Response to “Why Companies are Often Terrible at Changing”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Interesting article by Sharlene Evans and Greta Roberts in 10/21/11 issue of Fortune, Why Companies Are Often Terrible at Changing.  I like the article, and I was intrigued by the comments. They seemed to blame leaders for the failure. While I have ridden that bandwagon myself, I think the problem may be different. Here is how I responded: 

I agree with many of the comments that senior leadership needs to take the “leading” part of leading change seriously. It is easy to blame these people, but in my experience as an advisor to senior level men and women, most want to do things well. They certainly want their projects to be successful, and they often believe that engaging people in the process might improve planning, implementation, and results. And yet, something goes wrong.
So ignoring those leaders who come from the Attila school of management, here are some of things that stop otherwise good leaders from leading change effectively:

1. They know what to do, but don’t know how to do it. It’s the 10,000 hours thing. Where can budding leaders try things out and fail? Dust themselves off and try again? Sports teams would never send new athletes on the field without a lot of practice and opportunities to play against increasing levels of competition. Not so in management. We buy them a book, send them to training, and then assign them to a major project where failure is not an option.

Roger Bannister Breaking 4-Minute Mile Barrier

2. No role models. Adding to the first point, most of us need to see things done differently before we believe it can be done differently. Most know the story about Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile mark in 1954, and how that event seemed to open the flood gates for more runners to achieve the same goal in fairly short order. (As an aside, it is less known that in 1948, Bannister declined the chance to be considered for a spot on the British Olympic Team because he felt that he wasn’t ready. How many leaders are allowed to say, “I’m not ready.”?)

3. The organization values heroic leaders who take charge and get things done. It’s an appealing and romantic notion of the lone hero standing tall on top of the hill, but it’s not how change happens in organizations. Most large changes demand the support of a host of people who have a stake in the process and the outcome. Unless the organization acknowledges and rewards leaders who take the time to build these relationships, then we’re going to suffer from a lot of junior John Wayne’s trying to make things happen.

Why do you think change fails so often?

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