Home » Change Management » Do 70% Of Your Change Efforts Fail?

Do 70 percent of your change efforts fail[A] 2000 Harvard Business Review article reported that 70 percent of all corporate change initiatives fail. Add to that the fact that nearly 90 percent of New Year’s resolutions falter, and it’s clear that changing a person’s behavior is a difficult battle to win.

Let me add a few more intriguing stats: Only 1 in 6 people change their habits when they learn they are at risk for heart disease and it takes about 3-6 weeks of doing something regularly before it becomes a habit.

Change Is Hard

But we can successfully change. Here are four behaviors that have worked for me and have helped me to personally change as well as to change organizations successfully.

Believe In The Change

Believe in the change I am making, or don’t do it. I have to be passionate about something before I have much of a chance to make it happen in my life. I learned an exercise to do regularly many years ago. I ask myself if I could be doing anything I wanted right now, what would I be doing? Another way to ask it is to think “if right this moment I had one free hour, what would I do?” The exercise is to know my real feelings and motivations.

Through this and similar exercises, I discovered that my core motivation in life was that I loved to understand how and why things worked and I loved to make things work they way they should (or could). That of course had nothing to do with fame and fortune or promotion and recognition. Once I came to accept this as part of myself, life was more in focus as I did things from moment to moment. I would inevitably succeed if I was passionate about what I was doing.

Set A Goal

Set a goal in writing. Yeah, we’ve all heard this one before. What works for me is to set specific and attainable goals. I spend some time just thinking about, for example, what is it I would really like to accomplish this coming year (what am I reasonably passionate about). I usually end up with about a half dozen goals (e.g., physical, mental, business, professional, family, learning, skills). I don’t expect to accomplish them all. Some will be done quickly, early on in the year, some will take the full year, if they get done at all.

What I’ve noticed is that if I do something in writing, then I’ll accomplish more of the goals than if I don’t write them down. I have my annual goals from each year for the last 20 years. Some goals are repeats and get written down just about every year. These would be something like “save X amount of money.” Writing a goal down resulted in more goals achieved for me in business and in life than when not writing them down.

Communicate Goals

In any project or team or organization I’ve run, I’m often accused of over-communicating. In every status meeting, in every presentation, in every staff meeting I like to start out by mentioning the goals we are working towards. My goal, in turn, is that no one will ever be able to say “I didn’t know about that!” Half the battle, in my experience, is getting everyone to know the goals — have shared goals. That alone will motivate a significant number of people to work together towards the goals, without any special push or emphasis by me.

Being sincere about the goals, not just going through the motions of mentioning them — which is why I want a goal I can be passionate about, is also important. I always felt I was on the right track when someone would say something like “Bruce, you are the only one who ever said that quality was our first priority and really meant it!” Have an appropriate goal, be passionate about achieving that goal and communicate it at every appropriate opportunity.

Anticipate The Way Ahead

Change is hard because … we have to do things that are different from what has happened in the past. It puts us out of our comfort zone, out of our practiced and proven way of getting things done. When we have to do something different, we are no longer doing something we are expert at. We have to give up what may be years of effort and experience to do something we don’t have the background in.

The best tool I’ve had here is to know what teams and projects look like as they go through change. The S curve model is a good reminder. Things start out relatively easy, we talk and plan and try it a little, and then it starts to get hard as we try to do it in the large. This is where change efforts often go awry and being able to tell people this is coming, seeing it happen and saying this is normal, this is one of the hard spots, press on, we’ll get through it, can really make a difference with a team that is not use to achieving changes (or even if they are, it always helps).

For more on the S curve see Why Change Is Hard And How To Succeed Anyway

Similarly, I’ve use the same techniques when a team has decided to continue to do something that generally fails (e.g., they always deliver their projects late). Since I’ve not convinced them to do something different (e.g., use a realistic schedule) then I’ll forecast that if we start missing milestones, and that is the first indicator of an inadequate schedule, then that would be a good time to rethink our plan, hopefully the only time, and fix the schedule.

Presenting this in an objective, matter of fact way, as opposed to “see, I told you so!” is the goal. I often couch it in risk management terms, if this goes wrong then we can do this kind of thing to mitigate it. I just note, early on, that we have an aggressive schedule and what the symptoms would be (the missed milestones) and what the mitigation would be (e.g., only slip once, get the schedule right on the 2nd try).

For background on getting the schedule right see Its The Project Management Schedule, Stupid

Change Is Hard But Doable

Change is hard. Be passionate about the change to be made. Write and communicate clearly and regularly what the goals are. Understand what changing will look like as to the impact on people and where the extra hard spots will be and let people know these ahead of time. Change is hard, but as with any hard work, the results are worth the effort and the team will grow and improve when we are done. Everyone will also be more practiced in change and ready for the next innovation and no longer failing 70% of the time.

What change techniques have worked best for you in your projects?

Thank you for sharing!

2 thoughts on “Do 70% Of Your Change Efforts Fail?

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Elena Stoimenova

    From my perspective is very important is to be honest and gradually to introduce involved parties. Sharing knowledge with the team is crucial for succesfull change.

    Bruce Benson


    That’s another good one. Honest and open information is critical for any change effort.


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