By Campbell Macpherson, author of The Change Catalyst: Secrets to Successful and Sustainable Business Change.
Change has never been more prevalent or more relevant than it is today. Voters across the globe are voting for change, any change; seemingly at any cost. Entire industries have been disrupted and transformed by globalisation and a new breed of web-based conglomerates. The next wave of AI and automation will create even greater dislocation. Change is a fact of life that individuals, organisations and nations alike have no choice but to deal with. Those who are able to cope with change will survive. Those who are able to seek out change and actively embrace it will thrive.
Yet 88% of change initiatives fail.
According to a 2016 Bain & Company survey of 250 large companies, only 12% of change projects achieve or exceed their intended results. A similar proportion of corporate strategies, mergers and acquisitions suffer the same fate. While there may be some debate about the percentages, Bain isn’t the only consultancy to arrive at a similar conclusion. Several studies by several consultancies over several decades have all deduced that change is so difficult to achieve that organisations usually end up abandoning change programmes altogether or settling for significantly watered-down outcomes.
There are many reasons why change fails so often and they are all intertwined. But from my many decades of experience assisting organisations large and small to instigate change, I have come to the conclusion that the reasons why change projects, programmes or initiatives fail can be grouped into ten key categories – and the key reason that infuses every other is that we humans don’t like change.
When it comes to change, especially in the workplace, we have an innate desire to cling on to the status quo. We find change extraordinarily difficult; even when it is good change. We fear that the new world may not be any better than today. We fear that accepting change will be tantamount to being blamed for the way we currently work. We fear that we may try and fail – and we fear the consequences of failure.
Sometimes, we simply don’t trust our change leaders. We just don’t believe that the change will deliver a better future – for us, our colleagues or the company. Almost always, we need help; but it is rarely forthcoming.
The other key reasons for change’s spectacular failure rate a lack of clarity about what we are trying to achieve and why; a lack of understanding of the implications of the change, an obsession with process over outcomes; inertia; complacency; projects that are set up to fail; disingenuous communications and engagement; a change-averse culture; a leadership that doesn’t stay the course and the fact we forget that emotions trump logic every time.
Rational motivation alone is not sufficient; we humans need to be motivated emotionally if we are to embrace any sort of change. Our pride, our ego, our heart, our gut; these are the areas that need to be motivated if we are to successfully proceed down a new path. Rarely do change programmes expend anywhere near enough time or energy providing a positive emotional reason to embrace the new world or addressing the emotional barriers to change.
It doesn’t matter how senior you are or how logical you may be – emotions rule our decisions. For evidence of this, you need look no further than David Cameron’s disastrous campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. As he amply demonstrated, logic alone is not a sufficient motivator. To follow a leader, people need to be motivated emotionally.
The Remain campaign tried to convince people to vote ‘Remain’ through a mixture of logic, statistics and mild fear. They also completely lacked empathy; failing to understand that, for a significant proportion of Britons, their ‘change platform’ was already ablaze. People needed a positive emotional reason to vote for the status quo – and none was given. Another school-boy error from the Remain camp was complacency – a common cancer that scuppers many change initiatives discussed at length in the book. Cameron and Co didn’t seriously consider that the UK voters would actually vote to leave; their complacency was palpable.
In contrast, the ‘Leave’ campaign shamelessly appealed directly to the emotions – and xenophobia – of 17.4 million voters with a dazzling slogan, “Vote Leave Take Control”, a snappy “Brexit” name and the fact-free hope of a better tomorrow outside of the EU.
Britons voted to leave the EU for 4 main reasons:
- Because they felt they had nothing to lose. They had been left behind by globalisation and then forced to pay for the banking failures of 2008.
- They wished to be free of the expensive and controlling yoke of Brussels,
- They wanted to take back control of their borders, or
- For the patriotic belief that an unshackled Britain could, to borrow Donald Trump’s meaningless and yet catchy phrase, be Great again.
Every single one of these reasons is heavily-laden with emotion. When it comes to change, emotion always wins the day.
This is just as true in business. A 2004 study of some 50,000 employees by the Corporate Executive Council showed that, when it comes to engaging employees, emotional commitment is four times more powerful than rational commitment. And those companies with high employee commitment employees enjoy up to 2-3 times the shareholder returns. As change leaders we ignore emotion at our peril.
So, the question on every Change Leader’s lips should be: “How can I ensure that my next change initiative or strategy is one of the eight that succeeds?”
To answer that question, I have compiled ten essential ingredients to successful change. To shorten the odds of success for your next strategy, change, merger or acquisition, I recommend addressing each one in as much detail as you can.
Essential ingredients to successful change:
- A Change Catalyst
- Complete clarity regarding what you are trying to achieve and why
- Detailed understanding of the implications of the change
- Laser-like focus on the outcomes
- A change process that includes a ‘pause for reflection’
- Clear governance and thorough planning
- Genuine engagement with people at all levels of the organisation
- Find the emotional triggers
- Strong, committed, aligned and unwavering leadership team
- Establish a change-ready culture
The rest of this editorial will be published in full at a later date.