Most change programmes fail. Numerous surveys and research reports attest to this being a fact. For example, Gartner Research has consistently shown over a long period that as many as seventy percent of IT projects fail to deliver the change expected on time and on budget.

Why does this happen? According to research by the Standish Group which supports Gartner’s view that seven out of ten projects fail, the factors which affect a project are as listed in Table 1.

Project Challenge Factors % of Responses
Lack of User Input 12.8%
Incomplete Requirements and Expectations 12.3%
Changing Requirements and Expectations 11.8%
Lack of Executive Support 7.5%
Technology Incompetence 7.0%
Lack of Resources 6.4%
Unrealistic Expectations 5.9%
Unclear Objectives 5.3%
Unrealistic Time Frames 4.3%
New Technology 3.7%
Other 23.0%
Table 1

The list of factors is not unique to The Standish Group research. It is typical of research into project failures over the last ten years.

What I find intriguing about this research and others like it, is that despite the knowledge of project failure rates and causes in the IT industry nothing seems to change about the failure rates. This is despite the wide availability of the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) and PRINCE 2 project management processes and courses to train project managers in how to manage projects.

Whilst project managers with good project management skills are shown in further research to make the expected improvements in outcomes over poor project managers, there must be more to getting change to happen than having good project management skills.

In non-IT business change programmes the statistics on change are similar. What is it then that makes investment in project management and business management skills such a low return on investment option?

My observation on why this is so begins with our training throughout our career as managers of tasks. Note that the majority of what one sees in PMBOK and PRINCE 2 are transactional processes. Both methodologies concentrate heavily on the management of tasks. Whilst business managers tend not to have such defined methodologies as project managers, the skills they need to build to have a prosperous career are task related skills.

Sales people have to makes sales. Marketers have to complete campaigns and achieve results which reflect retention of customers and generation of new leads for sales. Production managers have to achieve results reflecting productive use of labour, energy, raw materials and overheads. Everywhere we look as a manager we are being measured by our ability to compete single or multiple tasks. We may have a performance indicator or two about employee or customer satisfaction, however, they are nearly always second in real importance to task based indicators.

When it comes to change, leaders are conditioned to determining, evaluating and driving the tasks to completion. They are skilled at managing the tasks associated with what is about to be different. They are good at managing change tasks.

What leaders are not trained for is managing the psychology of change. In a recent training activity, I asked a team of leaders involved in a change which was one of a long line of changes they had experienced, “Who thinks they are good at managing change?” The reaction was a show of more than fifty percent of hands. The rationale being that they had undergone so much change they were good at it by now.

After completing some exercises to evaluate the readiness of their teams for change and creating a personal inventory of their change management capabilities it was clear that although they were now good at managing their personal reaction to change and the tasks their teams had to complete to make the change happen, they were poorly placed in managing their team’s transition through change.

The Bridges Transition Model is useful for understanding the transition that people go through with change. According to Bridges, there are three phases:

  1. Ending, Losing, Letting Go – Letting go of the old ways and the old identity people had. This first phase of transition is an ending, and the time when you need to help people to deal with their losses.
  2. The Neutral Zone – Going through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. We call this time the ‘neutral zone’: it’s when the critical psychological realignments take place.
  3. The New Beginning – Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning. This is when people develop the new identity, experience the new energy and discover the new sense of purpose that makes the change begin to work.


Different people go through the phases at different speeds, spending different amounts of time in each phase. Sadly, some people never get past phase one – letting go.

In the example of this client which was a sales organisation, they had not helped their star sales people acknowledge their endeavours in the past could never be taken away, even though the way they worked was to change dramatically. Additionally, they had not reassured them that they would be assisted through the transition to help them maintain their positions as star sales people.

Further, they had not recognised the need to:

  • Give people accurate information, again and again
  • Define clearly what is over and what isn’t
  • Work hard to unpack old baggage, heal old wounds, and finish unfinished business
  • Explain the neutral zone as an uncomfortable time which can be turned to everyone’s advantage, choosing a new and positive metaphor to describe it
  • Create realistic short-range goals and checkpoints, training programmes, temporary policies, procedures, roles, reporting relationships and organisation groupings needed to get through the neutral zone
  • Find ways to keep people feeling they belong and are valued
  • Make sure that realistic feedback is flowing upward
  • Have an effective picture of the change, the purpose behind it and the new identity which will emerge from it
  • Accept that people are going to be ambivalent toward the new beginning they are trying to bring about
  • Help everyone to discover the part that they play in the new system
  • Include opportunities for quick success to help people rebuild their self confidence
  • Find ways to celebrate the new beginning
  • Watch their own actions to be sure they model the attitudes and behaviours they are asking others to develop


They were, in my view, heading for either failure or a low grade success where the effectiveness of the change was being undermined by people who could not, or would not, let go of the past.

Leading a successful change requires close attention to the tasks required to complete the “project”. It requires even closer attention to managing the transitions that people go through.