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Banish the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (2013) suggest a figure of 60%. Research by the University of Bristol (2015) indicates a figure of 70%, while the Institute of Directors (2012) believes the figure to be even higher at 80%. The figures these esteemed organisations are referring to are the reported ‘failure’ rates for corporate change programmes.

In my capacity as an APM / IPMA assessor I read and hear candidate submissions telling me about the 20% - 40% of successful corporate change programmes they have had a personal hand in delivering. Curiously, despite assessing hundreds of these cases, I have yet to come across an example of a ‘failed’ initiative. But why should anyone be surprised, because, as the saying goes, “success has many parents but failure will always be an orphan.” 

The terms success and failure may appear obvious but in a change initiative what do they really mean? By what measures are we determining success and failure or according to whom? ‘Yes’ the terms are polar opposites, two ends of the same continuum, but reality suggests that a patchwork picture is likely to emerge which intertwines degrees of success and failure with significant opportunities to learn and improve.

Research I have undertaken confirmed unease amongst fellow change practitioners with the terms success and failure. This was summarised by one participant who said “while I have never been involved in a failed change initiative I have experienced several that have achieved a sub-optimal outcome.” Sub–optimal for this practitioner was a more palatable and less threatening term than one indicating failure.

During a recent review of a high profile and publicly reported ‘successful’ change initiative I was surprised to hear about the levels of disillusionment among many of the front-line staff expected to deliver the new changes. Put simply, they did not share the view of senior management concerning the level of ‘success’ achieved. It appeared to me that their levels of engagement were superficial and transactional. There was no ‘buy in’ or emotional attachment. These findings support the results of an earlier Gallup poll (2013) which stated that 87% of the employees they questioned felt disengaged in change programmes that directly impacted them. The consequences were distrust, high staff turnover, increases in complaints and lower levels of productivity.

My assertion is that terms such as success and failure, in the context of organisational change, inhibit learning. Failure is hushed up while the veneer of success is rarely scratched for fear of exposing a murkier picture.  This, coupled, with high turnover amongst executive management, is a recipe for ‘the same old same old’.

One of the suppositions of neuro linguistic programming (NLP) is that there is no failure, merely feedback. The populist US writer, Denis Waitely, poignantly developed this theme when he said “failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker.” So my plea to the project and programme management community is, avoid superficial discussions about success or failure and focus on genuine personal and organisational learning and improvement in the spirit of reflective practice.

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  1. James Sibson
    James Sibson 08 September 2017, 10:23 AM

    Interesting article Jim, agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion, although I'm not sure how to rewrite the Chinese proverb: "Failure is the mother of all success"! A recent aerospace qualification programme I led had no test failures, only test anomalies. All of them taught us something new about the products we had designed and built; and the resulting validated products were far superior to the ones that entered the programme.

  2. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 08 September 2017, 06:46 PM

    Hi Jim, I agree with you. It’s vital to work with stakeholders and end users UP-FRONT to determine what success will look and feel like. This should be clearly defined in agreed spending or investment objectives, that should be SMART - not woolly! Too often objectives are vague. Stakeholder feedback should be continually solicited by the project team. Feedback, is described by Ken Blanchard, the management guru, as 'the breakfast of champions.' After all, it's what keeps the project on track to achieve its objectives!

  3. Trevor Marshall
    Trevor Marshall 11 September 2017, 09:58 AM

    If only it was this easy that just banishing the words would make people think about what has or hasn't been achieved. Major concern in the areas I have worked is invariably 'corporate memory' just doesn't exist and it is all too easy to lose the memory of what either worked previously or needs to be avoided this time. Consequently 'successful' change never gets reviewed because it was considered successful, despite it's many problems on the way, and the failures may get looked at even if only the main causal factor but not all the secondary factors that aggregated to contribute to the failure.