Why Most Change Initiatives Fail. And What to Do About It

Why Most Change Initiatives Fail. And What to Do About It

“Write down a change you would like to make in an organization that you are currently with…or  change in the marketplace. Any kind. It can be a big change, it could be a small change – strategic, tactical, something you want people to start doing, something you want people to stop doing,” says Jeff Leitner as he looks around a room filled with CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, and other C-Suite executives at this year’s InterimExecs’ RED Team meeting. He continues “You’re change is absolutely, almost certainly going to fail. It’s not your fault. It has nothing to do with your particular genius – has nothing to do with your insights. Changes fail. They almost always fail.”

Jeff Leitner knows a thing or two about change and innovation. He spent the last 20 years improving organizations from the US State Department to NASA, Starbucks, Panera, and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace. In a world where innovation and disruption is key, the question is why does change rarely stick in organizations, markets, and society? Jeff has dedicated years to studying why change fails and in his most recent speaking circuit, is sharing what leaders can do to be more effective in leading change initiatives.

We’ve all heard ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, but the problem is we don’t exactly know what that truly means, and we don’t exactly know what to do about it. “That’s where the business literature lets us down…it doesn’t tell us what to do with strategy,” says Jeff who has taken a scientific approach to studying the world of culture. His take? “Culture equals rules that aren’t written down,” he says, explaining that unwritten rules are socially reinforced beliefs about what we should and shouldn’t do that show up in our everyday lives in people all around us.

“We believe that a well-written memo or a very elegant policy will change people’s behaviors. They will not,” says Jeff continuing with an example. “You are on an expressway, and the stated speed limit says 55 miles an hour. This could not be more clear. But if the person next to you is going 70, and the person next to you on the other side is going 70, and the person behind you is going 70, and the person in front of you is going 70, you will go 70.  And even more to the point — when somebody new joins the flow of traffic you’ll expect them to go 70 as well. Unwritten rules always win.”

These same unwritten rules exist and are behind every organization, and as leaders we must work to uncover the rules that truly drive people and the inner workings of the organization. “You can’t just ask people what the unwritten rules are,” says Jeff. “If I asked you ‘what are the unwritten rules in your office’, you would have just stared at me. And it’s not because of you. None of us are conscious of it.” We have this idea that if we can change the unwritten rules, we could finally solve big problems, but we can’t change what we can’t find.

Over the course of his discussion, Jeff shares multiple methods for leading change initiatives and creating lasting impact as a leader. One of those keys is to ask the right questions. “Tell me about your greatest success”, “what rule around here does virtually everybody ignore?”, and “what will put you out of business?” are just a few that can drive the discovery process to uncover some of the unwritten rules.

Interim Executives and the Unwritten Rules

Interim executives face big challenges on behalf of clients, and in most cases tackling those challenges requires figuring out how to make change happen in an organization. Whether revenue is plummeting, corporate politics run rampant, or innovation and new thinking is missing, many times executives say the key lies in walking the floors of the factory or seeking out the person that keeps the wheels turning.  

“When you come into an organization, it is wiser for you to ask where the soft power lives and not where the hard power lives,” says Jeff. “The soft power is sort of everything in an organization anyway.  But, we tend not to think that way because we’re hired by hard power. We sign our contracts with hard power. But just recognize that soft power is actually how it all happened.”

One CFO in the room shared an experience where he parachuted into an organization where the General Manager was doing all the wrong things behind closed doors, but nobody was talking about it…even though every single person knew what was happening. The General Manager hired and paid everyone, so one unwritten rule seemed to be “as long as I’m getting paid, I don’t care what anybody above me is doing”. The challenge was how to shift that thinking into a new unwritten rule that says “if anybody is cheating the system, it’s bad for all of us.”

That executive took an approach of vulnerability and transparency. “You start talking about the way it should be – people get sweaty, they get nervous,” he says. But, when they feel that vulnerability and see that you are part of the good side “you break it down, and then the bad guys go to jail.” Jeff points out that for a change initiative to succeed, you only need 25% — one in four people to buy in, and then peer pressure and momentum take care of the rest. People adhere to unwritten rules because they are afraid of being an outcast. Of getting kicked out of the group. So an interim executive must create a safe environment, and work to turn the tides.

Let’s go back to Jeff’s original questions: write down a change you would like to make in an organization or marketplace. Big or small, look to the unwritten rules to make change happen.

Jeff Leitner is a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of See Think Solve: A Simple Way to Tackle Tough Problems. He recently completed four years as Innovator in Residence at the University of Southern California, where he designed and launched the first-ever doctorate in social innovation. He was founder of Insight Labs, co-founder of UX for Good, and has consulted on substantive change to governments, like the U.S. Department of State and NASA; corporations like Starbucks and Panera; institutions like Harvard Medical School and TED; and NGOs, like Ashoka and the Dalai Lama for Peace and Education. See more at www.jeffleitner.com or follow @unwrittenlabs for a new unwritten rule of the day.