Over the past 30 years or so of coaching and advising leaders at all levels, we have been struck by one frustratingly constant observation: the majority of change initiatives end in failure. Not all of them make the headlines, obviously, and some are only partial failures that can be neatly swept under the carpet. Still, the conclusion remains the same, and the research backs us up on this. The issue is well-known and has been going on for a long time, so why does it persist?
If the answer was simple it would have been fixed long ago. We think there are three major contributing factors, which often go together, and are often overlooked. They are easy to understand, but hard to get right. The purpose of this blog is to summarise the main points we make in our paper: Leading Change: think before you leap. In this paper we look at examples of both successful and unsuccessful change in order to tease out the reasons why leaders took their decisions, and how, with the benefit of hindsight, they might have done better.
The three factors we consider to be the most important are: (1) the type of change process followed, (2) the leadership style and behaviours, and (3) the composition of the project teams.
Many leaders begin by misreading the context. The last two to three decades have seen sharp increases in the levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in the business environment. When the old cause-and-effect relationships break down, decision-making processes and leadership heuristics that worked well in the past are no longer effective.
The Cynefin framework, developed by David Snowden and his colleagues at IBM Business Services in the 1990’s, has become an essential tool. This framework makes clear the importance of understanding the operating environment before taking decisions. The leadership style, tools and processes that work well in one environment generally do not work well in another. For example, applying an approach that works in an ordered situation in one which is complex will almost always lead to failure. Contrary to what one might think, however, many of the failures in change initiatives are still taking place in relatively straightforward situations, where cause-and-effect can be determined and one would expect failure to be less likely.
Process: expert-led or stakeholder-engagement?
The first cause of failure is the choice of process. Many of the failures in change can be traced to the adoption of a top-down or expert-led process in situations where a stakeholder-engagement process would have had a better chance of succeeding. Expert-led processes often work well for purely technical problems. They are entirely appropriate in the right context but will not work for adaptive challenges, where the problem is ill-defined and the solution will require people across the organisation to make changes in their values, beliefs, relationships or mindsets. In these situations, the stakeholders must be fully engaged in the process. For more details on the differences between technical and adaptive challenges, please refer to our paper.
Leadership and communication style
Regardless of the choice of process, leadership communication is fundamental to success. This is our second root cause: the failure of leaders to adapt themselves to their audience and the situation. Many leaders find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of their employees and imagine what their people need in terms of message clarity, message consistency and support. Not only is your viewpoint, as an executive, very different to that of a front-line employee, but also you will have spent many hours thinking about, debating and crafting the strategy. Is it reasonable to expect people at lower levels to understand and accept all this on the basis of a short speech or presentation?
The third root cause of failure is a lack of cognitive diversity in the leadership and/or project teams. You need people who think differently and are willing to challenge the consensus. There is a wide variation in cognitive styles: the ways different people prefer to interact with others, to take in and evaluate information, to reach decisions and to accept ambiguity. Well understood and well managed, this variation is a source of strength and high performance. Poorly managed, it can lead to misunderstandings, disagreements and blind spots. Teams composed of people with similar cognitive styles fall easily into the trap of groupthink: the best performing teams have a good balance of different styles and are able to manage the resulting conflict positively.
- Think carefully about the type of problem you are trying to solve. Is it technical or adaptive? Structure the project as a consequence: technical = team of experts; adaptive = team of stakeholders. Follow best practice for either process, adapted to your specific circumstances. There are no shortcuts.
- Adapt your leadership behaviour and communication style to the audience. Above all, make sure you ask plenty of open questions and listen carefully to the answers, especially if they contradict your point of view.
- Pay attention to the composition of your teams, particularly in terms of diversity in cognitive style. When teams are trained to welcome diverse opinions and disagreement, they will find better solutions than teams where everyone thinks alike.
We develop all these ideas in much more depth in our paper: Leading Change: think before you leap. Please contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) – with no obligation – if you would like to discuss a change initiative in your organisation.
Finally, we would love to read your comments, whether you agree or disagree with us!
Links to Cynefin model:
The Cynefin framework was first developed by David Snowden at IBM in the late 1990’s and has gone through numerous iterations. Snowden introduced the concept in an IBM paper, co-authored with Cynthia Kurtz
Snowden presents the concept here in a video