Why Initiatives Go Wrong and How to Try Again - And Succeed


Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley

Peterson's, 1996, 231 pp. ISBN 1 56079 944 7

The authors critique corporate practices of instituting new management approaches. The book is broad ranging, much of it marginally related to change, but insightful nonetheless. There were places where I actually laughed out loud!


The authors describe themselves as skeptical optimists. Good will come, but only after a knock-down-drag-out fight. (5) One of the benefits of this book: Your odds of surviving life in the blender should improve. The blender won't slow down, but you will get very good at dodging the blades. (3)


Ambitious undertakings nearly always result in some degree of disappointment. (1)


Change is pain, even when self-administered. (2)


Change in the last decade became a kind of civil religion for business. (3)


The future is a dangerous place, and we are already living in it. We are interested in any idea that promises a safer ride in the blender. (5)


There has never been, nor will there ever be, a change initiative that leaves unscathed people it purports to benefit. (6)


We adore change and the stimulation and improvement it can represent; and in the same breath we despise the discomfort and anxiety it imposes on us. (9)


The High Cost of Change Failures: loss of jobs, loss of energy, loss of trust, loss of respect, higher stress, fragmentation, depression, anger, diminished risk-taking, loss of credibility, trouble in people's personal lives, loss of loyalty to workers, loss of open communication from workers, diminished resources, craziness. (9-11)


Seven Unchangeable Rules of Change (11)

  • People do what they perceive is in their best interest.
  • People will embrace initiatives if they see positive meaning for them.
  • People thrive under creative challenge, but wilt under negative stress.
  • People are different. No solution fits all.
  • People believe what they see.Actions speak louder than words.
  • To make effective change, visualize what you want to accomplish and inhabit this vision until it comes true.
  • Change is an act of the imagination. Until the imagination is engaged, no important change can occur.


Two great hazards: 1) trashing the past and 2) making too many choices without seeing any of them through. Focus on a few good ideas and give them a chance to work. (13) Guard against too slowly adopting the new and too rapidly off-loading the old. (14)


Four attitudes from maintaining control to distributing control: (18)

  • Pummel. Terror. Do what I say or die.
  • Push. Distress. Do what you must or the organization will die.
  • Pull. Eustress. Do what you must to achieve the future you imagine.
  • Pamper. Torpor. Do whatever you feel like.


Yelling at people that they are in grave danger and persuading them to come to their own rescue are two very different approaches to leadership. (26)


Workers fill in the unknown with negatives. Change initiatives cannot occur in a work environment overdosed with fright. (27)


Once we identify a dream, things become clear. We see where resistance is coming from, why it's happening, what our part is in keeping it alive, and what it takes to mold the organizational imagination to focus more on the positives of change and less on the negatives. The organizations and the people that will succeed in changing are those that master the art of living in the future and advancing toward it from the past, able to convert the friction of resistance into positive propulsion. (33)


Organizations are like minds, and change initiatives are like psychotherapy for these minds. They are especially alike in the reasons they fail: the wrong therapies, too many conflicting therapies, the wrong therapists, or, the most common problem of all, patients who have not made up their minds to get well. (33-4)


When a company says one thing outwardly and does another thing inwardly, the outcome isn't change but cynicism the disbelief that things will ever improve. (36)


Few managers have paid much of a price for going change-crazy. Their resume looks good and they get a better job somewhere else! (37)


Change fails when workers lose faith in the change leadership has proposed. It succeeds when leaders understand and anticipate trust issues going in to the initiative and honestly address them. Caring leadership must find the right balance and sequence of Push and Pull efforts for the organization or team, given its culture and history. Push to get people's attention, Pull to galvanize their commitment. That is the big picture of successful change. (41)


The little picture of change is the attention that must be paid to the human side of the change challenge. (41)


Three kinds of change:

  • global change (that which happens around us),
  • organizational change (the interventive change initiatives) and
  • personal change (the micro changes that assail us as individuals). (42)


We prioritize. We find a way to deal with hunger, crying children, relationships, circumstances. These issues can fill our comfort zone.Unknown people, unfamiliar situations, difficult ideas we put these in a category to ignore, the kill zone. Too much change in too many people will stifle the organization's flexibility, its will to change. People will turn their backs on new ideas until they find new space for change. Making space in others for change goes to the heart of leadership. (43-45)


Visualizing the future is the venue of the right brain. But the task of actually constructing roads toward that vision of the future is the purview of the left.(50)


Since the day after the wheel was invented, change initiatives have been instituted to overcome the negative effects of the change initiative that came just before.(51)


Deming's philosophy summarized (in his own words): People matter.(52)


Our thesis was that people will not go along with any change in organizational direction or momentum unless and until they get their personal needs met in some way. (56)


Some people are very proactive and some are very reactive.The reactive must be terrorized while the proactive can be pulled.Some are task oriented and some are people oriented. The four personality types look like this in regard to change:

