5 Ways Organizational Change Fails, and How to Prevent Failure

02.02.24 05:52 PM By Elliott Wood

You've probably heard someone say it before… The only constant is change. What changes are afoot in your organization right now?

  • People Change. People come and go. At any given time most organizations are probably in the process of onboarding and offboarding one or more people.
  • Process Change. Adapting processes and playbooks to changing org and accountability charts. 
  • Technology Change. Implementing new technology tools. Whenever tools change, people have to learn new ways to do things.
  • Client Change. Clients come and go.
  • Product Change. New products and services get added to your portfolio.


And change is hard. The more people involved in any company or other organization, the harder change is. There's even a "law" to describe how more people = more complexity. Brooks' law describes how communications lines increase exponentially as people grow. With 3 people there are just 3 lines of communication. With 10 people, there are 45 lines of communication. And by the time a company grows to 50 people, there are a possible 1225 lines of communication! It just keeps compounding the larger a company grows.


In my 20 years of experience helping organizations implement strategy, I've observed a few reasons that change initiatives fail.


  • Not involving the people responsible for change in the design process. Have you ever seen the TV show "Undercover Boss?" In it, the CEO of a big company dresses up in a terribly obvious disguise and goes on the front lines of the company to see how things really work. Inevitably, the show reveals how some strategic initiative or process was created by the "leadership" without ever considering how it would apply to the average front line worker. Processes that seem smart on a whiteboard in the executive office are kludgy in the cubicle. Polices and processes don't make sense on the edges, often because the people who actually have to do the work were not consulted in the design stages. As a result, workers do what they can to work around the processes. Maybe they manage things on their own in a spreadsheet or post-it notes.
    • Recommendation- in discovery and design phases, involve everyone who touches the process. Cast the vision for where you are going and then, whiteboard out how they do things now with boxes and arrows. Then whiteboard what needs to happen. This approach pays off in several ways. First, it give a voice to the people that need to do the work. If they feel seen and heard in the process, they are more likely to follow the process. Second, by involving the people who work in the ground in the process, you'll have a better understanding of what will actually work on the ground.
  • Make an announcement and move on -- It's tempting to send an email, post a Slack or Teams announcement, or mention an upcoming change in your monthly staff meeting and think that change management has been done. But, almost all modern people suffer from information overload and compete with goldfish for short attention spans. On top of that, a good part of your staff may have missed the staff meeting or breezed through their email (or looked at it on their phone at the grocery and forget to look again at work). But the reality is, people need more than an announcement to act on change, especially if it requires changing "muscle memory."
    •  Recommendation: A good communication and training plan is key. Depending on the complexity of the change and the importance of the change, you may need to consider formal training, either in person, or online to make sure people get it. Make time for the training - busy workers need their managers to make time for training and provide space in people's calendars to do it. It's been said that people often need to see or hear the data in three different contexts to really catch it - make sure you provide visual, audible, and active means to learn the change. 
  • No blueprint for how to use the tools -- Technology changes often fail because companies buy a tool to solve a business problem, but fail to connect the dots of the tool to the organization's more abstract cultural and vision identity. It's as if someone walked into Home Depot, described that they want a big, open house with room for hospitality and a chef's kitchen, then had the best tools and building supplies dropped in the front yard. Without a blueprint of what to build and how to use the tools and supplies, how do you think the construction crew would build the house? In my experience assisting of 60 organizations in choosing CRM software, the biggest issue I've seen is that many don't know exactly what they want the software to do.
    • Recommendation: Make sure you understand your internal policies, programs, and practices before implementing the change. It's critical, when designing processes to be able to connect a golden thread from your mission to the actual activity in the software or on the ground doesn't tie back to the mission of your company, why are you doing it?
  • Not considering how the change will affect customers -- There may be nothing more frustrating than being a front line worker serving customers than processes that frustrate customers. Imagine being the customer" success" representative who has to inform customers of new policies that benefit the company but take something away from the customer.
    • Recommendations: Consider how your changes will affect your customers. Meet with some "friendly" customers to ask how changes might affect your relationship with them, and how to minimize the disruption to them. Are there ways that you can make the change work in their favor? Will they see that change as favorable?
  • Adding new strategic initiatives without making room for them -- Hopefully, your employees are busy! And if they are, adding change will be on top of work they are already doing. I've said many times that we could all spend 40 hours a week in training, and never be done. So this is hard! We have work to do! Strategic change and training all fall into that "important not urgent" bucket (along with exercise and contemplation) that we find so hard to squeeze into the schedule. Unfortunately, time is that one inventory item that just keeps getting used up! For change to happen, we have to make time for it.
    • Recommendation: Figure out what can come off the schedule to make time for change. Whether that time is executive time for design and communications, management time for 1:1 meetings and coaching, or worker time for training and practice, something has to go to make room for change. Make not finding the time expensive - sometimes it's worth tying change to an event with some expense (travel, a special speaker, consultants, etc.) just to make sure it gets the priority and urgency it needs.

    ​I've helped hundreds of organizations implement change. Schedule a call to see how I can help you!

Elliott Wood