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Jamie Lawrence


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Why do seven out of 10 change programmes fail?


This article was written by Anne Feeney, Masters Programme Director at sales performance improvement company Consalia.

Failing to achieve transformational objectives

Although most change programmes are highly planned and robustly executed, it’s a fact that the majority fail to achieve the objectives set out at the start of the programme. They fail to achieve the result of changing people’s behaviour so, consequently, they also fail to achieve sustainable change. Therefore, no matter what the aspirations, how compelling the business need or how much money is being invested in these initiatives they consistently fail to achieve the transformational shift required by the business.

The problem with most change programmes

Research suggests that most change initiatives typically have the following qualities. Firstly, they are delivered at a group level and do not pay enough attention to the individual and, furthermore, they are often imposed and, consequently, produce conformity and compliance.

So, whilst individuals might say that they have ‘bought-into’ the programme and initially appear to change their behaviours, in actual fact they have not ‘bought into’ it at a deep level, the change has no stickiness and they very quickly fall back into old familiar habits without the individual commitment that real sustainable change requires. In fact, not the transformational change that was promised or hoped for when the organisation launched its cultural change programme.

What does ‘transformational’ truly mean?

And what does this word ‘transformational’ actually mean? It’s everywhere in business these days and can – and should be – more than just marketing hype. Well that was one of the questions I had when I was doing my own Masters research on ‘the Nature and Process of Transformational Coaching’ and I’d like share some of the findings with you.

Transformational change is…

You might be surprised to hear that transformative change is underpinned by serious academic research in the world of learning theory and was first highlighted as a distinct type of learning by Jack Mezirow in the 70s. To paraphrase Jack, it is the process of changing your taken-for-granted beliefs, assumptions or habits of mind that have become problematic or no longer useful. And, by its nature, it is the type of change that has stickiness and is sustainable.

It is different from ‘normal’ learning in that it leads to a shift in mind-set for the individual – the type of change where afterwards people say ‘that couldn’t have been predicted’ or ‘I didn’t think that was possible before’. But what is the mechanism for sustained individual change and how do we facilitate this both for those we lead and for ourselves? Transformational, sustainable change requires the individual – the ‘changee’ – to move through the change curve to the point where they have integrated the new culture and values into who they are; in fact, into their very identity.

But how do we, as leaders and HR professionals, facilitate this? Well, namely through reflection, engagement and support.

How to achieve sustainable, transformational change

  • Reflection: Encouraging critical reflection and self-reflection. By critical we mean ‘objective and non-judgemental’ not ‘criticising’. Encouraging the individual to stand ‘outside of themselves’ and to objectively appraise their own taken-for-granted opinions and beliefs.
  • Engagement: Inviting the individual’s willingness and motivation to cooperate with the change process as opposed to imposing it upon them. Potentially you are asking the individual to change at a deep level so it will require integrating with their values and beliefs. Ultimately their heart will need to be in it not just their mind. You cannot make someone change!
  • Support: Lastly, through creating an environment that supports individual change, creating the space for individuals to process the impact of the change for them. Allowing them time to reflect, for example, on questions such as ‘what are the implications for me?’ ‘how does it fit with my current values?’ and ‘how do I feel about the change?’ This comes down to operating at an individual level, not just a group one.

We as leaders and HR professionals can gain real benefit from facilitating this process for others and, if we can do this for ourselves, then this is a real game changer. After all, the change impacts us too as an individual; we are not immune to change. If we can do this for ourselves and others then, according to Kegan, this is called a self-transforming mindset.

Furthermore, according to Branden, this more flexible type of learning is what is required to “…live in a global economy characterised by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility and self-direction”. And yet, in Eigel’s study of industry leading CEOs, only four out of 21 were already operating at this level of thinking!

Further reading:

Henderson G.M., (2002) Transformative Learning as A Condition for Transformative Change in Organizations, Human Resource Development Review, 1:186

Kegan, R. & Lahey L.L., (2009) Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Mezirow J. & Taylor E.W. (2009), Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education, John Wiley & Sons Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Feeney A., (2012) What is the nature and process of transformational coaching? Dissertation, Metanoia & LSBU. Summary available on request from the author.

One Response

  1. Thank you

     Really good article thank you and not just because it fits well with my commenst on change and some of the latest research. also published in HR Zone ‘Five discoveries that will save your chnage programme’

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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