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The top five reasons why change won’t stick and how to avoid them

By Sonia Tallarida


Following on from our last post on warning signs that change is about to come unstuck, I thought it best to follow up with a post revealing the key reasons that prevent change from sticking. And we’ve included some secret success tips for good measure. 

Reason One: Premature Evacuation 

Yep, that’s right – rather than suffering from failure to launch, a lot of change in organisations suffers from failure to land.

Early traction reaps tangible results and there is often a temptation to say “it is done”.
Future proofing your culture means taking people out to a new “edge”, emerged from the current state. If the presenting problems are still the same – culture work was stopped prematurely.

Why do people stop before the change is completely done? Sometimes it is as simple as change fatigue – it’s been such a tough road holding the change line – having to keep secrets and talk people into coming on board – that the change team sometimes just runs out of puff.

More often that not, the real reason change remains underdone is that the conversation about “why” and getting clear on benefits to be realised wasn’t effective enough. Big statements about “productivity”, “saving 10 per cent”, “reducing headcount”, “serving our customers better” are attractive, but simply don’t define a clear path for what is really needed.

The first part of the change (which is often a restructure) is doomed to failure as it has not been defined as part of a series of actions, and mistakenly becomes known as the aim of the change itself. Somewhere along the way, the reason for the restructure or change of system (or whatever your change initiative action is) got lost.

Careful definition of why we are restructuring – including lead and lag indicators which show if benefits are realised, or not – will set your change team up for success.

The question “how will we know when we are done” needs to be asked upfront… when people are fresh and clear about “the why” of change…rather than post restructure when change fatigue and organisational pressure is at its peak.

Success Hint: Define success your pathways and criteria upfront – remind people which bits are the “WHY” (e.g. to connect with our customer) and which bits are the “HOW” (e.g. by restructuring ourselves around customer needs). Be clear not to mix the two up… 

Reason Two: Ignoring Einstein and Brad Pitt

Wait for it … there is a link coming. Of course thinking differently is a key part of leading organisational change.

The temptation to act and be seen to be acting can result in a short-term injection of energy. But nothing has changed because the way people understand the problem has not changed. (Read that sentence again… its key.)

How do you explain HOW you are understanding or thinking about a problem?
How do you know if the change you will implement will actually influence change in the places that count?

Einstein once said “You can not solve problems from the same consciousness that created them” and what I think he meant was, until you are clear about HOW you think about problems and symptoms in the organisation, you simply can’t be expected to innovate in ways that are helpful.

Effectively, you have to address mindsets and methods of thinking before you tackle the issue. Otherwise, how can you be sure that you have understood the problem? In the desire for pace and action, we often neglect to step back and consider “what is the problem here anyhow?”  This is where the change leaders themselves can come unstuck – as a part of the organisation, we have to learn to step back from it, to see it “cleanly”. Working on the strategic thinking of the change agent FIRST, is key to success. This principle should then be adopted across the organisation. People talk about hearts and minds – but in effect, most change processes address neither, and go straight to the head. To get a different result, we need to first think and feel differently. To do that, we must learn how to look.

And as for Brad Pitt, here’s the link – Do you remember the film Money Ball? Brad Pitt’s character comes to an understanding that being blinded by our assumptions can hold us back from making decisions that really impact change. Watch the movie with your change team and discuss what you learn about change – it’s a good use of time… trust me.

Reason Three: He’s not the messiah!! 

Are you a Monty Python fan? In the movie, The Life of Brian, there was an ordinary man who through circumstance was tagged as the new “messiah” – people kept assigning him with mystical qualities – he kept insisting he was ordinary – but they wouldn’t listen.

We see this messiah complex way too often. As we try to sell the change, leaders start to use as many enticements as possible to get people across the line – we sell it as being full of benefits. People start to build false hopes that the change will fix all sorts of things, which are in fact way out of scope.
In post-apartheid South Africa we saw evidence of this, and likewise in post-Obama America – incredible change was implemented, massive leaps forward were made and a huge – level of hope that lives would change – and they have – but not everyone is suddenly rich, equal, important, treated with respect and valued overnight. So did the change fail? No, it didn’t – but people linked all their hopes to the change, even for things outside of scope. And the change simply could not deliver.
Success hint – during change be as clear about what this change will NOT address, as what it will. 

Reason Four: Let them eat cake! 

The magic in change happens in the moment of collaboration and interaction – rarely in private self-reflection alone. Of course during a change, this is the moment that people typically go “underground”… Chatter in the corridors gets quieter… People head out in little groups for “coffee”… People seem to be sick or away or…what is going on here? Where is everyone? It’s simple, you just asked everyone to change, right? So in order to do that, they have gone a bit internal as they try to figure out what’s ok, and what’s not. But because its all new, and different – they are seeking clues from everyone else about what will be valued, and what may be punished or less valued before taking a risk. They end up testing things out with the people they most trust.

