Most Initiatives Fail – Why Don’t They Have To

By | December 12, 2016


A 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of global senior leaders on culture and change management reveals that the success of major change initiatives was only 54%. Why is this such a big problem – because failed change efforts result in decreased morale, wasted resources, increased turnover and a negatively impacted bottom line.

Most Initiatives Fail – Why Don’t They Have To…it’s all about people and embedding change management into the organization’s culture as the best way to turn failure into success! Change management is not just something that leaders decide they need at some point when their change initiatives are threatened or are failing. In the multiple change initiatives I have led, without a doubt, those initiatives where I was empowered to develop, resource and implement a robust change management strategy were successful. Those initiatives where the organization did not, the results were dismal…in fact, one initiative is failing miserably at this very moment! Change management seems to have become less of the culture…so the failure is not surprising.

Back to the survey where the results suggest, in addition to culture’s critical role in the overall success of an organization, strong correlations between the success of change programs and whether culture was leveraged in the change process. It’s interesting to note that there seems to be a disconnect between the way culture is seen by companies and the way it is treated. Less than half of participants report that their companies effectively manage culture, and more than half say a major culture overhaul is needed. Here is the question: What can companies do to sustain change initiatives and leverage the power of culture?

Why Transformations Typically Fall Short – 3 Major Obstacles

  1. Change Fatigue occurs when employees feel they are being asked to make too many changes at once. Sixty-five percent of survey respondents say they have experienced some form of change fatigue.
  2. Lack of skill for companies to drive transformation. Forty-eight percent of survey respondents say their companies don’t have the necessary capabilities to ensure that change is sustained.
  3. Lack of input from lower-level employees. Transformation initiatives are selected, planned, and implemented by senior managers, without much input from lower-level employees. Why is this so important? When asked to select the top three reasons people resist change, 44 percent of employees say they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38 percent say they don’t agree with it. Wow, with this kind of information, is it any wonder that the majority of the organization does not understand the change and, as a result, does not buy-in?

One more obstacle, I have observed, occurs later in the change initiative when the executive leadership team stops paying attention and suddenly the priorities change. Wonder why the momentum has slowed…could this occur when employees are faced with too many change priorities, aren’t sure how to proceed, and aren’t even sure that an initiative is good for the organization? Perhaps, they take a wait-and-see attitude, looking to management for direction and the conversations among the employees turns to uncertainty! Uncertainty is a momentum killer…no wonder the executive leadership team starts to shift its priorities…it’s too hard to continue…it’s just easier to change! I have heard executives call this being “agile”…not the word I would use! I call this failure and is it any wonder that the culture of the organization is one where employees are continually skeptical about the next big “change?”

People Believe That Culture Is Important…But Is It A Priority?

The survey results show that 86 percent of executives and 84 percent of all managers and employees say culture is critical to their organizations’ success. In fact, 60 percent view culture as a bigger success factor than either their strategy or their operating model. But is it a priority when companies are trying to drive change? Let’s take a closer look.

When transformation initiatives fail, it usually appears that corporate culture was an afterthought. Only 24 percent of survey respondents who said the changes at their companies weren’t adopted and sustained over time, said their companies used the existing culture as a source of energy and influence during the change effort. Another interesting result from the survey showed that 35 percent of respondents who said change efforts hadn’t succeeded saw their companies as trying to leverage employees’ pride in, and emotional commitment to, their organizations. Sounds a bit like a lack of understanding about What Does Employee Engagement Means and How Can Transformational Leadership Positively Impact It?

On the other hand, 70 percent of respondents who said change efforts at their companies were adopted and sustained also said their companies leveraged employees’ pride in the organization and their emotional commitment – employee engagement! Fifty-six percent of respondents at companies where changes had worked said the existing culture was used as a source of energy and influence – employee engagement! Focusing on culture would appear to double the likelihood that change initiatives will be successful.

Employee engagement surveys often speak the truth and prove that there’s a disconnect between what many companies say about culture and how much they attend to it.

So, we have proof that culture is not a priority.

  • Fifty percent of all employees say their leaders treat culture as a priority on a daily basis.
  • Less than 50% say culture is effectively managed at their companies.
  • Ninety-six percent of respondents say some change to their culture is needed.
  • Fifty-one percent think their culture requires a major overhaul.

Leading Change With Culture

In my experience, as a change leader, there is much “talk” about culture but I’m left wanting when I try to find “walk” about culture. The survey results support this lack of “walk.” Organizations are missing a huge driver for transformational change.

As a thought leader, John Kotter of Harvard Business School, shared an eight-step process in his book, “Leading Change.” Many organizations faithfully follow the first few steps. All seems good…you and I both know what

happens…a few new practices have taken hold and proven their value and the organization makes the fatal assumption…we can leave out the last step of the process – culture. The research indicates that culture is often not addressed at all.

Okay…Solution Time…How Should Companies Use Culture to Lead Transformation?

Here are the most important things to employ:

  1. Identify your culture’s strengths and weaknesses. Leveraging the strengths can give your change initiative the momentum it needs to overcome obstacles.
  2. Focus on changing behaviours. Set a few clear behavioural change goals and show employees what you want them to do differently. Don’t overwhelm people…one small step at a time can create behaviour patterns that will support the change initiative and a new culture.
  3. Celebrate small or quick wins. Find ways to connect workers to the satisfaction of beating a benchmark.
  4. Create “change champions” who are usually highly respected employees who are really good at helping their co-workers feel good about their work. See below for my story of “change champions.”
  5. Foster a culture that is reinforced at every level. When “change champions” point out the benefits of change, instead of an executive or manager, this can lead to improved behaviours that continue even when nobody is looking…another shift in culture.
  6. Encourage “storytelling.” Talk about how we got to this point. I have used stories to foster a sense of pride with employees and it’s an awesome way of reinforcing desired behaviours.

How Can Change Champions Help Your Change Initiative Succeed?

Resourcing your change management approach is crucial. The most success I have enjoyed in change initiatives occurred when I was able to dedicate resources to change management…change champions. As mentioned above, these are usually highly respected employees who are really good at helping others feel good about their work. They can play a key role to increase employee engagement and create a culture where people understand why a change is occurring and provide them with a voice on what the new process will look like…increasing employee buy-in!  They also encourage their fellow employees to embrace the new behaviors and requirements and to take responsibility for meeting them. Change champions are key to developing innovative ways to meet the new standards, and to spread those innovations and ideas throughout the organization.

What’s In It For You and Your Organization?

It’s all about value and Return on Investment…you will see increased employee engagement that will drive measurable improvements in a variety of areas where the company’s performance had suffered, including product quality, market share, and top-line growth.

Try It Now!


Please share and let me know if you have any questions or would like to leave a comment. I would love to hear what you think.

Best regards,



2 thoughts on “Most Initiatives Fail – Why Don’t They Have To

  1. Zed

    Hello Miles !
    Everything boils down to one word: culture. People, and organizations alike because they’re run by people, would say to whom ever want to hear: I want to change the world, or something to that effect. Unfortunately, they fail and you gave the stats.
    You summed it well. I’ll be mulling this over.

    1. admin

      Zed, I appreciate your comment. Please do leave a question or comment as you “mull” this over. I would love to hear from you.




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