Why Do Change Management Initiatives Fail?

Written By: Eric Kimberling
Date: November 2, 2022

Change management initiatives commonly fail, whether it's a digital transformation, a business transformation or a bevy of other change initiatives, more often than not, large enterprise change initiatives fail. 

We have learned over the last 25 years that change initiatives are almost always hard. The technology changes, advances and improves at a rapid pace but the way we manage change hasn't kept up at the same velocity. What we want to do today is talk about the reasons why change initiatives fail and more importantly address what you can do to ensure that your change initiative doesn't. This is going to be relevant for change management practitioners as part of a change management team, project leads or project team members within a transformation or if you're an executive or an executive steering committee member that's involved in a transformation.

Reasons Change Management Initiatives Fail

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First, one reason why so many change initiatives fail is because there's internal misalignment. In other words, the organization itself isn't clear and doesn't have the same vision and the same understanding of where the change initiative is going. For example, if an organization is going through a digital transformation, they may have differing opinions on how much they want to leverage standardized technology or how much they want to leverage off-the-shelf technology without customization or additionally, how much they may want to leverage multiple best of breed solutions. Each of those aspects are major talking points that need to be agreed upon. Ultimately, you need to have alignment on what the direction of the project is. Businesses should ask themselves prior to initiating a transformation “what do we want to be when we grow up, what's the vision for this transformation and change initiative and how are we going to measure success?” A company should begin their transformation by asking these questions about the overall direction for the future.

Upfront Planning

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One way to think about internal misalignment is to think of it as the headwinds that resist a ship, they're going to slow you down in a change initiative. It doesn't matter how well you manage change, what kind of change tools you bring to the table or qualified change consultants that you might have on your team, if you have internal misalignment, it can oftentimes be impossible for the change initiative to be successful. One of the best things you can do to ensure that your change initiative is successful is to make sure that you take time up front to get that alignment and clarity of vision of what the transformation is and what you want your organization to be when it grows up.

Focus On The Future

When going through a change initiative, it's natural to want to focus on the future; “what is it we want to be as a business, what is the organization going to look like, how are we going to leverage new technologies and processes to make our business better?” That's an understandable priority and one that you shouldn't give up on, however it's just as important to understand where you are today and have a deep understanding of your current state of your business processes.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Another common challenge with change initiatives is a tendency towards leveraging a one size fits-all approach to change management or managing the human aspects of change. While there are a variety of tools, processes and workflows that can be deployed to enable change management, not all of them are going to be relevant to your organization. Your specific change strategy can and should look different than your competitors or other organizations that are going through similar transformations. The key here is to conduct an early stage organizational assessment to understand where the change pitfalls are for your particular culture and organization so that you can tailor a change strategy to address your specific needs.

Another common challenge of change initiatives is underestimating resistance to change. By underestimating resistance to change, you're inherently underestimating the time and effort it's going to take from a change management perspective. The reason organizations so often

underestimate resistance to change is because we're human, we see the tip of the iceberg and not the complexities that lay below the surface. Oftentimes, that means that people within the organization are excited about the future state but not always the current state, so, therefore we assume that there's not going to be much if any resistance to change. In reality, underneath the iceberg is all the details of what that change fully entails. As people learn what exactly the change requires and how it's going to disrupt their day-to-day lives, they slowly start to resist those changes. This is not because they're bad people, not because they want to sabotage the project, not because they don't care about the company, rather, it is because their world has been disrupted. It's important to recognize and anticipate resistance to change and really dig underneath the tip of the iceberg early in the project so you can understand and anticipate where those likely sources of resistance are going to come from.

For example, if you're an organization that struggles with cross-departmental collaboration, it may be that people within the organization are going to have trouble with an enterprise-wide technology that provides integration and visibility across the organization. Again, not because that's not a bad thing or people don't recognize the business value that that capability would bring to the table but because now you're asking them to look outside their comfort zone. You're asking people now to understand what's going on upstream and downstream, you're giving them new responsibilities and you're disrupting their day-to-day work lives. Understanding this is important so that you can anticipate where that resistance of change might come from and the best way to do that is to conduct an organizational assessment which is something that we do at Third Stage Consulting with our clients. We really quantify and gather qualitative information as well to understand the culture of the organization and what it is that the sources of resistance are likely to be.

Lack Of Leadership

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Another root cause of many change initiatives is the fact that so many executives don't buy into the project or aren't good sponsors of the project. Oftentimes, they'll bless the project but when it comes to making core business decisions or helping the team work through challenges, executives are nowhere to be found. If you're an executive within an organization or if you're working with executives within an organization, it's important to manage their expectations.  Their job is to do more than just approve the project, sign the checks, pay the bills and to get the occasional project status report. Their jobs are to make key decisions around what the business, organization and the processes are going to look like in the future. You want to make sure that you have the executives on board and you give them ownership of the decisions made throughout the project.

Operating In A Silo

The final big risk that we see with change initiatives that oftentimes lead to failure is the fact that change management is so often conducted in a silo. It’s often conducted as a separate team, with a separate tool set and it's conducted by people oftentimes that don't really understand the business, the operations or the technological components of a project. For example, change consultants may view themselves as strictly change consultants and want little to do with the operational understanding and want nothing to do with really understanding what happens on the manufacturing shop floor. Additionally, they may want nothing to do with understanding the technology, the integration and the other main change areas in a business. They need to have a high level understanding of how all these pieces fit together, at the end of the day they're responsible for enabling the change and need to understand all these detailed nuances that the organization is going to have to live with for years to come. It's important that you don't view change management as something that operates in a silo but something that's very integrated with the operations, the technology and the overall strategy of the organization. 

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These are some of the reasons why so many change initiatives fail. 

If you are looking to strategize an upcoming transformation or are looking at selecting an ERP system, we would love to give you some insights. Please contact me for more information eric.kimberling@thirdstage-consulting.com

Be sure to download the newly released 2023 Digital Transformation Report to garner additional industry insight and project best practices. https://www.thirdstage-consulting.com/reports/2023-digital-transformation-report/

Kimberling Eric Blue Backgroundv2
Eric Kimberling

Eric is known globally as a thought leader in the ERP consulting space. He has helped hundreds of high-profile enterprises worldwide with their technology initiatives, including Nucor Steel, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Kodak, Coors, Boeing, and Duke Energy. He has helped manage ERP implementations and reengineer global supply chains across the world.

Eric Kimberling
Eric is known globally as a thought leader in the ERP consulting space. He has helped hundreds of high-profile enterprises worldwide with their technology initiatives, including Nucor Steel, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Kodak, Coors, Boeing, and Duke Energy. He has helped manage ERP implementations and reengineer global supply chains across the world.
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