Why is it so Difficult to Accomplish Organizational Change?

There is a web of tightly woven factors that make organizational change difficult. However, one common cause might lie in practices that were effective in the past and that are no longer appropriate; this can be called the “failure of success.” Organizations learned what worked and what didn’t. They developed systems that exploited that knowledge and established rules, policies, procedures, and decision frameworks that capitalized on previous successes. Further, they developed patterned responses (habits), assumptions, attributions, and expectations that influenced the ways employees thought about how the world worked.6 These beliefs and ingrained responses formed a strong resistant force, which encouraged people and their organizations to maintain old patterns regardless of feedback that they were no longer appropriate. In many respects, this is where the questions of what to change and how to change intersect.

Charles Handy describes some of these dilemmas by examining the pattern of success over time. As he so aptly said, too often “by the time you know where you ought to go, it’s too late”. He describes a sigmoid curve that outlines where one should begin changing and where it becomes obvious that one needs to change. This curve depicts the outcomes of a system as a curve that increases during early-stage development and growth phases, flattens at maturity, and shifts into decline over time. Consider the path tracked by successful technological innovations. Once an innovation demonstrates its value to key early adopters, then sales take off. As others see the benefits of the innovation, they adopt it as well. Patents and proprietary knowledge provide some protection, but over time competitors launch similar products, profit margins become squeezed, and sales growth slows due to increased competition and the level of market saturation. This leads to a flattening of the curve, referred to as the maturity phase. Decline follows as the market becomes increasingly saturated and competitive, and this decline accelerates with the arrival of a new, disruptive innovation that attracts customers away from the existing product or service. Think of what happened to the VCR players when DVD players arrived on the scene. Consider how prices fell for DVD players in the face of competition. Now, video streaming has eclipsed the market for DVDs. DVDs are becoming obsolete as more companies offer streaming services.

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