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Leadership in organizational development and change: How do change projects fail?

The economy and work environment are changing at a rapid pace. Classic change projects therefore no longer work, up to 80 percent fail. I will discuss the main reasons for this here. In a second post, I then present a method that can be used to achieve transformation projects.

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Pioneering spirit, curiosity and a thirst for knowledge are in all of us

Every change means first of all that something so far unknown arises that nobody knows for sure whether it will be better or worse than the one before. But people have always rejected the old and dared the new.

Of course, our brains like routines because, first, routines offer security and second, they help save energy. But the discovery gene is also in all of us: Without this, progress and evolution would not be possible.

Evolution places the pioneering spirit, curiosity and thirst for knowledge ahead of persistence and routine. Otherwise we would not be where we are today. The search for something new is one of the most important drivers of our thinking apparatus.

So the problem is not change itself. The problem is also not the stubbornness of the employees, their tendencies towards persistence and unwillingness. The real problem is rather how change initiatives in the Company so far.

Change projects: the failure rate is up to 80 percent

Large-scale change projects, often accompanied by consulting firms, are planned high up and then "rolled out" like a waterfall with a lot of fanfare over everything and everyone. Despite considerable effort, as the Mutaree Change Fitness Study found out in 2018, up to 80 percent fail.

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How can you simply stubbornly maintain a procedure that fails so miserably? It is no wonder that classic change projects have long since degenerated into hate projects. In terms of their basic logic, they are reactive. They make up for change, so they are only initiated when a problem area has long been shown.

The main problem, however, is that change management is still governed by "proven" methods from times long past. They are thoughtless and unquestioned by Professor, students and practitioners parroted, recited in specialist books and implemented in everyday business life.

Change methods are from times long past

What methods are involved? There is, for example, the three-phase process of “unfreeze, move, refreeze”, which goes back to the sociologist Kurt Lewin, from 1947 (!). This cannot work because an iced-up system defends itself against the status quo change. Thawing takes time! And static conditions no longer exist today. Rather, permanent provisionality is the norm.

In early economic times it was about steering and stabilizing. In our digital economy, on the other hand, extremely high speeds, incessant adaptability and constant innovation are required. Everyone also knows how tedious it is to get something big moving from a standstill and how easy it is to change movement when everything is flowing.

The seven-step change curve by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross from 1969 (!) Is also popular. It describes the emotional experience of people in final change processes, based on interviews with the dying and the mourning. It leads through shock and denial into the valley of tears to the eventual acceptance.

Why do you have to maneuver your employees through a "valley of tears"? Anxiety and pain information always have priority in the brain. And bad feelings lead to an avoidance strategy. So you will defend yourself against the next change project. Or you will demonize it. Or you sit it out.

Change Change! How change works better

If not, how then? The best thing to do is to delete the term change from the company vocabulary. It only scares people and leads to blockages. Then: Change the procedure. First, continuous and second, forward-looking self-renewal is needed from now on. Because change is a process, not a project with a beginning and an end.

Basically, behavior changes can be brought about in two ways: If behavior is associated with good feelings, we repeat it. On the other hand, people avoid unpleasant feelings like the plague. Rejection therefore results in everything that has negative experiences such as pressure or coercion.

Persistence and reluctance also arise when something is prescribed from above. Consent, on the other hand, arises when you decide about a change yourself. Voluntariness is the most important ingredient for drive and successful change processes. Then you do something not because you have to, but because you really want it.

In addition, if the decisions are "small" and you are used to adapting them again and again, it is much easier to restructure if the circumstances require it. But if the decisions are "big" and you tend to follow pre-planned plans in the company, you will still stick to them if they prove to be useless.

Opening yourself up to new things also means: first "learning" outdated things

Our thinking and acting is based on what we call our knowledge and ability. With the tried and tested, we feel safe, often even superior. In contrast to children, as we grow older, we encounter the new with increasing suspicion. If we allow the new, we work on it with the familiar patterns of thought and evaluation standards.

Especially when things get “tight”, we fall back into automatisms and unwind the same behavior. This is exactly what stands in our way when solving completely new problems. It blocks our creativity like old data the buffer in the PC. So we often have to learn first to “un-learn” what no longer serves us.

Only after we have aired and cleared out the air in the upper room can new solutions for both old and new problems arise. So: Discard outdated procedures. And: Train your organization to break out of common patterns. Leave the comfort zone of the beaten path.

We are prevented by three things: blindness, complacency and ignorance. Change manifests itself very differently today than it did before. Everything is always up for grabs. Old recipes no longer work. Yesterday's success says nothing about tomorrow's success. Unfortunately, success with the powerful breeds a dangerous belief in your own greatness: the illusion of invincibility.

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