John Kotter, renowned author and change management expert, says that 70 percent of change initiatives in organizations and businesses fail. That is an extraordinarily depressing figure when we also hear that the only constant in life is change. Does that mean that we're all doomed to fail 70 percent of the time? Are we in a catch-22: stuck between failing to change and changes that fail?

If we approach change with this statistic in mind, it should cause us to think about not only the specific change we are trying to achieve (new product, new processes, new policies, new procedures, new staff members), but also to focus on precisely how we plan to manage the change. This is the key that is so often forgotten. We get an idea for change in our heads and then begin thinking about how to achieve it without spending adequate time on the road map for moving from our "as is" to our "to be" in the most successful way possible.

In my experience, the best leaders actually write out a one or two page Case for Change document detailing why the change must occur (we're currently working on ours at the Chamber). The Case for Change document should answer: What is the background for the change? What has led up to this need to change? What challenges or problems are we facing in the current situation that will cripple us if we don't begin addressing them today? What is the impact of these challenges? What will happen if we stay the same? Why should we act now? What are we going to have to let go of and why? What will the change require? What will it cost us to change? What will it cost us if we don't change? How will we know when we have succeeded?


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Why Most Change Fails

Most change initiatives fail because the Case for Change has not been made strongly enough and communicated sufficiently to all stakeholders in the change process.

Often it's only top leaders and stakeholders who understand why the change is important. We must get to a point where every person (leader, staff, worker, volunteer, etc.) can articulate the Case for Change in an "elevator speech" (a one-minute dynamic summary for why the change is an imperative that can be communicated in the time it takes to ride the elevator with someone who is challenging the change initiative).

Creating a Compelling Vision

Once the Case for Change is in place, the next step is to articulate a Compelling Vision for what the change will look like when it's fully implemented. John Kennedy was the master of vision statements when he challenged America to, "land a man on the moon within the decade."

The vision needs to be so clear that everyone gets it. No management mumbo-jumbo, no statistics that are meaningless to most people; no negative visioning. The vision needs to capture our imagination so clearly in our mind's eye that we know exactly what it will look like when we get there.

Most change initiatives don't define the line in the sand that will let us know when we're successful. In my past work, we often saw this with organizations wanting to implement self-directed work teams. First of all, being a team is not a vision; it's a means to the end. The vision is a clear target – like a bull's eye – that steers our course. Think about a change initiative you are planning to do. Has the vision of what the change will achieve been clearly defined for everyone involved?

The Caution Around First Steps

In most cases, the focus has instead been on the First Steps. When we get the urge to start a change process, it's so tempting to start making things happen. "Let's form a committee or team and brainstorm ideas." The problem with beginning with First Steps is the impact First Steps have on awakening the Resistance to your change initiative. When we wake up the Resistance, the race is on. They start to complain and exaggerate why the change is no good, and without our Case for Change or our compelling vision, we have no immediate, consolidated approach to respond to the Resistance.

Resistors To Change – the Toxic Few

It's important to remember that strong resistors only make up about 8-15 percent of any total group, a portion I like to refer to as the Toxic Few. A similar percentage exists on the other side, what I call the Change Champions. Then sitting in the middle of our bell curve are those people who might be described as "Bystanders," on the sidelines waiting to see how the change will go; they make up the majority with about 60 percent to 70 percent of the whole population. The race is on when we initiate change to get these bystanders over to the positive side. However, without the Case for Change or the Compelling Vision, we have little to convince the Bystanders other than a few first, fumbling steps in the direction of change. (I'm sure you're familiar with those teams or committees that fail to accomplish anything, lacking direction or a vision.) It doesn't take long for the Resistors to point out the negatives and win the Bystanders over.

How To Make Your Change Successful

In order to be successful with change initiatives, we must lay down the Case for Change months before any change will even take place. Every stakeholder in the change process must understand it. Then we have to articulate a compelling vision that becomes a rallying point for the future. With these two in place, we generate quick first steps, set milestones and targets and report our successes.

I was sitting in a meeting the other day when we brought up this idea of change. The person who had been trying to implement a change for two years and was running into some resistance exclaimed, "This is like a campaign!" In many ways it is like a campaign. The ability to persuade and convince people of your vision, of your change, requires a lot of attention to communication and carefully constructed sequential movements to make it successful. To those people looking at implementing change, whether in your business, your brand, your community, I encourage you to sit down and think about what the necessary components of your campaign would have to be in order for it to be successful.

Always Onward,

— Matt Harrington is the executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce