How often do change initiatives succeed? Not often enough. A 2013 survey of global senior executives by Strategy&/Katzenbach Center reveals that the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent.


Why the high failure rate? According to a superb article in strategy+business by organizational change experts DeAnne Aguirre and Micah Alpern, there are three hurdles that usually get in the way: 

  • So-called "change fatigue," that is, the pressure of making too many changes in too little time.
  • A loss of faith in the initial impetus for the changes. This usually occurs when results come too slowly.
  • Not enough input from employees below the C-suite. As a result, the actual executors of the changes (who are rarely the high-ranking executives) don't have enough ownership in the initiatives they're supposed to be leading. 

In their article, Aguirre and Alpern offer 10 guiding principles to help leaders overcome these obstacles. Here are three of them:

1. Leverage the strengths of the existing culture. Too many leaders view the company's current culture as "the legacy of a past from which they want to move on," note the authors. "Yet skilled change managers, conscious of organizational change management best practices, always make the most of their company’s existing culture."

This advice is consistent with what Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, recently told me in discussing her new bookCollective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation.

In the book, Hill argues that the best way to motivate employees through change is to tap into emotions those employees already feel. This is one reason that Luca de Meo, who became CMO of VW Group in 2010, succeeded in leading the massive change initiative of unifying VW's once-fragmented branding. As Hill points out, de Meo's first move was discovering the strengths of VW's existing culture. For he grasped that doing so would be essential to getting employees on board--and fully engaged--with the forthcoming changes.

De Meo learned that VW employees had two big points of pride: One was about the company's nuts-and-bolts product engineering, and one was about the importance of the auto industry to society as a whole. He used these pride points to create organization-wide motivation about the importance of creating a unified global brand. De Meo's actions epitomized how Aguirre and Alpern describe the best leaders of change initiatives:  

Instead of trying to change the culture itself, they draw emotional energy from it. They tap into the way people already think, behave, work, and feel to provide a boost to the change initiative. To use this emotional energy, leaders must look for the elements of the culture that are aligned to the change, bring them to the foreground, and attract the attention of the people who will be affected by the change.

In short: If you're tasked with leading a change, forget entirely the notion of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch. It's wiser to start with the legacy strengths of the organization.

2. Involve every layer of the organization. "Strategic planners often fail to take into account the extent to which midlevel and frontline people can make or break a change initiative," note the authors.

Of course, anyone who's ever worked in any organization knows this: The actual leaders of the change are in the figurative trenches. Moreover, "frontline people tend to be rich repositories of knowledge about where potential glitches may occur, what technical and logistical issues need to be addressed, and how customers may react to changes." 

All of which sounds obvious. It begs the question: Why, then, do executives so frequently fail to involve key midlevel and frontline employees in planning?

There's one main reason. It's best summarized by the cliche "too many cooks in the kitchen." Executives tend to believe that planning will be faster and more efficient if fewer people participate.

Here's the rub: They're right. But the goal shouldn't be fast or efficient planning. It should be creating a plan that actually works, over a long time. 

3. Find the informal leaders. Jon Katzenbach, a senior executive advisor at Booz, has suggested that cultivating a middle tier of informal leaders is essential in any change initiative. Aguirre and Alpern identify three types of these informal leaders:

• Pride builders. If your organization had a pep rally, these employees would be leading it. They "are great at motivating others and inspiring them to take pride in their work." 

• Repositories of the organization's culture. They are the carriers of institutional memory, the ones "approached by people who want to know what's really happening in the organization," they write. 

• Change ambassadors. They are like your organization's missionaries, acting "as both exemplars and communicators, spreading the word about why change is important."

How can you find your organization's informal leaders? It's not easy. Executives often make the mistake of going down through the hierarchy or using the HR info that identifies good performers and high-potential people. But this simply doesn't work. "The informal leaders have to be employees who are using elements of the company culture that are already in place," Katzenbach once told me. "You have to tap into who's doing that. And the managers and leaders in the hierarchy are not necessarily doing that."

The solution? Good, old-fashioned management by walking around and casual conversations below the leadership levels.

"Someone has to spend time down there, to try to find them," he observed. "The informal leaders who are the outstanding ones are actually easy to identify because everyone knows who they are. But if you need more than that--and you usually do--what helps is to get [the informal leaders you've already identified] to help you think about who the others might be."