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Banish the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’

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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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Posted by Jim Dale on 7th Sep 2017

About the Author

Dr Jim Dale is an independent project management consultant, mentor and advisor. He is an APM accreditation assessor, an RPP assessor, a PQ facilitator / assessor and an IPMA verifier. Jim has a professional doctorate in change management (University of Portsmouth) and  MBA (pass with distinction) from CASS Business School and has achieved practitioner status in a suite of APMG methods. Jim’s early project background is in policing where he has managed several multi million pound transformational change initiatives, including setting up and delivering tranche 1 of Forensics21, leading a major root and branch review of Sussex Police and managing the introduction of a new call centre, digital telephony, a single non emergency number and ‘e’ contact for that force. Jim is a long standing committee member of ProgM and was the secretary for many years. Several feature articles written by Jim has been published in academic and professional journals, including Project magazine.

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