Why are We Failing at Change?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books, seminars and other resources available on the issue of organizational change. Despite this overabundance of knowledge, we’re still extremely well capable of generating enough change management SNAFUs to regularly fill the business and technology columns of our leading magazines and newspapers.

These stories run the gamut of possible changes, including mangled mergers, ulcerous upgrades, crippled conversions and implementations that served only to incite riots amongst seemingly powerless users.

Identifying the specific debacles, or the organizations involved, serves no useful purpose. What is more useful is to try and find a common denominator, if one exists, in these types of failures.

The common denominator does exist. We’ve identified it time and time again. We know it to be true, because we each prove it to ourselves whenever we’re faced with a personal change. Therein lies the real problem. Sometimes the solution to a problem is so obvious, so simple, we refuse to accept it as the cure to what ails us.

In this age of high complexity, where technology is the answer to everything, the notion that there are sometimes very simple answers is often rejected out of hand. If the solution doesn’t take ages to implement, or if the knowledge doesn’t take years to acquire, then we insist it cannot be useful.

The Crux Of Change

Before we discuss the solution, it’s appropriate to define the crux of change. In the simplest, most accurate of terms, we are faced with change when we move from an existing status quo to a new one. This is true whether we’re examining a merger, acquisition, medical diagnosis of a terminal illness, a system upgrade, a divorce, or a marriage. Change means going from something old to something new.

This ‘change’ is either totally out of our control, or is initiated by somebody other than ourselves. The number of changes totally out of anyone’s control are relatively few – being diagnosed with cancer, having a tornado remove the roof and walls, being hit by lightning. Pretty much everything else is under someone’s control.

When it’s totally out of our control, we naturally take the time to grieve for what was, but ultimately we have no choice but to accept it and get on with our lives. Resisting a change that we cannot reverse, is, when you think of it, pretty much a waste of energy.

When the change is under someone’s control then we have two choices. We either accept it or resist it.

Typically we only accept the change we agree with, we like, or we understand the necessity of adopting. We naturally resist those changes we don’t agree with, don’t like or don’t


A Failure To Communicate

In survey after survey – I’ve performed one myself with over 400 managers worldwide – the number one reason for the failure of a change project has been identified as “a lack of communication between those attempting to implement the change and those affected by it.”

That makes sense, given the reasons identified above for resisting change. If they don’t agree with a change, then communicating why the change is the right thing to do is a good strategy. If they don’t like the change, then communicating why the change is advantageous is a good approach. If they don’t understand… you get the general idea.

Now for the tough question: why don’t we communicate as we know we should? Why don’t we do the one thing we know will alleviate most, if not all, of the resistance to change?

I suspect the answer has something to do with the greatest myth of change management, the unquestioned belief that those who resist change are the problem.

People who resist a change are communicating to us in the loudest way possible that they don’t understand why the change is necessary, that they don’t understand the benefits, that they don’t like what they do understand. They’re telling us clearly that we need to increase the level of communication.

Resistance to change is never a problem; it’s a useful symptom of a lack of communication.

Peter de Jager is a speaker and consultant on management issues relating to Managing the Future. Contact him at pdejager@technobility.com.