  • Drivers are people who are willing to lead. Metaphiles.
    They love action. They get it done. They aren't the most reflective people in the world. Pushed, they become tyrants.
  • Expressives. Their natural mode is exploration. Metamaniacs.
    They have to be changing to function. They are not the most objective reporters. Their minds keep supplying new facts that they like better than the real facts.
  • Amiables are lovable. Metaphobes. Their change mode is resistance.
  • Analyticals are tight, but they are also usually right. They may be brilliant but they are metamorons. Their change mode is denial. Accountants make poor generals. (58-9)


Team leaders and managers must address individuals according to their predilections. (60)


The more stress your situation piles upon you, the smaller your change space becomes. (66)


The authors provide an Organizational Profile to help evaluate your organization's change culture. The categories are Leadership, Values, Culture, Rewards, Performance Feedback, Communication, Systems, and Teamwork. Four choices are given for each category. Each choice represents Pummel, Push, Pull, or Pamper.(See pages 70-72)


Ten common irrational Ideas listed by Ellis and Harper in the 50's can be applied to change initiatives [my paraphrase, dlm]:

  1. One must be loved and approved for everything one does.
  2. One must be competent and achieving in every respect.
  3. Some people are bad and must be blamed and punished.
  4. It is catastrophic when things don't go the way we want them to.
  5. People have no control over unhappiness, which comes from the things that happen to them.
  6. One should be terribly upset if something may be dangerous.
  7. It is easier to avoid difficulties and responsibilities than to take positive action.People can be sitting around a table discussing an idea, nodding emphatically, and still be in an all-out flight from the idea they are nodding about.
  8. The past is all-important.
  9. People and things should be different from the way they are and solutions must be immediate and perfect.
  10. Maximum happiness is passively enjoying oneself. (73-74)


Play dead, and maybe the problem will go away. (75)


Until participants can picture in their minds what their tasks and their roles will be when this change is complete, they will probably just nod their heads and not comply. (79)


Yoking Push and Pull to get the greatest change response means being the good cop and the bad cop at the same time, being open to other people's visions while having your own plan, being caring and at the same time doing whatever works. (81)


A plan is not the words...but the understanding that exists in the minds of participants. It is the organization's vision of the future reduced to clear, comprehensible action steps. (82)


A common mistake managers make is to cook up a plan on their own, usually at a swanky resort, and spring it on workers as a done deal no improvements invited. Leaders must get workers behind a plan and involve them in it from the very beginning. Not only does this elicit valuable information and practical feedback, but it also starts the change juices flowing in everyone.(82)


Say the word change to any randomly selected group, and you will likely get three different types of responses. Some throw up their hands and say, God, not again.Others say, Well, it's about time. The third group will simply throw up. (83)


Step-by-step initiation of change: (84)

  • Announce what you want the outcome to look like.
  • Lay out the vision till they being to see it. Engage their imaginations.
  • Designate an enthusiastic pilot group of proactives.
  • Have them play with and modify the idea.
  • Give them time and resources so they can make the change and show measurable success.
  • Broadcast the heck out of the success.

Have those who lived the change mentor and teach others how they did it.

Then roll the change effort out exponentially, first with 2 groups, then 4, then 16, etc.


Nearly every organizational problem has a solution, if one is willing to take extreme measures. The bad news is that most solutions create undesirable side effects, and that most solutions do involve extreme measures. (86)


The authors list 13 problems and assess the prognosis for correction. Only two problems they list as unchangeable (except by removal): people unable to change and obtuse top leadership. (87)


Push is the deliberate application of one kind of stress to distract people from another kind of stress. Either way, it hurts. In Pull, such manipulation is unacceptable. We call the Pull approach living in the future because that is how it works. (88)


If you're out on a well drilling platform in the ocean and the platform is on fire, Push is the way to go. (88)


No one changes when the going is good. (89) Leadership is defined in part by the ability to get people to agree both on present dangers (Push) and on a vision of the future (Pull) that will enable them to overcome those dangers. (89)


Organizations predispose themselves to failure by attempting an undertaking so ambitious that success is impossible.(91)


People rise to the challenge when it's their challenge. (92)


Most workers see themselves as so remote from the vision and leadership of their own organizations that the distance has created a strange rift.(95)Rebuilding confidence means teaching cynical teams how to dream again. (96)


Humor is how people cope with insanity. Get people laughing and poking fun and you have, at the very least, made a team of them. An ounce of Dilbert is worth a ton of Drucker.(100)


The battle to ignite organizational confidence is the most important one your change initiative must fight. (100)


The key figure in successful organizational change is the changemaker. A changemaker may have little position power. What is essential, however, is power of personality. We are talking about the powers of commitment, integrity, and consideration that can provide great leverage to even a shaky idea. (104)A changemaker's job is to make change safe for the people it affects. (105)


