Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Early vs. Late Stage Failure

I want to thank Holger for inviting me to be a guest author on his blog.

Let me share one of the most revealing patterns that surfaced in my research for the book, Epic Change: How to Lead Change in the Global Age. It is the distinction between early and late-stage failure.

As any change management practitioner knows, the study of large-scale organizational change is mostly the study of failure. Success represents positive deviance. So when you set out to deconstruct major change initiatives, you can expect to spend most of your time sifting through the wreckage of change projects that didn't succeed.

But it's often in that wreckage that we find our most critical insights. One unmistakable pattern that appeared in my study is that when a large-scale change project doesn't fail early, it will experience a point of critical mass at some point in its progress. That point of critical mass defines the place at which the energy requirements to fuel change begin to decrease. There are certainly multiple points of momentum in any major change initiative, but there is usually a major dynamic shift that feels like a "tipping point" or "flywheel effect" as Gladwell and Collins respectively refer to it.

That isn't a particularly new insight, but what deserves our attention is the difference between the patterns of failure before critical mass (early-stage failure) and the patterns of failure after critical mass (late-stage failure). Based on my research, the root causes are fundamentally different.

When a change initiative fails in the early stage, in almost every case, leaders have failed to engage and mobilize people in the first place. As a result, the effort dips into a failure pattern soon after launch. On the other hand, when a change initiative progresses all the way to critical mass and then fails after substantial progress, the failure pattern is very different. Late-stage, or, after-critical-mass failure, is typically the result of leadership walking away too soon or misreading progress.

There are a host of perverse incentives that persuade leaders to let go prematurely. As I like to say, the front end of change is for the rock star. This is where the rewards and recognition lie. This is where most human resources management systems provide reinforcement. But the back side, or late stage of change, is different. It's for the roadie: Indeed, most of the incentives have dried up. The thrill is gone and it comes down to grinding discipline and unrecognized and inglorious execution to take the intiative the distance. The other pattern is that leaders simply mistake critical mass for completion because, on appearance, the change looks as if it's complete, or at least self-executing.

In short, creating engagement before critical mass is normally a very different issue than sustaining engagement after critical mass. Think about the distinction as a diagnostic. Change leaders find the distinction helpful as a conceptual tool. Of course it's helpful when you're doing a postmortem. But it's also helpful when you're in the midst of a change journey. It helps you know your coordinates, understand the terrain, and the nature of the challenge based on position and location.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D.

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