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The Reasons Your Change Initiative Will Fail

Most people focus too much on the results and not enough on the relationships that will yield the results.

A big part of leadership is about convincing people to do things differently. It could be persuading customers to buy your product or try your service. It could be getting employees or vendors to raise their game. It could be convincing regulators and other rulemakers to support what you want to do. In each of these examples, or a dozen others that you could come up with, success depends on getting people to change their behaviors.

And, as oft-cited research from Gallup suggests, there’s about a 70 percent chance you’re going to fail.

Why is it that so many change initiatives fail? Based on a few decades of experience as a corporate leader or a coach to leaders, I regularly see three related reasons your change initiative will fail. They all involve too much of this and not enough of that.

Here they are and what you can do to increase your odds of success:

Too much solution, not enough acceptance: Years ago, I learned a simple little equation about change management developed by leaders at GE. It’s Q x A = E. What it means is the quality of your technical solution multiplied by the acceptance strategy for your solution equals your overall effectiveness. If you score 10 out of 10 on both the Q and the A then you end up with a 100 percent effective solution. Most leaders and organizations don’t end up at 100 percent though and it’s rarely because they don’t have a good enough technical solution. 

The relatively easy part of the equation is pulling together a group of subject matter experts to develop a good to great solution. What usually doesn’t get the same amount of effort is putting together an awesome strategy for stakeholder acceptance of the solution. The math makes the impact of that kind of obvious. If you score a 10 on the Q and a 3 on the A, you’re only going to be 30 percent effective. A score like that is usually a fail.

Too much thinking, not enough feeling: Overemphasizing the quality of the technical solution and underplaying the acceptance strategy stems from the second reason most change initiatives fail. There’s too much emphasis on logical thinking and not enough emphasis on emotional feeling. The problem with that is people almost always take actions based on their emotional feeling rather than their logical thinking. Too many leaders believe that just getting their logical thoughts out there about the change will be enough to win people over. As in, “They’ll see the logic of this and then we’ll be good to go.” Logical to you, maybe; perhaps not so much to them. 

A more effective approach is to consider how you need people to feel to take the actions that will lead to the change result you’re hoping for. For instance, if they’re feeling angry, ignored or disengaged, they’re probably not going to take the actions you’d like for them to take. If, on the other hand, they’re feeling excited, appreciated and engaged, you’re much more likely to generate actions that lead to positive outcomes. What do you need to do as a leader to get your stakeholders’ feeling more supportive of your change?

Too much results, not enough relationships: Here’s a hint for answering that last question. Focus at least as much on the relationships as you do the results. You’ve probably picked up by now on one of the big things these three reasons for change failure all have in common. The mistake too many leaders make is over-indexing on “what” and under on the “how” of the change. One variant of this is when their time, attention and behavioral energy is focused too much on the results and not enough on the relationships that will yield the results. Great change leaders exhibit roughly equal measures of results-oriented behaviors and relationship-oriented behaviors. I summarized the differences between the two in this post from 10 years ago. The spoiler alert is that a lot of the differences I outlined come down to that old idea that they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Relationship building works best when it is part of your everyday routine and not a last-minute activity like you’re cramming for a final exam.

Why do change initiatives fail? There are lots of reasons—many more than I covered here. But if you want to do a post-mortem on why your latest crashed and burned or prevent the next one from doing so, I’d argue that the three I’ve listed here are a pretty good place to start.