Must We Focus on Why Changes Fail? Yes, We Must.

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Question: Must we focus on why changes fail? (drum roll) Answer: Yes, we must.

Over the past couple of days, I was engaged in conversations about the emphasis on the failure of change in organizations. They believed that focusing on failure saps energy and spirit and gets people focusing on the wrong things.  And, that we keep trotting out the very old, tired statistic that 70 percent of changes fail.

I do agree with them in part. Too much emphasis on hand-wringing is harmful. It can sap our energy to do anything productive. We’ve all probably been in meetings where you could feel motivation ooze out of the room. Obviously, I am not a fan of that.

But I think focusing on failure (as well as success) is critically important.

Arnold Beisser’s article The Paradoxical Theory of Change (1970) has had a significant impact on my thinking about change. He was writing for therapists but suggested that this paradox applied in larger social systems as well. Those of us who use Gestalt psychology as a foundation for our work, realize that he was on to something.

His point is that we can’t make change happen. It only occurs when we can identify the unexamined or unaware aspects of what is going on. In my view, that often requires a willingness to look closely at what we prefer to ignore. Failure is one thing organizations prefer to ignore. Careers, reputations, face, politics, etc. all can hang in the balance.

My first sweeping generalization: organizations don’t spend nearly enough time looking at reality. They don’t like to hold up mirrors and look at themselves in unflattering florescent light.  Urghh.

In a good annual physical, we see “what is.” We see the cholesterol count. Blood pressure. Weight. And a host of other data. Perhaps we see an encouraging picture, perhaps not. But these data allow us to plan wisely. (Of course, nothing guarantees that we actually will change our evil ways, but complete data delivered in a way we can understand, gives us the best shot at making wise decisions.) As George Santayana wrote over a century ago (1905), “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Motivational speakers often add a patina of platitudes that covers over the stark reality of what’s really going on. How in the world can people be motivated to do better when they don’t know why they aren’t doing well today? (And it doesn’t all boil down to “good attitude” as these hucksters would like us to believe.)

And now the tired, old statistics. When I was invited to revise Beyond the Wall of Resistance last fall, I was curious about the success rate of organizational changes today. When I wrote the first version of the book back in 1995, I claimed that 70% failed. John Kotter used that same number. I was stunned to learn that we haven’t gotten any better. (McKinsey An Inconvenient Truth About Change 2008.)