Monday, April 8, 2013

Change Management: Does Compromise = Failure?

Compromising Dreams
I hate it when I hear people say that 70% of change efforts fail.  First I think the number is urban legend espoused by people who don’t realize the damage this statement does to our profession.  How many financial advisors would you hire with a 70% failure rate.

Sure, I understand the marketing gravitas.  We’re trying to create pain within potential clients.  We’re trying to say: “you're entering dangerous seas.  Most change efforts fail so you need an experienced guide – like me.”  Well, since we’ve been saying this for about 20 years don’t you think clients will inevitably conclude that our “profession” is really a shell game?

Do we really fail 70% of the time?  I know that I’ve worked on dozens of change initiatives and I would say my success rate is close to 100%.  Similarly I have polled many consultants & corporate change practitioners about how often they fail – their experience is close to mine.

So what’s going on here?  Do I only have access to successful change agents?  I think not.  In fact, I have access to experienced practitioners who claim that: “given the circumstances we were as successful as we could be.”  Is this a rationalization or a confession?

Fundamentally I think that practitioners are saying: “… we advise our clients on what to do; then we compromise within their real world realities.”  Is it compromise that is causing failure that we choose not to see?  I think so and here are three common compromises.

Often the change aspiration is inspiring but when it’s broken down into near term tasks we’re asked not to disturb sacred organizational silos or protected customer classes – the very hot spots where the change should have the biggest impact.

Everyone knows that change is a journey within an exponentially changing world.  We want near term results, quick wins.  When the low hanging fruit is harvested the exasperated sigh is: “is that all there is?  We knew that!”

How often does the organization devote the best and brightest to the change effort?  Rarely; these people are needed in the business to get real results.  Similarly, how often does change get it’s own, needed funding?  Again, rarely; usually change is expected to be self-funding through re-purposing of resources.

I believe that every time we make a small compromise decision we foreshadow our failure.  Each of these decisions makes us less accountable for the result.  In the end we can claim that we colored within the lines.  That seems to be our definition of success.

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