ineptitude the real reason change failsIneptitude – the reason most changes fail

I have been getting  through the dark winter days by listening to the BBC Reith Lectures. One in particular has struck me as being particularly pertinent to our work in business change. It is a talk by influential US surgeon Atul Gawande on Why Doctors Fail.

Whilst Dr Gawande’s talk is focused on failures in the medical profession, there are definite parallels with organisational change. The talk centres on how human fallibility leads to failure, which can be translated into any human endeavour, including business change management.

Dr Gawande outlines three reasons why humans fail: necessary fallibility; ignorance; ineptitude

Necessary fallibility: some things may never be known

Human beings are complex and we live in a complex world. As Gawande says, to know everything would need a state of omniscience which simply cannot happen. Therefore, we will never know exactly how individuals will react in certain situations or how best to deliver some complex changes.

This means that there will always be a level of failure, purely because there will always be things that we don’t know.

Ignorance: lack of knowledge

Necessary fallibility aside, we are rapidly increasing our knowledge of what happens to humans during change and how best to manage these changes. This is reducing the potential of organisational change to fail through ignorance.

For example, there is enough evidence to prove the following universalities about business change

  • change is more successful when senior leaders actively support and lead it
  • employee disaffection and resistance is reduced through two way communication, truthfulness and transparency
  • users need to be supported whilst change embeds for benefits to be fully realised
  • organisational cultures exert a very strong influence on behaviour so need to be taken into consideration in every change

In addition, there is increasing evidence that business change management itself is vital to the success of organisational change.

This means that organisations should no longer be questioning whether they should invest in the people-side of change. Instead, they should be examining how best to support people during their particular change.

Ineptitude: the failure to use existing knowledge

If the horror stories I continually hear from clients, training delegates and colleagues are a reliable indicator, ineptitude is by far the most common reason for business change failures.

Ineptitude means that the relevant knowledge exists, but an individual or group fail to apply that knowledge correctly.  Gawande explains that the main cause of ineptitude is the fear of admitting we don’t know, and the guilt and shame when we get things wrong.

This means that business change fails because we are not accessing existing knowledge to help us plan and execute our changes. By not being transparent about our failures, we are also losing the opportunity to learn from past experiences and improve future changes.

How can we reduce ineptitude?

It should be easy for us to rectify ineptitude. We just need to make sure that existing knowledge and best practice is utilised.

This is not so easy in practice, however. It means overcoming the shame and guilt we feel when we don’t know all the answers, and developing a willingness to seek help and support. Many organisational cultures do not encourage these behaviours. In some situations, there may be very real risks to reputations and careers if people admit gaps in knowledge, request support or report on their failures.

However, there are things we can do. Below are some ideas.

Keep up to date with the latest knowledge

We need to keep ourselves up to date with business change knowledge and best practice. Here are a few recommendations to start you off:

Supporting our stakeholders

We also need to support our stakeholders to overcome ineptitude. How you do that will, of course, depend on circumstances, but may involve:

  • Dealing with organisational cultures which support ineptitude
  • Making the case for investment in business change management
  • Having the courage to intervene when you see ineptitude in action and suggesting how things could be improved
  • Overcoming resistance before people begin to admit they do not know all the answers

We all need to tackle ineptitude to reduce the failure rate of change. Let’s work together to make 2018 the year of good change!