Why 70% of All Changes Fail

By Rick Maurer  |  Posted 2010-12-21

Nearly 70 percent of all the changes in organizations fail—and IT is not immune from that alarming statistic. Every day, good ideas die before they ever get started, and organizations go through the motions of adopting a new system but actually keep using their old system.

Obviously, all these failures are costly, but they are more than that. Repeated failures can kill an IT department’s reputation. This happened frequently in the past, when IT professionals overwhelmed clients with technical jargon and got them to agree to implement things they didn’t understand.

When the dust settled, many of those projects failed. In the 1990s, enterprise resource planning had a 9 percent success rate in large organizations. You read that correctly—the failure rate was a whopping 91 percent. Understandably, these failures left a bitter taste in the mouths of potential users of IT services.

Savvy technology departments have learned from those mistakes. Here are three actions that can help IT leaders build support for their ideas and projects:

1. Speak so they’ll understand you.

Smart IT professionals don’t make the client speak computerese. Instead, they use plain everyday speech. This helps internal customers understand your project and become engaged in the process.

Here’s a case in point: For many years, I had an accountant who talked in accountant-speak. I called him once a year at tax time. There were other times when I could have used his advice or services, but it was simply too hard to communicate in that “foreign” language, so I found other people to help me.

2. Listen and learn.

Smart IT leaders are willing to be influenced. They realize that the internal clients are the real experts when it comes to what they need. The clients may not know what to ask for in terms of process, but they usually know what they want to have happen differently as a result of all this effort.

When IT folks listen intently and become interested in their clients’ fears about—and hopes for—the project, the clients begin to trust the IT team. They feel understood, and so their trust in IT goes up. They appreciate the fact that these tech-savvy professionals will take the time to listen—and to explain.

The willingness to listen to and be influenced by others may sound simple, but it’s the foundation on which business relationships are built. The clients trust that you won’t try to sell them a solution they don’t need. Consequently, when you do have an idea that could help their productivity or their bottom line, they are far more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

3. It’s the people who matter.

Smart IT leaders know that technical changes start and end with people. This is perhaps the biggest mistake professionals in technical fields such as IT, accounting and engineering make. They believe in their ideas and assume that a good idea and a sound plan will prevail. But that’s not enough.

Of course, IT managers know that people matter, but their actions sometimes tell a different story. Some IT professionals inundate people with PowerPoint slides but let their listeners be involved for only a few minutes during the Q&A at the end of the meeting.

IT professionals who understand how to build support for their ideas and programs know that their technical proficiency is only table stakes: It just gets them into the game. To win the World Series of IT, these technology pros must also know how to work with people.

By communicating with their clients, IT leaders can find out why people resist change and why they support it. They can predict how the mere mention of a new enterprisewide system is likely to go over in a specific organization. And they know how to use that knowledge to create strategies that build support for change.

Change is difficult, but it's not impossible. IT professionals who understand that the soft stuff is really the hard stuff get more of their ideas across.

Rick Maurer is a change management expert, speaker and adviser. He is also the author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Why 70% of All Changes Still Fail—and What You Can Do About It.