How To Improve Your Odds for Change Success

Organizational change management is hard – so hard that you’re likely to fail 70% of the time.

However, by focusing on performance, i.e., “what an enterprise does to deliver improved results for its stakeholders” and health, i.e., “how effectively an organization works together in pursuit of a common goal,” the clients they’ve worked with have more than doubled their odds for successful change (Keller & Schaninger, 2019).

The authors assert that their approach is unequivocally superior to others because of the extensive research and scientific rigor behind their recommendations, the comprehensiveness and pragmatism of the tools, and the approach’s ability to be customized for each client. They close their introductory chapter with a passionate plea for better change management.

I agree that change is hard – but what’s the deal with the high failure rate? It’s hard to contest the need for better change management practices, but a 30% success rate doesn’t offer much hope.

Point 1: Change management has never been more critical.

There are multiple types of change – e.g., organizational, political, social – all of which we desperately need. For example, consider that Americans generally do not have an optimistic view of the future. In a recent study by the Pew Research Center (2019), respondents overwhelmingly believed that America would lose its standing globally, implode under the cost of health care, and have a weakened economy by 2050. In addition, about half surveyed have lost confidence in our representative democracy and don’t believe our political leaders are qualified for their jobs. And 40% are worried about the country’s moral values, the climate crisis, and the quality of public schools for our children.  

But it’s not because we haven’t tried. Change has been on the agenda for political leaders, globally, for decades. The authors remind us of the political zeal of leaders like France’s Hollande and Macron, America’s attempt to “make itself great again,” and our Canadian neighbors’ belief of “real change” under the dreamy Trudeau. But the odds are stacked against them (Keller & Schaninger, 2019). There’s only a 30% chance of impacting economic inequality, climate change, and an overcrowding planet. If we don’t have better tools for designing and implementing change, we’re going to be in a pickle.

In addition to social changes, there are also changes to how we work – and not just because of COVID. One of these changes is an increasing shift towards projects and away from operations. In fact, we may need to shift our thinking to look at projects as operations.

As Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, former chairman of the Project Management Institute, writes for the Harvard Business Review, “…projects (which involve the changing of organizations) are increasingly driving both short-term performance and long-term value creation—through more-frequent organizational transformations, faster development of new products, quicker adoption of new technologies…” (Nieto-Rodriguez, 2021). Said differently, soon, we’ll all be project managers. And managing that much change can have severe consequences if we don’t know how to do it right.

Point 2: Our odds of success may be higher than we realize.

The authors tout the infamous 70% failure statistic, but I take issue with that. It’s not that change isn’t hard, but the negativity bias implied with this kind of percentage makes it feel like you are bound to fail. Here’s a personal example.

When I was preparing for the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam, my teacher said that only 30% of test-takers passed it on the first try. Even worse, while I was preparing, the test changed, which allegedly cut that success rate in half. How the heck do you stay motivated when there’s an 85% chance you’ll use most of your free time to study and still fail? Naturally, I was nervous, but I stuck with my study approach, and ultimately, I scored above the target in every area.

Perhaps, there’s some cache around passing what some would consider a difficult test – and maybe to elevate the profession, this sort of reputation is good. But in everyday life, if I told you that you had a 70% chance of failing – even with your most excellent intentions and hard work, how often would you try something new? Probably not all that often.

In a seminal work, “Reengineering the Corporation,” two renowned business authorities shared an eye-popping statistic that caught readers’ attention. “Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended (Champy & Hamper, 1993).” Note the term “unscientific estimate.” Well, after people latched on to that quote, it’s been reverberating in the change atmosphere ever since. A few years after their book was published, the authors even corrected the public, but it was too late. The looming thought of change failure would haunt business professionals for decades.

If we think we’ll fail, we’ll look for signs that we’re failing and use those as proof that we’re doomed. Unfortunately, research done at the University of Chicago shows “we assume that failure is a more likely outcome than success, and, as a result, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as flukes and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is difficult.” Thankfully, research shows that the opposite is true; if we actively look for signs of success, we’ll build momentum that helps us achieve our goals.

So, what’s the upshot here?

Change is hard – for many reasons I’ll unpack in future posts – but we aren’t doomed to fail. Doesn’t it feel bleak to think that there’s a 70% chance in 2050 you’ll be poorer, our kids will be less bright, your health with be worse, and our country will implode? Thankfully, we have change management principles that can help us significantly improve our odds for success. Moreover, we can use these principles to affect professional and social change. Kelly and Schaninger give us the McKinsey approach; you don’t have to use theirs, but I suggest that you use something.

You should not expect any change to be easy. However, “Every time we feel the impulse to say, “change is hard,” we could make a different claim that is every bit as accurate: Adaptation is the rule of human existence, not the exception. (Tasler, 2017).” 

Furthermore, we don’t approach each new change effort like a newbie. Instead, we’ve learned how to manage over time, throughout the multitude of changes thrust upon us. It is, quite literally, how we’ve learned to survive. So, start to see your challenges (and yourself) as a change success story. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and your perspective determines which future comes to pass.

Citations

Champy, J.A. & Hamper, M. (1993). Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. Harper Business.

Keller, S. & Schaninger, B. (2019). Beyond Performance 2.0: A Proven Approach to Leading Large-Scale Change. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Nieto-Rodriguez, A. (2021, November/December). The Project Economy Has Arrived: Use these skills and tools to make the most of it. Harvard Business Review, 38-45. 

Pew Research Center. (2019). Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts.https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/03/21/public-sees-an-america-in-decline-on-many-fronts/

Tasler, N. (2017). Stop Using the Excuse “Organizational Change Is Hard”. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-using-the-excuse-organizational-change-is-hard

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