February 2015 | 

Where Change Efforts Fail: Navigating Common Pitfalls

Where Change Efforts Fail

“Change is hard,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “Research tells us that most organizations’ efforts fail. In part, that failure is due to the effort change takes. It’s a lengthy process, and it can get derailed at a number of key points. Knowing where they are can help leaders keep things on track.”

Rothbard recently told a group of executives in Wharton’s High-Potential Leaders: Accelerating Your Impact program that the time to start watching for warning signs is before the change initiative even begins. “It might sound obvious, but many people don’t fully understand what they’re trying to change. They know there’s a problem, and they want to jump right in and start working on it. The people around them might share their impatience. But you need to take time to locate and understand the real problem. Often, people think they know what the problem is, but they are really identifying a symptom rather than the root cause.”

She explains by using a medical analogy. “You might go to see a doctor, and be experiencing various symptoms. The diagnosis could be one of many different diseases. If the doctor treats a symptom of the problem rather than the underlying real one, that symptom might go away for a while but it will reappear. Organizational issues can be very complex, and your first thought about the solution might not go deep enough.”

A second juncture at which changes can get derailed is during what Rothbard calls the “Black Hole of Change.” Although most leaders think they’re talking constantly about the change and getting buy-in, research finds that leaders tend to under-communicate and under-motivate by a factor of 8 to 10. “This is a general leadership issue,” says Rothbard, “but it is particularly problematic around change, when it is critical that you get people on board.”

For participants in High-Potential Leaders, understanding how to avoid these enemies of change initiatives comes at many levels. They learn the model, read the research, and discuss their own challenges around change. But learning to better lead these initiatives requires more. “Because we try to avoid change, we don’t engage with it a lot, so most of us are not particularly good at it. That avoidance intensifies what Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton call the ‘knowing-doing gap.’ Just understanding what we should do doesn’t mean we will do it successfully. There are a lot of surprises along the way, and we don’t think through how our actions will influence the change process for better or worse.”

To close the knowing-doing gap, High-Potential Leaders uses a simulation. Acting as consultants to a company going through a change effort, participants work in teams to get buy-in from those in the organization. Along the way, explains Rothbard, they make plenty of mistakes. “Mistakes teach us a tremendous amount, and we tend to remember them. The simulation lets you make mistakes without any real cost. And if you make them here in the program, you are less likely to make them on the job.”

But to get the most from mistakes, you need feedback. “It is a key component of the simulation,” says Rothbard.“Often in organizations we don’t get good feedback. It might be delayed, or not come at all. You can’t learn much from a mistake if you don’t know what went wrong. In the program, you get both quantitative and qualitative feedback. It’s not important that you achieve the simulation goal. What we want is for you to learn so you can go back to work and be successful.”