How to Lead Change Effectively by Learning from Past Setbacks

Some organizations go from project to project doing exactly the same things they did the time before – and the time before that. That would be OK if every change exceeded expectations and came in on time and within budget. But, the truth is, about 70 percent of organizational changes fail.[i] [ii]

Here’s the rub. I’ve asked leaders, managers, and staff why some major project suffered big setbacks, went off the trails, or just outright failed. Quite often, they knew the answer. And when I asked, “What could you have done?” they knew exactly what they should have done.

You’d think that organizations could learn from all that experience. They can, but they don’t. At least, most don’t.  It’s not because leaders and their teams don’t know how to evaluate projects or don’t have the time. The answer is much more personal. People are afraid to talk about failing. Even talking about a minor setback can trigger fear in most people.

Why are people in organizations afraid to talk openly about projects that didn’t go well? Some of those reasons: fear of losing face, fear losing their jobs, fear they will hurt somebody else’s feelings, and fear of possible retribution for telling the truth. That’s a lot of fear!

These fears run deep. And it makes little difference if those fears are unfounded. Even in an organization where leadership encourages candor, talking about setbacks or failures can still be difficult. People in your organization are probably filled with memories of years of working in organizations and they’ve learned to not criticize openly.

If you want to handle the next change better, you’ve got to learn from the past. And, in order to do that, you’ve got to make it safe for people to tell you the truth. 

  • Make sure everyone knows that the sole purpose of this evaluation is to help your organization lead change more effectively in the future.
  • Make it absolutely clear that this will not a performance review.

And reinforce those two bullet points as often as needed. People may need to be reminded more than once that it is worth the risk to talk about such things.

How Can We Learn From Past Changes?

If you’ve got a process for debriefing projects that works for you, then stop reading this article and start using it! But, if you need something else, here are some steps that I like. You’ll notice that I keep the process simple and quick. (So, if your preferred way of evaluating involves decks of PowerPoint slides, complex surveys, months of analysis and pondering what you might do next time, you’re gonna hate what I suggest.)

How Can We Find Out What Went Wrong?

I prefer face-to-face meetings combined with simple informal surveys. I ask four questions:

  1. What worked?
  2. What didn’t?
  3. What would you do differently next time?
  4. Anything else that you would add?

When you ask a question, give people a chance to respond in a way that works best for them. Open-ended questions work best. You need to hear their stories.

Send out a simple anonymous survey to a sizeable cross-section of people in the organization that asks those four open-ended questions. But start by telling them why this is important. For instance, you might say that you truly want the organization to get better at how it handles change. And be sure to assure them that their responses will be anonymous.

Invite about 15 people who represent various interests and levels of the organization to help you collect and analyze information. Be sure to invite a couple of people who will not pull punches and will tell it like it is. These people will be invaluable. You may not enjoy having them there, but they will ensure that the team doesn’t gloss over critical items.

Once the team is formed, their first job will be to informally interview 10 people each. During these interviews, they will ask those four questions. And a single interview might last just a few minutes. Even though this isn’t be a big time-consuming task, the benefits could be enormous.

How do we make sense of what we just learned?

Get those same 15 people together. Look at the survey results. Ask what they learned during their face-to-face interviews. And begin to put these responses into categories. For example, there could be technical, financial, and timing issues, and things in the environment that were out of your control. In addition, pay special attention to the human issues. I found the human component – support and resistance – is often the primary reason why major changes fail. Look at those human factors carefully and divide the responses into three categories:

1. To what extent do people understand what was going on?

2. What were their positive and negative reactions to this change? For example, excitement and engagement versus fear.

3. To what extent did they trust and have confidence in the people leading this change?

(To learn more about these three levels, read Why Resistance Matters,

During the meeting with those 15 people, it may be hard for them to resist talking about what you could do differently in the future. That’s a good thing. I encourage you to keep a parking lot flipchart to collect those thoughts. The parking lot will allow people to say what’s on their minds – and allow you to stay focused on the work at hand.

And then ask the team to read the anonymous survey results and add anything new to the three categories listed above.

What do we do next?

Now it’s time to learn from the information you collected and the conversations you just had. Look at each of the categories: technical, financial, timing, environmental, and human and ask, What should we do differently? Here’s where you have to be very careful. It will be easy for people to spout platitudes. “Well, we’ll have good communication. . . and teamwork. . .  and all ideas will be accepted.” You could spend a whole meeting just regurgitating a list like that. Don’t do it. It will be a waste of time.

What you need is a set of guidelines that everyone in the room and leaders at all levels of the organization understand and agree to follow. The list can be simple – but it must be actionable.  For example, let’s say that you wanted to make sure you engaged people deeply in the planning of change. Then be specific. What does that mean? How would you know you had actually engaged them?  Warning: This is another point where people can give in to platitude-speak. Avoid it. Demand specificity.

The leader’s role in this process is critical. He must be present and remain open and curious. She must demonstrate that this process is an opportunity to learn – and not to punish.

This process will take a little time but could save you a considerable amount of time on subsequent projects. But even more important, applying what you learned from this evaluation will give you what you need to increase your ability to get the most out of future changes.

Finally, act on what you decided to do.

A first action is to share the outcomes of the meeting (and not necessarily all the gritty details of the conversation). And then, take some highly-visible action quickly to demonstrate that this project is going to be different. And obviously, pay attention to what you learned throughout the next project.

I wish you well.

Rick Maurer is a sounding board and advisor on ways to build support for change to leaders in midsize to large organizations. He is author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance (2010) and other books on leadership and change.


[i] The Enterprise of the Future. IBM. 2008
[ii] An Inconvenient Truth About Change Keller and Aiken. McKinsey. 2008

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