Why Change Initiatives Fail

I happened to be preparing for a change management training for the Naval Reactors Headquarters in D.C. when I came across some material from Peter Senge’s work on change that is definitely worth sharing and remembering.

In his book, Dance of Change, he identifies a number of challenges that cause change initiatives to fail. I’ve added a few comments of my own to the list, based on my experiences as a consultant and facilitator of change efforts:

#1: Not enough time devoted to managing the change.  I remember asking a leadership team how much time they had spent in the past week actually overseeing and managing a particular change effort. They all looked down sheepishly. They finally agreed to do two 15-minute segments a day on the plant floor interfacing with people about the change. In actuality, they ended up with far less than that. No wonder 70% of change initiatives fail.

 #2: Not enough help to support change implementation.  I was speaking with a friend recently who mentioned that her company had eliminated two positions and added the work to her workload. She was completely overwhelmed with trying to figure out how she was going to complete the work of three people. Why do organizations think they can eliminate positions and experience no consequences when it comes to the workload? If a file cabinet is full and we try to stuff more folders into it, it won’t work; the same applies to people.

#3: Not able to sustain enough momentum to overcome resistance.  When organizations launch first steps in a change initiative, they must realize that they simultaneously launch the resistance. If the reasons for the change are unclear and the vision/direction for the future is unknown, the resistance can build a full head of steam before enough wins occur with the change effort. Careful change agents make sure they set the stage with building dissatisfaction with status quo and a compelling vision before launching first steps.

#4: Failure to see change as a dynamic process.  It often appears that management expects to announce a change and then assume it to advance on its own. Change is a dynamic process that has ebbs and flows, successes and failures. Leadership must manage the change (in addition to the content of the change) on a daily basis. In every training session where I ask participants to identify the percentage of change champions they have a various levels, the results are absolutely dismal. Change champions must drive the dynamic process of change.


Many of you have been asking us how we’re doing with the recession and all. I heard a comment today that I loved. The person said, “I’m not participating in the recession.” That’s us, too. We’re moving ahead, making plans to grow, and adding in new workshops and services. It’s exciting when you decide not to participate in a “cup half empty” outlook.

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