The change paradox

In last year’s second edition of the McKinsey quarterly, an article about change management revealed that according to a 2008 McKinsey study of 3,199 executives around the world, only 30% of change transformations are successful. The article mentioned that the groundbreaking 1996 change study – Leading Change – from John Kotter, found the same success rate for change programs.  Although the scope of a change program and a change transformation might be different, the similarity between these outcomes makes one wonder whether we have actually made any progress at all in the field of change management.

Does this really mean that basically all the research, books written, numerous change congresses, training courses and specialized consultancies did not increase a company’s ability to change? Did our world get so much more complex in the last twelve years, that all this change focus and knowledge didn’t improve the success rate of change programs or transformations?

In the last twelve years, the increasing trend towards globalisation has driven change transformation and greater supply chain complexity. Companies were (and are) still merging, outsourcing, off shoring, divesting and reinventing themselves at a speed not seen before. But globalization can’t continue for ever. Yes there are still major emerging markets and yes companies are still merging, but true global companies are already global. In some industries like mining, steel and oil there are not a lot of merger opportunities left as the number of global players is diminishing.  As this trend of getting bigger, better, and more global reaches a maximum, will company complexity peak and cause our ability to change improve? Or will there be future trends that force companies to focus on core business and geographies, and start decentralizing again to reduce the risks and exposure in their supply chains?

According to Darwin it’s not the strongest species that survives, but the one that adapts fastest to change. Many studies show that actually very few people like change. In today’s competitive world companies need to innovate and change to survive, but their most important assets – their people – don’t want to change. In the corporate race of survival this is a major change paradox. Although through research we understand people’s behaviour during change transformation and know how to manage it to optimize productivity, it’s because of this change paradox that we’ll probably never be able to manage change on a large scale with a success rate any better then 30%. We might be able to tell more in another twelve years.

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