Why Do Organizational Change Efforts Fail?: A Discussion from the Deep Change Field Guide

By Robert E. Quinn

This year, Jossey-Bass published The Deep Change Field Guide: A Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within. It is an update and rewrite of my bestselling book Deep Change.  This self-guided course helps you become an effective agent of change.  Each chapter is linked to a Hollywood movie: Moneyball; Norma Rae; The King’s Speech; The Devil Wears Prada; Remember the Titans; Stand and Deliver; Dead Poets Society; and Gandhi.  Each movie serves as a case study in transformation.  Each one allows you to go beyond reading:  You get to see, hear, and be a part of a larger experience.  You can use the book as a personal course, a course you teach to others, or as a set of intervention tools.  In this week’s blog entries, I share ideas from the first chapter.  Here is what Chapter One suggests:

  • Change attempts often fail because of the assumptions we make.
  • We often find ourselves in situations that require us to adapt,but choose to distort reality and deny what the world is telling us.
  • To be excellent, we have to be at the edge, a place of uncertainty and learning.
  • When we are committed to a higher purpose, we move forward through the fear of conflict. As we do, we learn and we see in new ways.

Discussion 1: Why Do Organizational Change Efforts Fail?

An information technology executive’s team had spent months designing a technical change that was about to be launched across the corporation. Other senior people had consistently advised the executive to talk to someone who “understands change in terms of people and culture” before rolling it out. He asked me to come in and speak to his team about how to implement the change process. He also mentioned that his people were not very interested in hearing about the role of culture in their change effort and could see little value in such a visit.

This executive was a highly educated and experienced man. Yet he was about to launch a companywide change without having considered the role of culture in the change process. Such ignorance is unimaginable—it’s the equivalent of learning that your brain surgeon is ignorant of the organ known as the heart. Yet such ignorance is also widespread, to the point of seeming almost epidemic. My radical belief is that many people do not know how to lead change, including people who think they already have. As this executive described his situation, two questions came immediately to mind: Why did he spend months planning a change without considering his company’s culture? Where was he focusing his attention?

I invite you to engage in the same inquiry I suggested to him:

  • Have you ever been involved in leading an organizational change effort? What was the primary focus, the mechanical processes or the needs for human learning involved in the change? What was the result? Looking back, what do you think you should have done differently?
  • How might you plan a change effort to take culture into account? What would you do to be credible when you asked others to change their behavior?

In my next blog entry, we’ll explore another aspect of Deep Change Field Guide‘s Chapter One: “Why Can’t We Learn Our Way into the Implementation of Change?”