Why do so many organizational change initiatives fail?

Note published on July 19 in El Economista, Capital Humano [Human Capital] Section by Blanya Correal Sarmiento.



“Managing change is not an organizational luxury, it is probably one of the most important activities and one that often receives less attention because we believe that, in the end, we will end up adapting. The problem is at what cost and what the consequences along the way will be.”

“We are working against human biology at almost all times”, says Britt Andreatta in her book Wired to resist, in which she explains, in a practical manner, why we have so many problems in the consolidation of change and transformation processes in organizations.

It is a fact that in the last decade we have experienced an accelerated need for looking for new ways to serve the market or implementing innovative solutions for reaching the customer. This has meant that companies have had to transform themselves internally to respond to the new needs and that is where we begin to identify the first obstacles for reaching the goals.

In the face of this we identify three temptations:

  1. The temptation to change the outside only. If the change is to provide better customer service, then let us not make any movements in the internal business processes. Making fractional changes will only cause processes to move at different speeds or to be misaligned.
  2. The temptation to leave things as they are. Faced with so many changes and so much resistance, many projects are abandoned or modified, even before reaching the first stage, “vaccinating” people against new initiatives.
  3. The temptation to communicate only what people “need” to know. Dropping information bit by bit is one of the typical and most costly errors in initiatives for change, because our survival nature causes us to think the worst. When we don’t have all the information, we fill in the blanks with the most incredible stories. The most important effort in change processes must be to communicate the objective and implications for the people fully and transparently.

Human beings are programmed for three things: surviving, belonging and evolving. In her research, Britt Andreatta delves into these three elements and, through them, explains why initiatives for change end up not working. When we have not resolved the basic matters of survival and belonging, it will be very difficult to evolve as human beings.

If we transfer this to companies, we understand why, when we are talking about a new system, a change in the operating model or a culture transformation, we first have to ensure that the basic elements that people need have been covered. That is, working conditions and the relationships in teams are the first ingredient of the change plan; without this, it would be like trying to plow the sea.

When people become anxious and start worrying about things that are not actually a problem, they are not being difficult, they are being human”, (Britt Andreatta).

Managing change is not an organizational luxury, it is probably one of the most important activities and one that often receives less attention because we believe that, in the end, we will end up adapting. The problem is at what cost and what the consequences along the way will be

Key actions for organizational change.

Faced with the challenges presented by the organizational change processes, we can follow three basic steps based on the nature and design of our brain in order to achieve fluid and sustainable transformations:

» 1. Communicate the destination and implications.

Just like on a journey, workers need to know where they are going to arrive. This task is normally achieved through mass communication campaigns.

Change, however, requires an individual response and, therefore, in order to obtain a better result, we can resort to one on one or group communication channels. This way we can listen to and resolve concerns, seeking to help those who have doubts or are indecisive to find the piece of the puzzle that will put their minds at ease.

» 2. Prepare people to handle the ensuing implications and how to live in the new destination.

Usually, initiatives for change are accompanied by massive training processes, which not only solve the problem, but also entail a greater investment of time by the people, which causes an increase of resistance.

Training is only one more tool to implement changes. Our brain requires us to understand the new behaviors required by the new situation with certainty, to learn by practicing in order to develop habits and, lastly, to have a clear map of new relationships.

These elements may or may not be included in training, but it is extremely important that they become key tools for the leader with his team.  In a process of change, the role of the leader becomes fundamental and, therefore, he is the first one that he must attend to.

» 3. Reinforcing the new behaviors with positive and negative consequences.

Our brain is configured to respond to chemical stimuli, in such a way that if you do not receive any rewards or avoid punishment in emotional, physical or biological terms, it will be more difficult for the organism to recognize these new paths and for it to be able to move along them naturally.

The science of change is deep and effective. Planning an organizational change taking into consideration the biological elements that facilitate it and the ones that generate obstacles will be a fundamental  lever. How prepared are leaders to operate these elements? Shouldn’t this be a key competence for the team leader? Being trained in the mastery of these concepts becomes imperative in the current world of business.

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