Why Transformation Fails – And How To Avoid It

The concept that 70% of change and transformation programmes fail emerged in the mid 1990’s. There’s actually little evidence that this is true.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success looks like – and that most people have a bad experience of them.

My contention is that programmes fail for three reasons:

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It

When was the last time you heard an organisation openly talking about what didn’t work? The problem we face is that large scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

The irony is that this silence is the root cause of failure – as we become eternally doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (2)

Most organisations exist in a fixed state of transformation – time-limited programmes of change (usually 3-5 years) rather than a flow state. 

Amazon, we hear, have never had a transformation programme. That’s because they exist in a flow state – where the culture is accepting that change is perpetual rather than something that – if we just grin and bear it – will be over in a few years.

The danger with a fixed state is that the driver becomes a business plan focused on implementation not experimentation. 

Accordingly we end up with optimisation not transformation.  Or, as Emma McGowan has said, we end up digitising the status quo.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

Too often we focus on transforming parts of organisations rather than looking at whole system change. This results in the creation of more efficient silos rather than anything fundamentally different.

There are cultural reasons for this. We have a western bias towards individualism rather than looking at the whole picture. Rice farmers in South-East Asia tend to be more collaborative and cooperative as a successful crop requires a holistic approach to nature and irrigation systems rather than just a focus on the self.

Most change programmes do not look at interconnected systems – they narrowly focus on efficiency.

Accordingly , as Andy Reeve said, transformation gets a bad reputation as it often becomes equated with fewer jobs rather than creating a different world.

The End of Change Management

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change. People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

We need to get back to basics;

  • We need a clear vision of why we need to change and what benefit it will bring. If you step behind the rhetoric of transformation you’ll see it is usually about reinforcing existing business models rather than truly challenging them.
  • We need influence devolved to people closest to the change. Change is best served when we devolve power, and institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.
  • We need change through small experimentation. We shouldn’t initiate change without a clear problem statement and some evidence that any proposed solution would result in a net positive outcome.

And we need a new honesty about what’s not worked well. Chris Bolton has suggested a Museum of Failed Products for public services.

Perhaps we need a Museum of Failed Change Programmes too?

Surely the best way we can avoid repeating our mistakes is to put our previous ‘failed attempts’ on show for everyone to see.


This is an edited version of a talk that was originally given at #HQNFlight on 11th October 2017

  1. Black box thinking by Matthew Syed changed by thinking…about being brave to look at failure. So often the structure exists but isn’t working because of lack of review, follow through and review. We think we have to transform to succeed when in reality we have to do what we say we will

    Reply

    1. That’s very true and we need to get much better at review and reflection. Even with review it’s possible to confuse ‘learning what happened here’ with ‘what does what just happened tell us about what we should do next’.

      And then retaining that learning in the organisational memory!

      Thanks for comment

      Reply

  2. How many large scale transformations have you actually been involved in Paul?

    Reply

    1. Difficult to define large scale but there’s five I’d say qualify for that I’ve directly experienced myself.

      Reply

  3. The subtlety here is the notion of success. Crudely you can state what success amounts to before you start or you can find out what it is by doing the work. The failure rate is necessarily high for the former. Anything that stops playful exploration is a problem for the latter.

    Reply

  4. […] Why transformation fails – and how to avoid it – Paul Taylor […]

    Reply

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