Why change processes mostly fail, and how you can prevent that from happening  an interview with Dr. Martin Zierold


Digital transformation, organization development and cultural leadership are the areas of which Prof. Dr. Martin Zierold from the Hamburg Academy of Music and Theater and Hamburg has a profound knowledge. On the “Culture and Media Management” study course, his students learn for example how to manage change processes. Martin Zierold also shares his knowledge as a systemic coach, teaching coach and advisor for change processes in the worlds of culture, science and industry. 


What exactly does “change management” mean?

When I use the terms in everyday parlance I don’t distinguish between change management, organization development and transformation. Even though there are of course technically diverse and in fact competing definitions. In practice, for me change management means helping organizations to respond constructively to shifting framework conditions, and to approach them proactively and strategically.

How successful are change projects in practice?

There is a relatively large amount of research that states change projects in the business context are for the most part not successful. But you have to bear in mind how the data has been collected and who is interested in the verdict. Often, consultancy firms commission such studies to make the point that change processes can only work with their support. So I would always approach them with skepticism.

However experience has shown that change projects are some of the toughest nuts to crack. Projects launched in a flurry of ambition fail because of their lofty goals or are only completed in fragments. There is no rule that says change projects are always doomed to fail, but the risk is high and the processes are complex. That diagnosis can be reached both based on day-to-day empiricism and from the evidence of studies.

What are the most common reasons for failures?

Two often-quoted reasons are that the organization does not acknowledge any adequate reason for a change, and/or no clear, common goal is defined. In practice I see collective psychological strain is often the trigger for movement, except that people can’t agree which direction to take. A small group then embarks on a project, which however does not have sufficient legitimacy and authorization, and half a year later they get frustrated because everyone else isn’t pulling together. It is important to achieve a common understanding that something needs to change, and a sense of how to get there. Other factors for failure are often a lack of expertise in handling change processes, and also the duration of the project. A project can be scheduled far too short, but also too long. And the support of the management level is of course also an important aspect.

Is there a psychological factor?

Certainly; there are actually a great many: One psychological effect, for example, is a kind of immunization. If an organization has learned that the manager disappears to their summer retreat every year so that their new ideas just end up as another flash in the pan, fresh ideas that are actually important will no longer be taken seriously. So previous failures make future successes less likely – a classic psychological effect. Speaking from my professional experience, I can also say virtually no change project happens without resistance. Managers ought to get worried if there is no sign of resistance. Because resistance often means nothing other than that there was something worth preserving in the past. So from a psychological perspective, resistance to change is nothing negative; it is usually a form of identification with the organization.

Are there differences in the way change processes unfold in cultural organizations, industry and politics, or are they similar because they are always about people?

I would say both apply. Let’s look at the field of culture. If you were to ask: “Does it tick just the same way as a commercial enterprise?” I would immediately say no. So if I am doing a change project with an external consultant who uses business administration terminology, that in itself can lead to rejection even though the content they are presenting is correct. The big challenges in change projects are always in the sphere of culture and communications. How should you talk? What will be accepted? What will be rejected? In the end, it is about honesty, reliability and taking feelings seriously, and in that respect a commercial enterprise is no different from a theater or university.

What advice do you have for Hamburg@work members? Do you have any specific hints?

Every organization is different, so I wouldn’t try to rely too much on a checklist approach, you should explore your own organization in depth. How is the mood, what are the issues, can you identify fellow combatants? For complex projects, I would also consider bringing in external consultancy to help shape the process without dictating the outcome. And you should strike the right balance between wanting change and preserving what works, and at the same time not be too much of a drain on people’s time. In change management, you can also learn a lot from agile methods, so you should break the processes down into small steps. A cyclical approach has the advantage that you can keep readjusting. 

I think the concept of stance is also very important. Every change brings uncertainty so you need a good manner for dealing with employees. What form of cooperation do we want, what values do we want to embrace including in change? Because how we handle change also defines what comes after it. For example if I see greater autonomy as the goal of change, I need to let my employees contribute autonomously to the process. 

At this uncertain and highly dynamic time it is all the more important to have something like an inner orientation that is expressed in your stance. So stance is the most important tool without actually being a tool.

How has change management changed since 1980, including through issues such as digitalization and globalization?

We used to have the patriarchal approach of leadership and management, the boss dictated the strategy and the employees had to implement it. Specifically for change processes it then transpired that that often didn’t work. Because highly qualified people don’t like other people interfering with their area of work and competencies. The first area that change management addressed was the rhetorical plane, directives from management level came with a sweetener to make them easier to swallow. Workshops were held with participative processes, though these often led to quite some frustration because they were really only accessories and any impetus they yielded was allowed to die a quiet death.

Today, many organizations have moved away from the top-down model. Reasons include Generation Y, different forms of work, our knowledge-based society, and digitalization. Employees are allowed to actively shape matters and act. The leadership merely provides guidelines and direction. This historical development has taken place over several decades – and of course is not yet by any means universally accepted.