Enabling change in a time of continuous disruption

A misleading myth

Change requires a combination of both honesty and authenticity. There is a long-held and predominant myth that 70% of all change efforts fail. This level of failures has been recognized as the absolute truth for over 30 years. But is is it really true? Where did this frequently cited number come from?

In their best-selling business book Reengineering the Corporation which was published in 1993 the authors James A. Champy und Michael Hammer state:

"Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended."

This is the origin of the myth of the failure of change initiatives. Over the years it has been cited by both by academics and professional consultants alike.

It turns out that no research was done to substantiate a 70% failure rate of change efforts. Not until 2006 was there a research effort which was undertaken to study change efforts in the public sector. The result? More thought-provoking results about change emerged. The results of the impact of change efforts were considerably more nuanced than the 70% myth would suggest:

31% of the change programs were very or moderately successful

43% of the change programs were somewhat successful

26% of the change programs were not successful

Looking at the results of this study, 74% of change initiatives had at least some success. This outcome underlines the fact that in reality, such efforts are not black and white and, as a matter of fact, there are many shades of grey in between. As a result, change initiatives cannot be viewed as either a perfect success or complete failure proposition. Nonetheless, the data emphasizes that change efforts are often not as successful as organizations would like to anticipate.

Now more than ever, change is a continuous force in today's business environment. Events like the pandemic or developments in artificial intelligence remind us daily that the rate of change is much slower today than it will be tomorrow.

Mastering the discipline to navigate disruption and change has become an imperative.

Is there a more down-to-earth and sensible way to champion change? The following reflections are based on decades of success (and failures) to enable change and provide companies with opportunities to gain sustainable momentum for adaption in our era of continuous disruption.

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Creating a sustainable culture to embrace and champion change

1) Beware of outside experts to drive your change initiatives

Ensemble Enabler’s rallying cry "True change comes from within" evolved out of first-hand experience partnering with our clients. Think about change from the perspective of trying to change a personal habit. It takes a considerable amount of will power and effort if a person wants to stop smoking or lose weight. This dilemma is no different for an organization.

Organizations need to own both its change strategy and the implementation of its change initiative. No amount of outside expertise can compensate for the spirit and energy emanating from inside of the organization. This approach is fundamental to make any change a sustainable reality. According to the study on the effectiveness of change efforts mentioned above, organizations which had successful change initiatives only used consultants 3% of the time. On the other hand, organizations with unsuccessful change initiatives were disposed to use consultants 35% of the time.

This is why a renewed perspective about how to collaborate with organizations in order to transform their businesses is vital for this era of disruption. Ensemble Enabler views its role as an ‘Enabler’ who partners with organizations to help transform their working environments. This is an acknowledgement that there is no true substitute for the internal determination which must be commonly shared by an organization’s employees to enable change. Through the use of our instruments and processes, Ensemble Enabler can support navigating the turbulence of change. However both the spirit and the management of the change process must remain firmly in the hands of the entire organization.

2) Be true to the purpose of your organization

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Change is not purely a cognitive process. Emotions play a significant role to ensure the success of any change initiative. When the objective of a change initiative is in harmony with an organization’s purpose (and vision), the more likely that its unique purpose will captivate the minds and hearts of employees and customers.

The company Patagonia is a leader in the outdoor gear and apparel industry which provides an excellent example of the power of purpose. In the early years of the business, founder Yvon Chouinard had created a profitable enterprise around making pitons, a type of gear for rock climbing. These pitons are a special kind of metal spike which are hammered into rocks in order to anchor a rock climber as he/she climbs. However by the hammering and extraction of pitons during a climb, the rock is permanently damaged. As an avid rock climber, Chouinard was aghast that he was directly contributing to the degradation of nature. From this personal realization, Patagonia’s purpose was born: "Do no harm". The change initiative which ensued was completely in harmony with the purpose of the organization: to create an alternative to pitons that would not damage the rock.

This change initiative proposed a potential existential threat to the organization, since at the time most of their business was making and selling pitons. However, the passion behind the vision sustained them throughout this transformational change process. The result? "Clean rock climbing" was invented by Patagonia through the development of so-called chocks and stoppers. This replacement for pitons became the norm throughout the industry. Aligning Patagonia’s change initiative with its purpose not only inspired its employees - it also inspired its customers.

