Why Change Resistance Underpins 70% of Organisational Change Failures

Melanie Bedggood

Melanie Bedggood

Chief Executive at Growth Development

The area of change management has evolved and changed in focus over the many decades since its inception. Current well-known change management processes such as Prosci and project management tools like Scrum and Kanban create a picture of a whole lot of different ways to approaching organisational change and development.

One of the greatest critiques of the godfather change management approach of Waterfall is the concrete, linear pathway of change it stipulates. This has since been countered by project development philosophies such as Agile and Lean, both focusing on adaptability and outcomes as priorities. With origins in technology development, these philosophies are underpinned by key fundamentals of team performance, focusing on constant development and improvement as opposed to one off, time limited change endeavours (such as Prosci).

Nonetheless, despite all of this development in the area of organisational change and performance, in the present day 70% of change management endeavours still fail. Why? Employee resistance is widely quoted as the number one reason for these failures. Certainly, most organisations already anticipate this fatal flaw. This is evidenced in the seeking of change personnel who have an ability to ‘influence people’, ‘manage resistance’ and ‘achieve change adoption’.

There are two clear ‘camps’ when it comes to organisational change 1) the psychology informed approach to understanding human response to change and 2) the engineer’s approach to business improvement, through process and growth orientated pathways. Is one superior to the other? Given that 70% of change endeavours fail due to people resisting the change, one could argue that yes one is superior and yes you would be correct in terms of change outcomes being achieved. However, when it comes to engineering an organisation that is able to successfully implement change priorities, it pays to step back and take a bigger picture view.

This begins with questioning what is informing this resistance to change in the first place. Ideas come to mind no doubt… a culture of resistance, fear of change, lack of trust, lack of knowledge and understanding. Whilst yes, all of these are potential contributing factors (and a psychology informed approach would seek to work through these) have we considered the role of the knowledge and experiences of our people in how to achieve successful change outcomes (crossing over into the engineer approach to business improvement)? Furthermore, how this 'how' can influence the ‘what’ we seek to achieve within the change endeavour at hand?

Simon Synek’s 'why, how, what’ model is now widely cited in leadership development. This simple but effective framework locates that change priorities must align into the 'why' of the people. If it doesn’t, change resistance will be inevitable.  This is the reason employing skilled change managers to influence our people’s lens, to convince them of the change and it’s relevance to them, is such a popular approach. The question is, at what point do we need to reverse the conversation? Do we actually EVER reverse the conversation? Who has the acuity as to what change needs to look like, based on organisational positioning and expertise? Consultations, focus groups, surveying methods etc all have the dangerous potential of falling into the ‘passive engagement category’, which unfortunately (especially if we are faced with organisational culture issues), can be more on the output end of the engagement spectrum. 'Meaningful engagement' aligned to the overarching outcome objective/s, needs to be considered and this needs to allow for a reverse 'feedback loop' into developing pathways to implement change priorities. This creates the space for a third camp 3) the people system approach encapsulating both the psychological aspects of people related change as well as the engineering of organisational objectives, driven by systems focused, engagement and alignment philosophies.

To explore this conversation, we draw on two more key influencers in the leadership field. One of them is thought leader, Sebastian Salicru, whose work on adaptive leadership and high performing organisations is widely recognised across Australasia. In the context of exploring the meaningful engagement pillar of trust, Sebastian identifies the need for leadership to ask oneself the following questions, considering how its stakeholders would respond (note we, Growth Development, have adapted this into the context of organisational change):

Our organisation

1.     does not blame us when things go wrong

2.     communicates openly, honestly and respectfully

3.     is competent

4.     demonstrates good judgement

5.     can be relied upon

6.     does/delivers what is promised

7.     shares important information openly and transparently

How did we measure up? If there is work to do here, then change resistance is a likely feature in your organisation. And so the question is posed, do we need to focus on overcoming change resistance (through recruiting those traditional change managers/teams), or do we actually need to focus on addressing the root issue of trust at an organisational level.

The third key and final leadership expert (and quite possibly most influential) is organisational development and leadership researcher Brene Brown, who is globally recognised as 'the expert' when it comes to the power of vulnerability in achieving organisational change. Brene identifies that vulnerability involves 'uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure'. Yet one of the fundamental flaws of change implementation rollout is the priority of mitigating such risk. In fact, the organisational change process that is Prosci is criticised for its lack of recognition of the 'emotional dimension'.

The big take away here is that one of the fundamental pillars to successful change endeavours, are organisational development practices that utilise engagement methods focused on trust underpinned by vulnerability. This creates the platform for an open conversation leading to the insight, innovation and adaption required to achieve desired and sustainable outcomes.

The reality is that if we had a culture of transparency, trust, innovation, adaptability and growth, change management would not be required. However, when the 3 d's are present - distrust, disconnection and disheartenment – we must prioritise this complicator that is the perspective of our people, beginning with the perspective that informs change resistance.

Growth Development specialises in transformative solutions for organisational change priorities and in vast organisational structures, which are often complex when it comes to engagement and alignment. Whilst transformative organisational change can be complicated, our SIMPLE method breaks down the process to provide ease of understanding for you and your people.