The Real Reason Why Change Initiatives Fail

Many of the major problems that we see which impact the success of organizational change efforts are coordination failures. In short, any organizational problems are only solvable if everyone can agree to do the same thing at the same time. When a team is tasked with implementing change, oftentimes, individuals will not necessarily choose what’s best for the group, but for themselves.

People frequently choose what makes sense given existing incentives, which often discourage them from challenging the status quo. It often makes the most sense to do what everyone else is doing, whether that’s driving on the right side of the road, wearing a suit to a job interview, or keeping your country’s nuclear arsenal stocked up.

Take the case of academic publishing. Academic journals publish research within a given field and typically charge for access to it. In order to earn prestige within a field, researchers need to publish in the most respected journals. However, by charging high prices, journals limit the flow of knowledge and slow overall scientific progress. Although it would be better for science as a whole if everyone stopped publishing in journals that charge for access, it isn’t in the interest of any individual scientist to do so. If they did, their career could suffer.

We all act out of self-interest, so expecting individuals to risk the costs of going against convention is usually unreasonable. Yet it only takes a small proportion of people to change their mindset to reach a tipping point, where it becomes an incentive for everyone to change their behavior. This is magnified even more if those people have a high degree of influence (I’m talking to you, organizational leaders). The more power those who enact change have, the faster everyone else can do the same.

To overcome coordination failures, leaders need to be able to trust that when they act, the rest of the organization will act too. Leaders also need to think beyond the impact of their own actions and actively communicate what will happen when everyone acts as part of a group. And most importantly, leaders need to focus on consistent and broad communication to the entire organization.

Successful communication sometimes is not simply a matter of whether a given message is received. It also depends on whether people are aware that other people also received it. For leaders to effectively communicate change, critical information must be “common knowledge,” meaning, “everyone knows about the change and everyone knows that everyone knows it”. The more public and visible the change is, the better. Leaders can prevent coordination failures in the first place by visible guarantees that those who take a different course of action will not suffer negative consequences.

In closing, leaders need to understand not only why it can be difficult for people to work together in the best possible way, and how they can create better outcomes through better communication.


About the Author

Andrea Olsen
Andrea Olsen

Andrea Olson is a speaker, author, behavioral economics and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers and No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing.

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