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January/February 2014

Why proven change processes fail
By Tom Somodi

Tom Somodi speaks and writes about change, applying his extensive domestic and international business experience. He is the author of The Science of Change: Basics Behind Why Change Succeeds and Fails. For more information, visit

It’s astonishing how businesses and individuals are continually influenced by solution providers and consultants of change processes. These providers and consultants somehow have the ability to convince an organization and/or individual that if they want to obtain a desired change, then all they have to do is “execute this,” “do that” or “buy into this methodology.”

Of course, as described above, the potential to have issues associated with such a simplistic summary are obvious. Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment of trying to determine a solution to obtain a specific change, falling prey to such arguments can be easy and very understandable.

My purpose is not to bash solution providers and change consultants. Much knowledge and potential benefit can be derived from their products and services. Instead, I would like to help you understand why such claims may not be accurate in every situation.

Change is something you experience

First recognize that change is not just something to be obtained. Change is something we all experience continuously. From all the change at the subatomic level to the movement of the galaxies in the universe, change constantly occurs around us.

Therefore, while all change requires the execution of some process, in reality, change is not an art but instead a science. All change follows a set of rules and principles just like any other science. More importantly, by understanding these rules and principles and how they work, we can use them to our advantage when attempting to change something.

Environmental override

One of the most powerful of these principles is:

If the conditions in a given environment do not support the processes associated with a desired change, that change will not take place in that environment.

In other words, a proven process that has worked well and provided successful change in other environments does not guarantee that such a process will work in your environment. A successful change in your environment will not occur unless all the conditions support all the requirements of that process.

Environmental override is one of the main reasons that a specific process can produce a desired change for one company but is unable to produce the same change for another company. It can also go a long way in explaining why a specific diet works for Sam but does not work for Bill, or why a reform strategy works in one classroom but not the entire school, or at one school and not another in the same district.

Not all environments are created equal

Over the years, countless service providers and consultants of change processes have said how the way businesses operate, in general, are not all that unique from one another. Therefore, the solutions they proposed were made on a universal basis and will work in most situations where there is adequate commitment on the part of management or the individual.

In addition, these solution providers had an answer if there was a unique aspect to take into account. They would argue that it was either in the best interest for that organization or individual to eliminate the uniqueness (for example, follow best practices) or they would say, “ don’t worry; our solution is easy to customize and configure.”

Once again, on a global level such arguments make sense and in some cases might even be an accurate assessment (for example, every manager or individual wants to be known for following best practices). However, everyone needs to recognize that this is not always the case. The environment in which a change must take place is generally very complex and has developed over time in an integrated relationship.

Therefore, the conditions in that environment might never support a given change. Also, even if the environment is modified to support the requirements of the change, it might represent a complete revision of the organization with both positive   and negative ramifications.

For example, a particular business system used to obtain a specific change in an organization might require individuals who have a specific skill set. By using that same business system in an environment where individuals with that skill set are few or nonexistent can make such a system either inoperable or unacceptable from a cost perspective. Likewise, a diet that works for a healthy person might not work for an individual who has a particular health condition (note that in this case the body is considered a unique environment).

Leveraging environmental override

Many a management group has been frustrated when a proven process fails to work in their organization and many individuals have been equally frustrated when a proven process that has worked for others, fails to work for them.

The key take away is that by understanding the change science principle of environmental override, you are now in a position to address it head-on at the beginning of your change solution selection process.   Here’s how:

1. Make sure you clearly understand all of the requirements associated with the solution.

2. Look at the conditions that exist in the environment in which this solution will be executed and compare them to the above require­ments.

3. Realistically assess whether the conditions in the environment can be adjusted to support the requirements of the proposed solution.

4. Make sure everyone in the organization (including upper management) agrees with the operational, financial and cultural ramifications associated with adjusting the conditions in the environment to support the proposed solution. If this solution is for you individually, make certain all the ramifications associated with adjusting the conditions in the environment are realistically acceptable.

The effort involved in this exercise will vary depending on the significance and complexity of the change you are trying to obtain. However, just having an awareness of the change science principle of environmental override can go a long way in helping you avoid the pitfalls associated with making the assumption that if a process/methodology works for someone else, it should also work for you.

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