Why do 70 per cent of change initiatives fail?
A Harvard Business Review study found that 70 per cent of all change initiatives fail. I’ve met sustainability practitioners in hundreds of organisations, and for every ‘Plan A’ in M&S and ‘Mission Zero’ in Interface, there are dozens of other initiatives that get nowhere near achieving the objectives that were set out.
The Harvard Business Review figure relates to all change initiatives, and from my experience I would suggest that the failure rate in sustainability is even higher. A desire to do something about this failure rate was a major motivation for me to get into sustainability in 2006, and utilise my existing people skills.
Many people who work in sustainability are by nature positive people, and we generally focus on the positives ( e.g. how much money can be saved and the employee benefits of environmental engagement). Whilst this is true, it shouldn’t be forgotten that sustainability doesn’t always deliver on its promises, especially if we take for granted the outcome of a change initiative.
So what are the reasons behind this failure rate?
There are as many reasons as there are failed campaigns, as every organisation is unique. However I’d suggest there are three particularly important ones; the three P’s. These three P’s are ones that every sustainability professional must work with, and this time they aren’t People, Profit or Planet.
Every organisation, however well managed it might be, is political. The key to any successful change campaign is to understand how to work the politics of your organisation so it works for you, not against. The politics of the organisation will be dictated by many factors, and it is your job as a change agent to understand the key factors and work out the art of the possible. You will need to look for the key enablers and work out how to get them on side, and consider how to at least neutralise the blockers. These blockers and enablers might be practical (e.g. cost of fuel), cultural (e.g. hierarchical structure) or individual (e.g. the FD is a big fan of Jeremy Clarkson). The last point takes me onto my next P.
Effective sustainability is a very logical process of organisational improvement. Assuming that your colleagues think logically is the quickest route to sending you insane. Everybody has different, complex and often completely conflicting motivations and rationalisations for their point of view.
There are two levels of psychology you need to consider: that of the key stakeholders and that of the different personality types of all your colleagues. You must work out the psychology of your key stakeholders and consider how to get them on board. It is also critical to consider how you move all your colleagues towards your sustainability goals. You need to empower the enthusiasts, engage the agnostics and neutralise the sceptics. All of these groups will need different messaging, which you won’t work out overnight, which brings me to my final P.
You can have a great understanding of the politics of your organisation and the psychology of your colleagues, but you could fail if you don’t fully prepare your sustainability change initiative. Many campaigns have died because they dived straight into the delivery without proper planning. This is why I’m so passionate about ensuring all our clients follow our E3 Programme of ‘Establish > Empower > Embed’, as I believe the critical phase is in the establishment of programmes to understand the politics and psychology of organisations and their people.
So good luck in being part of the 30 per cent that don’t fail change initiatives!
Adam Woodhall is Culture Change director, Carbon Credentials