Significant Change Initiatives Almost Always Fail. Why?

I had the good fortune throughout my career in the local search industry to have led or participate in many change initiatives. They ranged in complexity from introducing new digital services to the portfolio, to a complete business model transformation.

My partners and I have identified the fundamental critical few elements that can mean the difference between executing sustainable change or not. These elements transcend industry and size of company. The most important understanding is they have to be done in a coordinated and meaningful way. A weak link will torpedo success!

  • Leadership: “The will of the leader becomes the will of the people,” a mentor’s frequent refrain. It is true! The leader has to be actively engaged, fully bought in, and slavish to the change program. They must possess a unique combination of skills: strategic big picture acumen, down-in-the-trenches sensitivity and dogmatic passion that inspire and embolden others. Anything less is not enough. The troops will sense and seize on any crack in the armor.  The senior team assembled has to be fully aligned and bought in to the change effort and approach. A dissenter can kill it and must be weeded out!
  • Make the case for change:  As Simon Synek made popular with his TED Talk, employees need to know the “why” of any change initiative. We as leaders are good at what, when, how, how much, etc., but it is the “why” that connects the head and the heart. The best place to start is with significant customer research. Research with the end in mind. You have to extract meaningful insights from customers and non-customers that can ultimately be put in action. This forensic data gathering including “mock simulations” is fundamental to being able to tell the story in real terms to the employee body. They have to see what it will look like, and the risks associated with failure. The case for change is a real and tangible pitch to employees and shareholders. And you have to use it all the time.
  • “Anoint” the working team:  This is typically a cross functional group to build the new world order. Good thinkers and indigenous change agents are what you want. Weed out anyone early who is not playing nice. It happens often.
  • Identify the bright spots**:  Define what creates success in the eyes of the customer and drives desired loyalty scores. Then codify it so you can “Six Sigma” the rest of the organization to be able to perform accordingly. In one case we were able to identify the six teachable skills that our best sales people embodied. We also created the “Platinum Pitch” which is a visual roadmap of the ideal customer interaction so we could instill repeatable processes and create a new way of working.
  • Determine the critical few metrics that will predict financial success:  Then share it frequently with the entire company, on one dashboard, comprehensible in 5 seconds! These are the behavioral lead metrics that result in outcomes you desire. For example, we found we could measure our reps ability to follow the bright spot sales pattern. “You don’t think your way into a new way of behaving, you behave your way into a new way of thinking.” Measure and reinforce the new behaviors expected and new muscle memory sets it.
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate:  You have to actually build a communications roadmap so you have a plan that you follow. You have to be prescriptive about this as employees and shareholders need to see progress along the journey. Employees need constant re-enforcement or their will to change dissipates and can even disappear.

Here are some additional considerations we have found to be true:

  • Technology: Many companies drive their big change efforts by adopting new technologies and letting that “drive the bus.”  For most companies, technology is more of an enabler to better serve customers and provide tools for emboldened employees. Implementing new technology solutions is often the long pole in the tent and can potentially derail everything else if not exceptionally well lead.
  • Cultures matter a lot: A great culture can be destroyed in a fraction of the time it took to build. Pay attention to the people issues. Leaders in the business who don’t “get the soft stuff” need to be removed.
  • Speed trumps: A big change that slogs along too slowly will never make a difference in the market. Momentum and timing are important.

Good luck!


* 90 plus % of transformations fail from Profit From the Core by Chris Zook

** Concept from Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Heath & Heath

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