Regarding actually getting to know the workers:People rally around self-revealing behaviors. Physical proximity sends several messages: I acknowledge your existence. I do not think I am too good for you. I am not hiding from you. I do not have eleven and a half heads. (107)


True changemakers operate outside themselves, their ego, and their need for recognition. It is in their nature to be interested in the well-being of all parties in a change effort, because without their success, the change has little chance of succeeding. So their method is essentially Socratic, eliciting information, asking questions, never satisfied with the surface explanation, always going deeper to learn more. Listening is a Pull discipline. When the people are talking, listen. The information in their remarks is valuable and provides many clues, without which the changemaker will not be making much change. (109)


Success is not in pushing your personal agenda but getting outside your agendas long enough to learn what the prospective buyer's agenda is. And tailoring the product to meet that customer agenda to a T. The changemaker must treat the organization, or the team, as a customer, to be listened to, understood, fitted, and served. The ideal solution is a cocreation of the changemaker and everyone else in the organization or on the team. The product of change must be everyone's; it is always tailor-made. (109)


Three Do-or-Die rules for Leaders (111)

  1. Lay off the duplicity.
  2. Lay off the executive ego.
  3. Lay off the intimidation.


Communicating change requires scrupulous honesty, because to be caught in a lie is to end communication.But it also requires artistry and delicacy; artistry to select words that cut straight to the emotional heart of the matter and delicacy so as not to slice through an artery. (116)


People hear things in radically different ways, all the while nodding as if they were tracking what is being said on radar. (I understand, he lied.) (116)


Each was listening to their inner voice, not to what the other person was saying. The conversation is nothing but dual-monologues. (117)


How Different Types of Personalities are Likely to Communicate (Change) (118)

        Analyticals (metamorons)
Uncomfortable with change but often gifted at critiquing and explaining it.

        Amiables (metaphobes)
Naturally skilled in conversation, but not in directing it toward action.

        Drivers (metaphiles)
Natural teachers and defenders of change. Not always great listeners.

        Expressives (metamaniacs)
Terrific emoters and inspirers. Shaky reporters.


The Change Checklist (132-33)

  • Are you low on oil? (the lotion you rub on people to let them know you see what they are doing and that they are doing OK.)
  • Are you ready for the results you asked for? (Sometimes you can be taken by surprise.)
  • Did you bring enough cash? (Underfunded initiatives are endangered.)
  • How's your follow-up? (Continued coaching keeps people from reverting.)
  • Are you willing to make a down payment of pain?(The high price of change is mistakes.)
  • Who is with you? (How many are solidly behind the idea? You can't do this alone.)


A leader is someone who understands where people are going, and stands in front of them. (133, quoting Gandhi)


The saddest reason for change's failure is that it was the wrong change. (172)


Insightful short section on leadership, p. 172 ff. The craze surrounding leadership is the most curious development of the Aquarian era of organizational thinking. There are other leadership paradoxes. One of the strangest is seeing people lining up and paying money to learn how to become leaders. (173)


We need leaders to keep us on point to lead. And we need them to give us a point or vision to focus on. (173)


Management by wandering around was one of the first ideas Tom Peters put forth that caught the imagination of managers. The idea is simply that executives and other managers can learn more about their organizations by getting out and seeing things firsthand than by examining monthly reports.It lets managers find out what's eating employees and do something about it, before the irritations fester into full-blown pustules. (183)


How do you walk around when the around is transglobal? You walk when you can walk, and you use other means when you have to.(183)


Feedback is the breakfast of champions. (183, quoting Ken Blanchard)


The most important skill of managers and leaders in the years to come will be conversation. (184, quoting Alan Weber)


Culture is tough to consciously change because it is seldom consciously put in place to begin with. Instead, it usually arises unbidden from employees perceptions of the boss's personality. Of all the attributes an organization has, culture is the most human, and it will not yield quickly or easily to any mechanistic solution.Suggestions: if you are CEO or team leader, and you have been in that position for a significant period of time, and you perceive that the group you lead needs a life-giving jolt to the heart of its culture, go away. Chances are excellent that you are at least part of the problem and not the best person to lead to its solution.(189)


A company's core competency is whatever talent or skill or knack it has, as an organization, that it dare not abandon. It's the most valuable knowledge a company has, its true, essential product or service. (192)


In the wake of all this wisdom, organizations everywhere are scratching their heads trying to determine what their core competency is. Guess what? Most of us are extremely plain vanilla. We don't have any core competency beyond being ourselves and bringing whatever unique charm we can to the business at hand. (192)


The fallacy is that two or more cultures can collide and simply merge together like molten glass; they tend rather to shatter, more like cold glass. (192)


Want to make a hit at your next board meeting?Announce a major change initiative with the words, Let's take this organization down the path of total chaos. Chaos is the ultimate out-of-the-box thinking. (210)