Improving the odds of managing successful change

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Although the success rate of organizational change management (OCM) varies widely, many findings show the probability of success is no better than a coin toss, the average returns are negative and the success rate drops to as low as 25 percent if the change effort is complex or stretches over a longer timeframe.

Why is the success rate low? After all, the research behind many change theories and professionally crafted programs is solid. And the typical claims that assign blame to leadership, unclear accountability, insufficient skills, or lack of urgency haven’t made a difference. Perhaps we need to re-examine how we think about change and challenge three questionable assumptions.

No. 1: Change is always a distinct possibility. It’s not. This opinion stems from overly optimistic beliefs, rather than a realistic reading of readiness, willingness and capacity to change.

No. 2: Implementation is part of most change programs. It’s not. Implementation is a stand-alone competency that involves ongoing adjustments during the course of a change effort to address the twists and turns that unfold.

No. 3: Activity-driven approaches yield results. They don’t. We sometimes confuse means and ends, mistakenly think that intermediate variables are causal, put faith in singular management philosophies, or substitute hard questions with easier ones. As management consultants Robert Schaffer and Harvey Thompson asserted, “Successful Change … Starts with Results.”

How do we improve the odds of achieving successful organizational change? A Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management study offers insight. We reviewed and coded 237 change-management projects performed over 10 years as part of a master’s program in Positive Organizational Development and Change. In comparing higher-rated projects that had a “positive impact” to lower-rated projects, we found:

Successful projects that had a positive impact:

  • Adjusted the scale, pace, or expectations to match the readiness and capacity of the organization to absorb the change.
  • Sustained momentum and kept the effort advancing by uncovering incremental improvements or widening the circle of stakeholders.
  • Defined outcomes in concrete, measurable terms that reflected what the organization wanted, and directly linked actions taken to results achieved.

Less successful projects:

  • Were complex, large-scale, or took too long, and overwhelmed the capacity of key players to manage the change.
  • Treated the change effort as discontinuous or intermittent, rather than iterative and ongoing.
  • Defined the change effort in terms of a prescribed method, protocol, or activities rather than linking actions to results.

Expected members to have faith in the method and follow the procedure.

Don’t assume change is a given. Instead, qualify the chances of success or failure and what must happen to improve the odds. Second, scale the scope and pace of change to align with the organization’s readiness and capability. Use the effort to gain first-hand experience into what’s needed for the longer term, while building more capacity to absorb change.

Third, once you launch the change effort, find ways to sustain momentum, because energy and attention will dissipate rapidly. Finally, don’t waste time on passive activities that feel or sound good but that take too long to unfold and don’t generate results. ●

Harlow Cohen, Ph.D. is Faculty Director, MPOD Program Professor, Organizational Behavior Case Western Reserve University. To learn more about the study described in this article, visit weatherhead.case.edu.

Harlow Cohen, Ph.D.

Faculty Director, MPOD Program Professor, Organizational Behavior
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