be engaged and focused upon during the change process:

  • tasks (the work to be done and its crucial characteristics);

  • individuals (who are to perform tasks);

  • formal organisational arrangements (including various structures, processes, systems etc. which are designed to motivate and facilitate people in the performance of tasks); and

  • informal organisational arrangements, also known as culture (including patterns of communication, power and influence, values and norms which characterise how an organisation actually functions).

If those four aspects are not congruent, i.e. do not reinforce and complement each other, then the change cannot succeed. His hypothesis is that organisations will be most effective when their major components/aspects are congruent with each other. Nadler argued that there is no single best organisational design, management style, or method of working. His model recognises that people, tasks, structures, strategies, and cultures may be very different in different organisations and that different patterns of organisation and management will be most appropriate in different situations. It also helps to understand that organisations, as systems, are resistant to change [5]. So, it is not just naughty Joe Bloggs throwing a spanner into the woodwork.

According to Nadler, changing one component of an organisation may reduce its congruence with other components and unbalance the system, leading to an energy developing in the organisation to limit, encapsulate, or reverse the change. He pointed out at three main problems which can affect success rate of any organisational change. Those are:

  • resistance to change (relates to individual component);

  • issues with organisational control (it is only too easy to lose it during a change, hence appropriate organisational arrangements should be designed for the transition period); and

  • power (organisational politics, the reactions of the informal organisation/culture to change).

Nadler pointed out that for a change initiative to be effective, all those three problems must be addressed. He also argued that managers need to be diagnostic in their approach to the problems of managing change [5].

To summarise, no single factor is generally responsible for change failure, and relevant factors include the nature of change, the context in which it occurs, the way it is managed and the way it is perceived. And one more thing, it is not just the factors themselves, but also their combinations which will determine whether or not change will fail. Some time ago, I came across a metaphor suggesting that embarking on a major organisational change programme in a company is rather like a surgeon trying to perform a complex operation on a patient who is not under an anaesthetic and is still running about [6].

So, does it mean that the successful change management is mission impossible? It does not have to be. Managing change is as much an art as a science, and you and your organisation CAN master it.

Get in touch with The Change Maker Group to find out how we can help you create and get the best out of the team of change makers in your own organisation which will dramatically increase the success rate of your change initiatives.

Contact Zoryna at zoryna@thechangemakergroup.com.


[1] See, for example:

- Ashkenas, R. (2013) Change Management Needs to Change. Harvard Business Review. Published online on https://hbr.org/2013/04/change-management-needs-to-cha

- Beer, M., Eisenstat, R. A. and Spector, B. (1990). 'Why change programs don’t produce change'. Harvard Business Review, 68(6), pp.158-166.

− Eitel, D. F. (2004) ‘The Dynamics of Chronic Failure: A Longitudinal Study.’ Public Money & Management, August, 24(4), pp. 243-250. - Kooter, J. (1996) 'Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail' , Harvard Business Review, March-April. - McKinsey & Company (2008) ‘The Inconvenient Truth about Change’ - report published on Pifer, P. (1992) ‘Letter to the Editor’, Harvard Business Review, January-February, pp. 137-138 - Smith, M.E. (2002) 'Implementing Organizational Change: Correlates of Success and Failure'. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 15(1), pp.67-83.

[2] As reported in:

- Smith, M. E.(2002) 'Success Rates for Different Types of Organizational Change'. Performance Improvement, 41(1). pp. 26-33. - Smith, M. E. (2002) 'Implementing Organizational Change: Correlates of Success and Failure'. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 15(1), pp.67-83.

[3] Buchanan, D., Fitzgerald, L., Ketley, D., Gollop, R., Jones, J.L., Saint Lamont, S., Neath, A. and Whitby, E. (2005) ‘No going back: A review of literature on sustaining organisational change’. International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 7 Issue 3, pp. 189-205.

[4] Palmer, I., Dunford, R. and Akin, G. (2009) Managing Organisational Change: A Multi Perspective Approach. 2nd ed. New York: MaGraw-Hill [5] Nadler, D.A. (2004) ‘Concepts for the management of organizational change’ in Mabey, C. and Mayon-White (eds.) Managing Change. 2nd ed. London: Paul Chapman Publishing in association with The Open University.

[6] Andrew, D. (2006) ‘That’s what FRIENDS are for’. Management Services, Winter, Vol. 50 Issue 4, pp. 41-45.



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