Why do change projects fail?

Back in the day Benjamin Franklin (or Daniel Defoe) famously said: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While such wisdom is true, it feels somehow incomplete. One could rephrase it today as follows: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and reorganizations!”

Particularly in the corporate world, reorgs are inevitable. You may have been through one already. If you did, here is a question for you: Based on your experience, did the project yield the intended results? Chances are it did not.

Don’t worry; you are not alone. McKinsey research shows that only 16% of reorganization projects create value and deliver expected results within the anticipated amount of time. The methodology, terminology, and ideology aside, there are possibly three fundamental reasons why change projects fail. Let’s go over them one by one.

Purpose

The renown psychologist James Hillman once said: “The only one God left that is truly universal, omnipresent, and omnipotent is the Economy. It is the God we nourish with actual human blood (…) The Economy’s ideas are unquestioningly and universally internalized. It’s in the Economy where the modern unconscious resides.” Viewed from a psychological perspective, corporations are the temples in which modern society worships its deities. That’s why we should understand what corporation means.

Corporations are the temples, in which modern society worships its deities.

The word corporation originates from corpus, which means body. Consequently, corporate means “united in one body.” And a corporation is “persons united in a body for some purpose.” The keyword here is the purpose. All reorganization projects have a goal: To trim the fat, to save cost, to increase efficiency. None of those, however, is a purpose. Remembering the shared purpose of the organization and tying the change project back to the raison d’être of the corporation would go a long way. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.

Control

The etymologic root of the term reorg (short for reorganize) is evident: organ, organic, a living system. Interestingly, though, in biology, there is no such thing as RE-organization. As any biologist would attest, life evolves through SELF-organization. Living systems do not need outside assistance to evolve. They determine their destiny. Granted, an outsider could influence the self-organization process by guiding it towards a specific direction. But it can never control it. Again, the keyword here is control, which happens to be nothing more than a human illusion.

Living systems don’t RE-organize. They SELF-organize.

As Margaret Wheatley said: “All this time we have created trouble for ourselves in organizations by confusing control with order.” The fantasy of power manifests itself in the top-down approach. Pyramid-shaped organizational charts, military language, and the misguided desire to engineer an organization, all stem from the yearning for control. If we want to change that, then we should start to think about corporations less as machines to be control and more as systems to participate.

Transition

Any reorganizational effort involves change. But as William Bridges said, “Change is something that happens to people, even if they don’t agree with it. Transition, on the other hand, is internal: it’s what is going on in people’s minds as they go through change. Change can happen very quickly, while transition usually occurs more slowly.” Unfortunately, a transition is an often overlooked aspect of reorganization projects, while the focus always stays on the process.

Change is something that happens to people, even if they don’t agree with it. Transition is what is going on in people’s minds as they go through change.

Putting it together

To reiterate, all living systems form from shared interests. So, the first step of any reorganization project is to discover what’s meaningful, the shared purpose. Shared purpose, alongside with sacred values, often act like gravity, pulling and keeping people together. Identifying, naming, and sharing those ideas would help contain the system together in times of high entropy.

All living systems form from shared interests. So, the first step of any reorganization project is to discover what’s meaningful, the shared purpose.

If we internalize the idea that change is not something to be dictated, demanded, or forced to an organization, but something that the organization willingly participates, then we would let go the top-down approach, which stems from the illusion of control.

A more organic approach to change, self-organization that is, might be more useful. 

Finally, focusing as much on transition (the psychological aspect of reorganization) as on change (the implementation leg of change) is vital.

All transitions have three stages: Ending, neutral zone, a new beginning. Arguably the most important, yet most often ignored part is the middle stage. That is a difficult time of “both not anymore, and not yet.” Acknowledging and planning accordingly for the transition part of change could make a big difference.

A reorganization is not a bad thing. Not understanding its essence, process, and logic, however, is. If we discover the shared purpose of the organization, let go of our desire to control, and focus on transition as much as we do on change, then we would ensure that our reorganization project will be successful.

“The leaves are changing” by pauljacobson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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