Implementation – It’s not the only thing, it’s everything

Posted by Terry Holtz

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Sep 3, 2014 11:04:00 AM

In my mangled use of the quote on winning most often attributed to Vince Lombardi1, I am making the point that for all the focus on other areas of the change process, only realization of the business case really counts.  Most new businesses fail as do most change projects, even if they get through deployment; they fail to deliver expected value.   

In fact, according to research by McKinsey & Company, about 70% of all changes in all organizations fail. After almost two decades of intense change from corporate reorganizations, new software systems, and quality-improvement projects, the failure rate remains at 70%. As an executive, you know the cost when a major project fails. That’s like throwing money away and wasting months of efforts.  Not to mention the lost opportunities: That Six Sigma effort that nevefailurer made it past Two Sigma… that merger that never quite took hold…that new org chart that never made your firm any leaner… that costly new software that never lived up to its promise. When you’ve lived through that kind of failure, you know how painful it can be2.

In their book, Focusing Change to Win, Anderson and Nwosu cite the following as why we need to take a new look at our approach:

  • Change Management’s track record isn’t getting any better and isn’t likely to, if we don’t do different things
  • Change failure rates continue above 60%
  • Surveyed executives still say people are the main reason for failed change
  • Technology is delivering faster, opportunity-rich yet still often underutilized solutions
  • Many leaders say their current business models are misaligned with emergent realities, unforeseen challenges, and changing priorities
  • Many also confess they don’t know how to go about fixing what’s no longer delivering sustainable competitive advantage3

What Needs to Change

In the recent McKinsey post, “Why Implementation Matters,” they cite seven factors that separate successful implementers from the rest of the pack:

  • Ownership & Commitment
  • A Clear Set of Priorities
  • Clear Accountability for Action
  • Effective Program (Project) Management
  • Planning for Change Sustainability from Day One
  • Continuous Improvement of Both the Organization and the Project
  • Sufficient Resources

They point out that organizations that do these things well are twice as likely to have measureable results two years later4.

With a slightly different view, Sirkin, Keenan & Johnson site four factors: 

  • The duration of time until the change program is completed, if it has a short life span; if not short, the amount of time between reviews of milestones
  • The project team’s performance integrity; that is, its ability to complete the initiative on time. That depends on members’ skills and traits relative to the project’s requirements
  • The commitment to change that top management and employees affected by the change (C2) display
  • The effort over and above the usual work that the change initiative demands of employees4

Is it That Easy? 


Just pick the right factors to focus on and anyone can be successful.  If that were the whole story, everyone would be successful.  Unfortunately, one critical factor sabotages this view. Simply stated: This is all about your people.  Do you have a team with the time, skills, and emotional stability that will enable them to navigate the complexity and ever-changing environment of complex change?  An environment like the one described by Paris in his post “I Thought I was Wrong Once… But I was Mistaken” compares change projects to going into battle. In battle, as in change project, plans are only a start, and flexability and rapid decision-making are critical.  He goes on to say that many organizations “assume” they can do it on their own.  He cites a case of a million dollar problem with a part-time team and a limited budget struggling over a period of years with little to show for the effort5.

In a time when organizations must deal with change, do you have the people and ideas to be successful or are you accepting a cycle of failure that will be devastating to your organization?

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1The quote most likely originated with UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell ("Red") Sanders

2Why 70% of Changes Fail,, Maurer, September 19, 2010

3Focusing Change to Win,, Anderson and Nwosu, May 26, 2012

4The Hard Side of Change Management,, Sirkin, Keenan, Jackson, October 2005

5I Thought I was Wrong Once… But I was Mistaken,, Paris, August, 25, 2014

Topics: Implementation Planning & Execution

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