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Why Change Management Efforts Fail to Produce Change

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Machiavelli wrote about the difficulty of change 500 years ago, and hundreds of personal and organizational self-help books later, we’re still struggling with it. 

The great majority of change management programs — new company missions, new products or business portfolios, restructurings, management realignments, growth and globalization programs, new technology applications, you name it — fail. 

Losers share some traits, and here are just a few:

• They adopt traditional communications practices that hurt the change process. Many a public relations professional says, “I know, we’ll brand our effort ‘Change 2009’ and have a newsletter about what we’re changing and give every employee a logo’d coffee mug — no, better yet, a screensaver — and we’ll build lots of momentum that way.” They will, in reality, be breeding employee cynicism and wasting money.

• They will approach change as a problem. Change is certainly a challenge, but it’s not the problem. Engagement is. And lots of smart people and companies try to suspend the laws of organizational behavior and roll out ideas about what to change, and where and how, hoping that employees will understand and embrace the change program. Employees (i.e., you and I) are naturally likely to question, criticize and resist the prescription for change, particularly if we had no role in the diagnosis. There was likely another change management program a couple of years ago, it failed, new managers were brought in, and you and I have seen all this crap before.

• They forget that change requires you to stop doing old stuff, displacing it with the new.  Instead, they somehow expect you to add new responsibilities and retain old duties, even though that combination is exhausting and counterproductive.   In other words, they in effect tell employees, “Here are new things for you to do that will change our future, but your old routines — which reinforce a past that we’re earnestly trying to leave — don’t go away. Furthermore, your performance objectives are still rooted to the behaviors we’re all trying to get away from.”

Sound familiar?  Have a story of change management failure or success to share?  

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, director, communications, Magna Powertrain, joined Magna in June of this year following 15 years at Carrier Corporation, a subsidiary of United Technologies, where he most recently served as director of global marketing communications for the Carrier Transicold Division. He has also been an adjunct professor of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. D’Angelo has written and lectured for more than 10 years about change management practices, incorporating his own professional experiences and benchmarking studies, as well as academic research, to advance conversations about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to change.

Join D’Angelo along with Gary F. Grates for Success at Change Management: The Importance of a Well-Designed Client/Agency Relationship at the PRSA 2008 International Conference: The Point of Connection, Sunday, October 26 in Detroit, Michigan!

About the author

Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • You might have a different perspective if you have ever managed a project to change over from an old software system to a new software system. No matter how long you run the old system in parallel to soothe the transition, it eventually goes away. People who have managed such projects know that the success of the changeover has nothing to do with the number of t-shirts or coffee mugs.

  • Thanks for your comment. I have managed software changeover efforts, but I’m not sure our perspectives are necessarily different. As I noted in my posting, the coffee mugs and other trinkets are typically part of the problem in many change management efforts, not part of the solution.

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