Epic Fail: Why is it so hard to deliver lasting change?

Robin Barnwell

Even when someone's life depends on it, making changes is not easy, writes contributor Robin Barnwell. And you can bet that business process change encounters similar challenges. So what can you do about it?

Take a look at these statements:

  • The percentage of people who regain after weight loss is enormous - well above 90%. The number who sustain a substantial weight loss for more than 5 years is vanishingly small
  • A US study of patients who undergo major heart bypass surgery caused by too much smoking, drinking, eating, stress, and not enough exercise found 2-years after the surgery 90% had not changed their lifestyle.

Even when someone’s life may depend on it, why is it so incredibly difficult for them to change? Given the level of importance here you would expect a higher success rate. I think this gives an insight into why less important things such as business change initiatives have such a high failure rate.

If you look at LinkedIn profiles (including mine) everything is about success - right first time every time - with no room for failure. Even our language about failure is in terms of success, the "Top Ten Tips For Project Success".

A study by Logica in 2008 estimated EUR 10 billion per annum is wasted on ineffective business process change projects across Europe. Things do go wrong. I’ve been in business change for nearly a decade now and have seen a number of failed initiatives both big and small. They’ve happened at all stages of the life-cycle:

  • Improvement recommendations being ignored
  • Projects failing to deliver or being abandoned
  • Teams not adopting a new way of working
  • Benefits not being delivered

Given these failure rates, how can you turn this into an opportunity? (Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself). I’ve three observations:

Don’t beat yourself up over a failure. It’s not life or death. Failure happens all the time. Businesses fail, countries go bust, products flop, customer walk and deals break-down. Get a sense of proportion. Wiser, cleverer and better paid people than me have failed spectacularly. If I have given it my all, worked non-stop and done everything I can then I’m content. Annoyed and frustrated but content.

Really understand why things went wrong. Do the reviews & interviews to get the formal documented reasons and improvements. But challenge this approach, is it providing succor, does it really get to the true root-causes, will anything be done differently? Sometimes the true root-causes are so "Big" that without major cultural or people change things won’t improve. This understanding can change your entire agenda as you need to refocus on these game-changers before you can get back to delivering business projects.

The most important thing is to never give-up. No matter how tough it looks stick with it. If something needs to change and an approach has failed, find another one, do it another way. The goal hasn’t vanished just the method of execution. I think Thomas Edison understood this more than most, "I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work".

In summary, change at all levels is tough and many initiatives fail to deliver - that's human nature. But, never give-up trying.