Ensemble Enabler offers two powerful practices to support a company to unify a change initiative with its organizational purpose:


Interconnect a change message with the organization's purpose wins the hearts and minds of all involved in the change process.

“… if your purpose is to do amazing things or create things, you'll never run out of purpose because you're never done." 

Jim Collins, American researcher on business management, company sustainability and growth

Visual Enabling:

Multiply the impact of your change initiative by integrating the use of visuals to capture the entire picture of a meeting and/or workshop: both content and emotions. A picture is worth a thousand words.

“To do this requires a sensitivity with the energy of what is wanting to come through, an energy or vibe that has started to become tangible…” 

Kelvy Bird, Scribe and visual facilitator

3) Access your organization’s collective intelligence early in the change process

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Change initiatives of any size require the engagement of lots of people. Is it surprising that change processes often suggest steps which involve the mobilization of "coalitions" and "armies"?

Professor Jon Kotter of Harvard University, one of the leading experts on change advances just this kind of approach as part of his 8-step change process: Step 2 is "Build a Coalition" and Step 4 is "Enlist a Volunteer Army". These appear to be understandable proposals for action, but how can this be accomplished - especially the army part?

I believe that something very fundamental is missing here. The traditional idea is that management builds a compelling case for a change initiative. After the case has been made, many managers think that all that needs to be done is to communicate about the initiative. They assume that as a result enthusiastic supporters will sign up throughout the organization to carry the banner of change into battle.

Research has investigated this topic and determined that this is not how motivation actually works. People don't mind change. What they do mind is “being changed”. Every change initiative calls upon leadership to provide C-Suite commitment as well as inspiration for the process. However without the engagement of all employees throughout the organization, a change initiative will be “dead on arrival”.

Initiating a change process in which employees are incorporated on an equal footing to discover the changes which best meet their needs is key for its long-term impact. The involvement of employees and stakeholders early in the process, provides a unique opportunity to gain their insights and earn their moral support even before the initiative is launched.

This sounds good, but how does this really work in practice? 

The issue of workplace safety provides a good example. There were an unacceptable amount of workplace accidents in a manufacturing company we were working with. As a result a new set of safety guidelines for its factory was being implemented. Explicit issues were determined by experts and were non-negotiable. However, the routes which forklift vehicles were allowed to travel inside the factory introduced a “grey area”. Why not include employees to explore and recommend solutions for safety issues relating to the forklift vehicles in the factory? This involvement in the process not only fosters greater acceptance of the overall workplace safety package efforts, but in all probability will also identify safety solutions relating to the use of forklift vehicles as well!

Recognizing the power of collective intelligence to cultivate motivation as well as to foster inventive thinking about business issues throughout an organization, Ensemble Enabler has pioneered various practices to actively involve employees and stakeholders early in change initiatives. 

Dragonfly Problem-Solving:

Gain insights from multiple perspectives to resolve challenging business issues facing an organization.

"Ideas are the fuel that make the impossible possible."

 Bruce Oberhardt PhD,  Biomedical Entrepreneur

Thematic Large-Scale Events:

Use the power and wisdom of the crowd to mobilize resources throughout your organization.

“Collaboration is vital to sustain what we call profound or really deep change, because without it, organizations are just overwhelmed by the forces of the status quo.” 

Peter Senge PhD, Professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and Author of "The Fifth Discipline"

4) Till the field before you plant the seeds

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Communication, communication, communication. This is the mantra of every successful change initiative. Especially in a time of hybrid work and digital communication among employees, straightforward communication is fundamental. It is not the quantity of communication about a change initiative which enures the successful dissemination of transmission its message. This success is realized by the quality of communication

In other words, it is all about preparing the field so that when the seeds are planted, they will take root and thrive.

Quality communication means dialogue. Often management voices a reluctance to engage in dialogue because of a common misconception that its takes too much time: “We need to act and we need to act now” is a common stance. However embracing this approach is similar to a farmer who wants to plant seeds before first taking the time to till the field. Any farmer would certainly realize that “You get what you sow” and would therefore make the investment to till the soil before planting the seeds for next year’s crops.