In a way this is great news – when people start testing what’s “ok” and “not ok”, what is “popular” and “unpopular”, it means they are in a moment of decision.

The key here is to step in and be involved, in some way in guiding the decision – in the hopes that your change lands on the “let’s embrace this” end of the spectrum. This is the exact moment that setting up reasons for people to gather together in informal ways will help. This is the moment feedback sessions in small groups will help. This is the moment leader led sessions encouraging debate and push back and working to resolve dilemmas will help – public reflection is the key in this phase. At some point in your change program, someone will say “we need more morning teas” – and everyone will think, “what a great solution”.  And of course it is… for the problem of creating a space for public reflection and togetherness

Ok, so we all like cake, heck, what’s not to like? The thing is that doughnuts, muffins, and morning teas make people happy. And of course dealing with emotions should be a core part of addressing organisational agility and change readiness. Every successful change program should address emotional states. This is a fundamental part of the approach. People can’t be resilient and accepting of change until they have worked through the logical AND the emotional states. But HOW we do this, is as important as doing it.

You will often see “fun committees” spring up – and they are well-intentioned people who want to make things “feel better” around here. I’ve been on several, started many and am still an advocate for them. A great, low-cost way to harness the energy of people within the team to get their peers reconnected and talking like humans to each other….Great! And uh-oh!

The problem with a committee like this is that it is addressing the climate of the team. Team climate is exactly what it sounds like – just like the weather, the team has an “emotional climate” – this is the “vibe” of the floor – and leaders and consultants track for this all time.

The problem here is when the morning tea, go kart riding or other activities of togetherness is spouted as the antidote to the change by the sponsors – but it is usually presented as separate from it – so while it helps with short term climate, it doesn’t fundamentally change the permanent weather pattern.

When these committees work, is when they spend the time to understand the climate as well as its underlying causes – and address both. When the emotional climate seems dry, negative or tense, the immediate desire is often to lighten it or lift it – at times this lightening and lifting actually keeps people where they are. It’s a bit like going to the gym with a personal trainer. Imagine if you trainer were to say “drop and give me fifty push-ups” and you responded with “oh, that doesn’t sound like much fun” – if the trainer were to say – “no problems just do what you can” – what is the value in that relationship?

Sometimes a bit of tension and hard work is what strengthens the muscles, and this is no different for organisational resilience. The trick is to know how to navigate the tension so it stays in the productive zone – on the edge of learning – and doesn’t just collapse back into a vortex of “too nice”.

Yes, of course, people need space to just “hang out”. But if hanging out is all they do together, you have missed the chance to face in with public reflection and really acknowledge what is, and what could be. Surfacing the tension in a way to build strength. Let’s be clear – just hanging out together is important – but it can’t be the only change activity you do – if it is, change won’t stick.

Reason Five: Washing your Hands 

Many years ago germ theory was discovered by accident. It was 1847 actually and a Dr called Semmelweis somewhere in France was concerned about the high instance of infant and maternal mortality. Things were so bad at his hospital (and particularly on Ward Two, where he was in charge) that people begged to give birth on the street, as they felt they had a better chance of surviving. They tried everything. Taking out the midwives, using different techniques, having the place blessed. Nothing worked. Then one day, the doctor went on leave, and something odd happened. The mortality rate went down. He had to face facts. Something HE was doing was creating this problem. As it turns out, he was so well known he taught other doctors and – they practiced on cadavers. Back then – people didn’t wash their hands between patients, and guess what? The infections from the dead were spread to the living. Pretty gross, right? Well, the good news is that he realised it and his was the first hospital to introduce the protocol of hand washing – saving countless lives all over the world.
So, what’s the point here? No, your leaders aren’t spreading germs exactly – but they are spreading lots of messages through where they act and don’t act, what they say and don’t say. And people are interpreting these and making meaning of them. If you really want to influence change fast – spend time diagnosing how your leaders are impacting the system, and what is working and what needs addressing – they will have the biggest impact – and they will often be blind to that. This is something to address right up front in the diagnosis – not down in the implementation.

Often leaders who are across or are leading the change talk for hours about “they this”, and “they that” But who are “they”? The leaders and the change leaders are part of the system, not separate from it. By absenting yourself from the conversation, you are actually creating a pattern where you are the unwitting source of many of the habits that are keeping things the same. This is confronting – but really powerful change is driven from both within AND from the top.

Success hint – Start with exploring the system of leadership and how it connects with the broader system to turbo charge your change program.

The journey starts today.

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