Why Almost All Organizational Change Efforts Fail
by Dr. Wendell Williams

If you read some of the latest books on organizational change, they often say that somewhere around 80% of change efforts fail. The books imply this is due to a lack of effort and direction on the part of the organization. Well, that may be true, but there is another factor at work. A big one! Asking employees to totally change their direction is like asking a golf team to suddenly switch to tennis. People are not plastic. They do not change their motivations overnight, get smarter over the weekend, or "grow" skills they do not have. This fact seems to be often overlooked.

Throughout our society, there is a pervasive belief that people can rise to become anything they want to become. Just invest enough time and effort and anyone can become an engineer, astronaut or physician. It makes good press, but misses the point that while we live in a free society filled with equal opportunity, we are not born into the world with equal skills. The pervasive belief in "Plastic People" creates a lot of employee frustration and wastes huge amounts of money for organizations.

Skill Clusters

When jobs are examined using statistical analysis, their requirements tend to fall into four areas: mental skills, planning skills, interpersonal skills, and motivational factors. Coincidentally, when employee skills are examined using statistical analysis, their skills also tend to fall into four areas: mental ability, planning ability, interpersonal skills, and motivations. Life is good when skills and requirements match. Life is bad when they don't.


When was the last time you saw a dull person attend training and return smart? Mental skills represent what a person knows (education, technical knowledge, and so forth) and how they use it (analysis, decision making, judgment, learning). Every job comes with certain requirements in this area. As you can imagine, it is very hard to make someone smarter, a better analyst, a better learner, or a better decision maker. You can send people to school, but there is a virtual library of research that shows people come into (and go out of) the world with a fixed level of "smarts". People can learn better decision-making tools such as Pareto, force field or fishbone techniques, but by and large, smart people tend to stay smart and dull people tend to stay dull.


When was the last time you saw a bad planner attend training and return fully organized? Planning skills represent things like scheduling, sequencing and planning. They are very similar to mental skills. People may be able to improve slightly by learning techniques such as project planning or time management, but by and large, good planners tend to remain that way and poor ones tend to stay disorganized.


When was the last time you saw an interpersonal klutz attend training and return with highly polished people-skills? Interpersonal skills are not a big deal in many jobs where people just have to get along together; but, everything changes when jobs cross-over into coaching, sales or presentation skills. Interpersonal skills include all the skills that people tend to use to get things done through people. Like the other three factors, they can be improved slightly, but resist major change. Banks, for example, lose sight of the fact that being a technically accurate teller is the diametric opposite of being outgoing and persuasive. They might as well try to teach a chicken to tap dance.


When was the last time you saw someone with a bad attitude toward work become enthusiastic about quality? Motivations are basic beliefs about life. They are not always rational or well thought-out. People will kill other people who share different beliefs. Motivations affect a person's willingness to use the first three skills productively. There are six basic job-fit motivations and three basic job attitude motivations that almost always affect productivity. Most people either take them for granted or have no idea what they are.

Reorganizing vs. Renovation

Think of an old brick building, gradually built from the ground up with bricks and mortar. Now think of yourself as an architect who wants to renovate the building. Your options range from a fresh coat of paint ... to partial renovation ... to total reconstruction. Depending on your goals, much of the old brick-work will have to go. The same is true of reorganization.

Imagine working for years in a job where managers made all decisions, the employee followed directions and interpersonal relationships basically consisted of "getting along". Everyone knew the "drill" and was happy with the status quo. It was an old established "building". Now, senior management "architects" decide to redecorate. The new plan requires that employees make their own decisions (i.e., get smarter), show initiative (i.e., change motivations) and work closely with team members to resolve problems (i.e., improve interpersonal skills).

Regardless of the number of training programs they attend or reorganization meetings they hold, it will take Divine intervention to make everyone smarter, more comfortable with the new changes or improve their interpersonal skills. Remember: effective reorganization requires a complete understanding of job requirements in both old and new jobs, combined with a complete understanding of employee skills. Round pegs will only fit into round holes.

Steps to Effective Reorganization

  1. Only work with consultants who understand BOTH processes and people (use internal staff at your own peril);
  2. Examine your reorg plan and develop a list of future employee skills (use the four skill areas described above);
  3. Accurately measure each current employee's skills in the same four areas;
  4. Calculate the gaps;
  5. Place current people in new jobs for which they have the right skills;
  6. Start an active recruitment program to fill open slots.

Dr. Wendell Williams is Managing Director of ScientificSelection.com, LLC. Contact Dr. Williams by telephone: 770.792.6857 and visit www.ScientificSelection.com .

Many more articles in Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2003 by Dr. Wendell Williams. All rights reserved.

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