Why Initiatives Fail

Categories: Behavior change, BMT Courses, Feedback, Leadership, TrainingAuthor:

I gave a presentation on this topic at the BMT Fed Leadership Conference in Manchester in May 2013.  Here is a short excerpt from that talk.

Click to view the 8-min video:  Why Initiatives Fail – John Austin

Most change initiatives fail. 

That’s the simple truth.  In fact, most experts suggest that upwards of 70% of them fail.  You can check my stats here by Googling “Why initiatives fail.”  If you’ve spent any amount of time in just about any job, at just about any level in the organization, you will have seen lots of change efforts come and go.

I suppose this all depends on how you define ‘failure’, but the fact that so many people have written about it suggests there is something going on here. As I was looking through what has been written on the topic – there is so much that I could not read it all – I was struck by the fact that most explanations of how to avoid failure quickly turn aspirational.

“Plan your effort better”

“Realize people are your most valuable asset”

“Communicate the change effectively”

…and so on.

It’s not that these are not reasonable things to consider, but rather that they are not the most important factors. Of all of the articles written about how make change efforts succeed, I have yet to find one that offers a behaviorally sound explanation; an explanation based on behavioral science. The purpose of this blog is to give a quick overview of what the science would suggest is a leading cause of failure among initiatives.

The logic.

Most initiatives are started because results are lacking in some way.  Results are lacking because of the behavior of people – that is, what people are saying and doing. The behavior of people is driven by their local environments – what they see and hear around them from moment to moment.  Therefore, the only way to get the behavior you want out of people is to create an environment in which this will occur.  Most change initiatives are created without ever considering the local environment of the people who will put the initiative into action on a daily basis.  This is a fatal flaw.

Problems with most initiatives.

The local environment is the whole ball game.  That’s what drives the behavior you see.  Here’s a simple example: put your favorite guilty snack on the counter (mine is potato chips) and you’re more likely to eat it.  Throw it away and replace it with fruit and your behavior changes again.

This is the basis of behavioral science and there are countless ways to influence behavior by changing the local environment.  This is the bit of knowledge that successful initiatives manage to get right.

Three problems with most initiatives include:

1)    They are conceived in isolation (without clear knowledge of the local environments in which they will be deployed)

2)    They are constructed from the writer’s perspective, not from the receiver’s perspective.

3)    They do not consider the consequences to the performer for behaving in line with the stated goals of the initiative.

If you want to get yours right, be sure to avoid these predictable mistakes.

2 Responses to Why Initiatives Fail

  1. Mark says:

    I like this article and the video and shared it with my work colleagues.

    A grammar note: I think you have one “people” too many in this sentence.

    Results are lacking because people of the behavior of people – that is, what people are saying and doing.

    Reply

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