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Change Management: 3 Key Reasons for the Catastrophic 70% Failure Rate

By Stephen Warrilow
Sign saying big changes ahead

Failure reasons in change management are many and varied. But one thing is painfully clear. Any organisational initiative that creates change, or has a significant change element to it, has a 70% chance of not achieving what was originally envisaged.

There are 3 main reasons for failure:

  1. The gap between the strategic vision and a successful programme implementation and the lack of a practical change management model and tools to bridge that gap.
  2. The "hidden and built in resistance to change" of organisational cultures, and the lack of processes and change management methodologies to address this.
  3. Failure to take full account of the impact of the changes on those people who are most affected by them i.e. the absence of good strategies for managing change.

It may occur at project level (at the execution "getting it all together" level) so that the initiative doesn't get off the ground, or doesn't get completed.

This is where most people focus, on the "getting it done" bit.

But, the bigger and more critical issue here is that even when the projects, the new capabilities, are completed on time and in budget, a failure can still occur at programme level and from a statistical perspective it probably will!

A programme level (more accurately a "no programme" level!) failure occurs when the envisaged benefits (the whole raison d'être) of the initiative are not achieved.

The Root Cause of Failure

The root cause of this failure is lack of clarity and lack of communication and even more fundamentally, the lack of a language and contextual framework to articulate and manage the necessary processes of change.

This is what a programme management based approach to change is all about and why it so important.

As with most specialist areas of knowledge, there is within this discipline a universal or generic set of "truths" that transcend the boundaries of the formalised models and tools of programme management, applies to all organisations experiencing step change and can be expressed in simpler language.

Just as an aside, I feel that whilst it is absolutely necessary for there to be experts and centres of technical excellence, the very processes by which they function separates them and the knowledge from the far wider audience who could benefit most from that knowledge.

Time for some definitions:

Programme Management

  • Is the holistic perspective, takes in the bigger picture.
  • Is the co-ordinated management of a portfolio of projects that change organisations to achieve benefits that are of strategic importance.
  • Is the understanding and management of benefits, risks and issues and the provision of an organisation structure and process definition.
  • Does not replace project management, it is a supplementary framework.

Differences Between Programmes and Projects

  • A Programme is all about delivering the overall business benefits in line with the strategic vision and over a longer period of time than a project.
  • Whereas a Project has a definite start and finish point, with the aim of the delivery of an output that may be a product, service or specific outcome.
  • Programme management focuses on the management of all key stakeholder relationships and the delivery of defined business benefits and in addition to managing the project portfolio will also include the management of any other activities that are necessary to ensure a complete delivery.
  • Whereas project management has narrower terms of reference with clear, specific and (relative to the overall programme) limited scope of its deliverables.

And yet despite the fact that programme management as a discipline has been around for over 10 years, the failures still keep mounting.

Men always dislike enterprises where the snags are evident..." (Machiavelli "The Prince").

The whole of my approach to change management and dealing with the "snags" such as fear of change and resistance to change is based on this model of a programme approach.

My preference for this is that it forces senior management (and their advisors) to take a holistic and structured look at the wider factors that need to be addressed and that are often "mission critical."

80% of companies (or rather 80% of directors) haven't got a clue about programme management.

In my experience the size of a company is no indicator as to whether or not it employs a programme management approach. I have sat across the table in meetings with directors of UK based £1bn+ turnover corporates, household names in some cases, who didn't have a clue about programme management.

I would go further and say that the vast majority of companies know little to nothing about programme management.

A useful indicator is the number of online searches on Google AdWords for project management and programme (or program) management. For the month of March 2009 there were 450,000 searches for project management and 39,200 searches for programme (or program) management.

One reason why programme management has not yet permeated the business "mainstream" is because, in my opinion, it appears to be complex and to address dimensions that don't resonate or connect with mid-range corporates and larger SMEs.

This is partly because corporates are more complex, but also because the talented and experienced professionals who compile these things think that way!

However, it is my belief and experience that the broad principles of programme management can be set out in a simple model and using simple language that can be applied in any organisation of any size.

Find out more failure reasons in change management External Link and how to avoid them!

Stephen Warrilow, based in Bristol, works with companies across the UK providing specialist support to directors delivery significant change initiatives. Stephen has 25 years cross sector experience with 100+ companies in mid-range corporate, larger SME and corporate environments.

Stephen invites you to take advantage of his 7 free "How to Do It" downloads that will take you through all of the key stages of How to manage change, and show you how to manage successfully. External Link

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