Only 25% of Organizational Change Initiatives Succeed. How do you Improve your Odds?

Warren Church

Today, a combination of uncertainty in the business environment and the unprecedented pace of external change leaves leaders with less time to activate change initiatives successfully. In our work helping large global organizations communicate change, we’ve identified three things that can increase the odds of success. 

Since all organizational change efforts compete with current behaviors, habits, and the dominant narratives of the population, we often find that stalled, stuck or failed change efforts are a consequence of [1] Incomplete knowledge of initial conditions, [2] Encoding the wrong assumptions about human behavior and decision making, and [3] Not focusing on reaching a tipping point.

1. Know the Ground Truth

Human behavior within an organization is a complex evolving system, like the weather, which requires accurate information about initial conditions. The only thing you can truly change is how people currently see the situation - and your change initiative. Before you can change this, you must know precisely how people see their current situation and the proposed course of action. Survey data, blogs, or engagement analytics can’t help you here - you need what we call the Ground Truth. This is 'boots on the ground' skilled research consisting of confidential unstructured depth interviews with a diverse subset of the population.

2. Understand human behavior


It’s only rational to think we’re all rational, but this simply isn’t so. In the typical scenario, we find that initiatives are marketed rationally, with lots of numerical support - financials, research data, analytics. It is assumed that this evidence will help people understand what is required of them and get them to “just do it.” 

What science knows about the evolved psychology and neurology of the brain reveals that there are two minds in our heads - what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2.

System 1 consists of thinking processes that are fast, intuitive, automatic, experience-based, and operates below the level of consciousness. System 2 is slow, reflective, controlled, deliberative, and analytical. 

The surprising finding is that System 1 is responsible for 95% of our decisions, which are then “rationalized” after-the-fact by System 2. If someone asks you why you drive a Tesla S, you are unlikely to reveal the true emotional reason (System 1 is mute) - while System 2 is happy to mention reasons of environmental responsibility or technology. To increase your odds of success when marketing change, lead with an emotional story capable of captivating System 1, and follow with a sound numerical narrative that System 2 can use to justify their change in behavior.

3. Focus on reaching the tipping point

Human behavior is emergent, meaning an individual both influences and is influenced by the social ecosystem. This means that you don’t have to get everyone on board. Instead, focus on quickly reaching the tipping point - which requires getting a 10% of your people fully committed. Thanks to work done by David Logan, the efficient way is to start by building triads of people who have social influence (not necessarily correlated with power), then work to connect these triads together. 

Social Consensus through influence of committed minorities,  Physical Review E , July 2011

Social Consensus through influence of committed minorities, Physical Review E, July 2011

Once you get 10%, the maths show that this will quickly spread through the rest of the population. This works because in a complex evolving system (emergent human behavior within an organization), the higher the degree of interdependence, the wider the ‘ripples’ of influence; small things have a large impact.

It also indicates that “the organization as a whole, in its manifold interactions, creates its way of working and relating and the ‘new rules’ then emerge from those interactions and new ways of working.” (Eve Mitleton-Kelly, Ed., Complex Systems and Evolutionary Perspectives on Organizations, 2003)

Wise leaders know that business is about finding ways to improve the odds of success—including these three new approaches to change will help.