With over 20 years of experience creating a broad spectrum of participatory formats to foster dialogue, Ensemble Enabler stimulates quality communication among employees at record speeds. One example is a a major re-branding initiative which engaged approximately 6,000 employees in 17 countries and in 13 languages throughout Europe in a 3 hour dialogue - all held within a 2 week period. The result? A much greater understanding and acceptance of the change initiative throughout the entire corporation.

The practices that we champion to make this quality of communication possible are:

The Leader as Teacher: 

Develop leaders not just as communicators but as both learners and teachers as well.

"Even while they teach, men (and women) learn." 

Seneca the Younger

Peer-to-Peer Learning:

Learn with and from each other enables individuals to learn better and more effectively. 

"When the world is predictable, you need smart people. When the world is unpredictable, you need adaptable people." 

Henry Mintzberg PhD,  Professor of Management Studies, McGill University

Learning Journeys:

Tackle complex issues such as organizational culture, disruption and change via digital, hybrid or face-to-face multi-faceted learning experiences.

"Wanderer, there is no path, the path is made by walking."
Antonio Machado, Spanish poet

5) Celebrate the small victories along the way

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Change fatigue and change doubt often begins to creep in during the course of an initiative. Many individuals have invested tremendous effort during the process. Yet arriving at the “promised land of change” still appears nowhere in sight. Be that as it may, many managers still want to see results just about this moment and press for more and more...

If the change process is long and arduous, how can employees’ enthusiasm and engagement be nurtured?

The secret is both simple and elegant. To take time out to breathe and realize the amazing accomplishments which have been achieved as a group to date. Celebrate and establish rituals which make the on-going progress both tangible and appreciated. It’s similar to a hike in the mountains. It doesn't matter if there are still 1.000 meters to climb. The fact is that the hiker has already climbed 800 meters. And with each additional step, the view gets better all the time!

System wide communication during the course of a change initiative is indispensable. Fostering this kind of company-wide communication is easily attainable through the use of today's digital technology. Unfortunately not enough companies avail themselves of this invaluable resource to promote communication throughout their organizations.

Ensemble Enabler has developed two approaches to address the challenge of communication during a change initiative. By integrating these approaches into a change initiative, an company benefits from the use of virtual formats to encourage communication throughout an organization – across teams, departments and geographies.

Community Learning:

Share business insights and learnings through large-scale virtual communication events.

"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." 

Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist

6) Demonstrate GRIT through the inevitable ups and downs of the change process

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How does an organization and its employees react when the inevitable reverses - the ups and downs of change management occur? This is a fundamental question for any change initiative. One must appreciate that change is not a linear process. Inevitably there will be setbacks. It is the leader’s responsibility to grapple with these setbacks with imagination and foresight.

All leadership is contextual and for this reason, context grounded in the business matters. Ensemble Enabler's leadership practices are distinctive by the fact that they are context based by design. As a result, leadership advancement initiatives are not carried out in a vacuum. Instead these leadership practices focus upon advancing the impact of a change initiative in real-time throughout the company.

Team Coaching:

Support teams to become unstuck, tap into their innovative mindset and reach the next level of performance.

"Great things in business are never done by one person. They're done by a team of people."  

Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder Apple Inc.

Leadership Sprints:

Develop capabilities and effectiveness of teams and networks in the context of a given leadership challenge.

"A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together." 

 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet and scientist

Mentoring Network Leaders:

Coach leaders to embrace a nimble approach to engage with disruption and change.

"Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality." 

Warren Bennis, Professor and Founding Chairman, The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California.

Approaching change from a perspective of a shared endeavor shifts the manner in which such initiatives are envisioned and carried out. Ensemble Enabler’s practices have been shaped by years of experience with companies of all sizes. Our commitment is to continually strengthen how we support companies in their change initiatives in order to enable "true change to come from within" these organizations. Ultimately It is the quality of the collaboration within your company which will determine the success of any change initiative.

Enable your organization to use the power of networks to identify sustainable business solutions with speed and effectiveness: Network Leadership -  Intentional Collaboration - Network Mindset

Make the shift from a V.U.C.A. to a W.I.S.E. World

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