During nearly every discussion about organizational change, someone makes the obvious assertion that “change is hard.” On the surface, this is true: change requires effort. But the problem with this attitude, which permeates all levels of our organizations, is that it equates “hard” with “failure,” and, by doing so, it hobbles our change initiatives, which have higher success rates than we lead ourselves to believe.
Our bias toward failure is wired into our brains. In a recently published series of studies, University of Chicago researchers Ed O’Brien and Nadav Klein found that we assume that failure is a more likely outcome than success, and, as a result, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as flukes and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is difficult.
Tasler uses the example of the mythical 70% failure rate of change efforts, which has been repudiated over and over, but never seems to go away. It has been traced back to Michael Hammer’s Reengineering the Corporation, despite Hammer later trying to stamp it out, saying
In Reengineering the Corporation, we estimated that between 50 and 70 percent of reengineering efforts were not successful in achieving the desired breakthrough performance. Unfortunately, this simple descriptive observation has been widely misrepresented and transmogrified and distorted into a normative statement…There is no inherent success or failure rate for reengineering.
Indeed, Tasler observes recent McKinsey research reveals that a third of execs say
their change initiatives were total successes, and another third believed that their change initiatives were more successful than unsuccessful. But only “about one in ten admit to having been involved in a transformation that was ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ unsuccessful.”
So, we need to change the thread of our discussion about change. Yes, it is hard, but so is everything worth doing.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.