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The Most Common Reason Change Initiatives Fail

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Posted by Rick Lepsinger August 14, 2018

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Change is a difficult, but ultimately necessary part of running a successful business. With rapid advancements in technology and communication, companies must adapt faster than ever before to remain competitive. That means new ways of working and thinking to implement these changes successfully.

The importance of change is widely acknowledged. OnPoint’s studies have found that 85% of employees believe their organization needs to change or grow, and more than 75% of them believe their current pace of change is either just right or too slow. Despite this apparently receptive attitude towards change, many leaders are uncomfortable with change and may  either delay or avoid implementing changes, even when the need for them is clearly evident.

Perception plays an important role in these decisions. Leaders often begin with a negative bias about change that focuses more on avoiding failure than achieving success. These assumptions cause them to “shoot themselves in the foot” by dwelling on problems that either don’t exist or could be easily managed with proactive measures. In many cases, unsuccessful change initiatives are undermined by a self-fulfilling mentality that regards any challenge or setback as irreversable signs of failure.

Change and Negativity Bias

There is no question that change can be difficult to execute. Some degree of concern is certainly justified because failing to manage change effectively can be very expensive. Aside from the most obvious costs in the form of lost revenue, botched change initiatives also waste valuable time and resources. In some cases, it can also lead to customer dissatisfaction and contribute to both high turnover rates and low morale among employees.

While there are a few critical elements of effective change management, leaders often overlook or fail to implement them, which can seriously undermine their efforts. An OnPoint survey of 655 leaders found that less than half of them (46%) thought their organization was “successful at change management.” Given this admission, it’s not surprising that the prospect of change makes many company executives uneasy.

Their misgivings are at least partially driven by widely accepted assertions that organizational changes are unlikely to succeed. Such claims usually lean heavily upon the infamous “70% of all change initiatives fail” assertion, which has somehow become an unquestioned fact despite having little or no empirical research to support it (not to mention being frequently misattributed). However, a 2017 University of Chicago study found evidence to suggest that the human brain is biased toward failure, putting more weight in negative outcomes than positive ones.

This latter point is important because it highlights how change initiatives can become bogged down in negativity. Even when the process starts out strong, it will inevitably encounter difficulties or lose momentum. When this happens, both managers and employees may begin to question whether or not change was a good idea at all and may even try to distance their involvement with the new initiative.

If left unaddressed, this negativity bias can lead to a “commitment dip” that can very quickly undermine change efforts.

Pushing Back Against the “Commitment Dip”

Change may be hard, but “hard” doesn’t necessarily mean “likely to fail.” There are a number of best practices that organizations can implement to better manage change and combat the corrosive effects of the “commitment dip.”

  • Set Realistic Goals for Change: It’s easy for companies to become too ambitious and overextend both their staff and resources. Goals should be clearly stated and realistically attainable; some changes may have to be implemented one piece at a time. If too many initiatives are undertaken at once, vital resources may have to be diverted from previous ones. This sudden shift in focus can cause a previously successful change to begin to fail.
  • Continue Frequent and Honest Communication: Employees usually greet change efforts with a barrage of questions about how the change will affect them. This is understandable and should not be discouraged. Their concerns need to be heard and addressed as honestly as possible. Leadership will not always have answers to these questions, but a degree of uncertainty is part of any change situation. People will be more likely to accept uncertainty if they feel like they can trust whoever is implementing the changes. Preparing to answer critical questions, such as why the change is necessary or what will be expected of employees, will go a long way towards building confidence before, during, and after the transition.
  • Hold Everyone Accountable for the Change: Everyone has a role in a change initiative. Employees will be much more likely to accept new initiatives if they can clearly see that leadership is committed to them as well. Some degree of complaining or resistance is normal, but it’s important that these behaviors don’t become a distraction. Identifying and addressing points of contention in advance can help avoid negative situations that cause people to lose their commitment to the process.
  • Don’t Take Progress for Granted: Even after changes are implemented, it will take time for new behaviors to become engrained and habit forming. Although there may be strong commitment to new processes early on, old tendencies may reemerge as people become more comfortable with the new status quo. Ongoing review and assessment of progress made toward change goals and the reinforcement of new behaviors can help ensure that commitment levels remain high.

While there’s no question that change can be a difficult process, it doesn’t have to be a frightening one. By establishing a consistent approach and staying focused on the overall goals of change initiatives, organizations can sustain momentum and guard against the effects of commitment dip.

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Topics: change management, leadership skills, employee engagement

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