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How many of your change initiatives are failing… Feel like you are herding cats?

Monday, 19 June 2023 | Van Rooyen, Karin

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How many of your change initiatives are failing… Feel like you are herding cats? Karin Van Rooyen - Human Being who works, laughs and plays @ pm.ideas

There are three constants in life; you are going to die; you are going to pay taxes and the only constant is change. So why is change so difficult and what can you do to enable change? During this blog post, I am going to highlight some factors that contribute to why your teams find change difficult and what can be done to make your life a little easier.

We are living in disruptive times and change is exponential. It is not going to slow down anytime soon. In the face of disruption, the problems facing organisations are so complex that they defy simple solutions, and leaders are often trying to navigate many competing and conflicting challenges and relationships when making decisions. Besides navigating this complexity, every solution which gets put on the table, requires teams to change their way of work. Any leader worth their salt will agree that changing people’s way of work and the behaviours which go along with it, is not easy.

How many times have you sat in an interview and explained that your organisation is fast paced, needs people who are self-directed, self-managed and can adapt to change frequently to meet the needs of your customers? The typical response from the person being interviewed is “I love change because I am easily bored, I thrive under pressure and working on a wide of range challenges and opportunities.”

During the first 100 days (the honeymoon period), the person undergoes training, gets to understand the job and now you expect them to step up to the plate. The pressure is turned on and they just can’t cope. Why does this happen? Firstly, majority of the people you will come across are naturally change resistant, secondly everyone loves change, provided it was their idea and thirdly, you have good people trapped in a bad system.

Based on the research gathered through various behavioural assessment tools, for example, DiSC, 69% of the world’s population are naturally change resistant. This means that on average 69% of the people in your organisation are change resistant. They are the majority of people you are going to be dealing with. They are very stable, steady and want to maintain the status quo. They like things the way they are. Their primary fear is change and they will cling to what is familiar and passively resist change.   However, when they come up with an idea or have a cause or solution which they believe in, they will fight to get their voice heard and can become quite stubborn and even quietly resentful.

The reality is that we sit with a conundrum; how do we move our organisations forward in tough operating conditions which need to pivot at a blink of an eye, whilst majority of people are naturally change resistant?

Work on these 5 areas for instant results:

1. Culture is the context in which all Change must happen.

Culture is simply the way we do things around here. An awesome company culture goes beyond the policies, procedures, ethics, values, employee behaviors and attitudes, goals and code of conduct. It involves open communication, mutual respect, shared goals, and a demonstrated commitment to employee growth and development. It is an environment of mutual influence. When people are treated as equal partners, they feel they have a voice.

Mutual influence occurs throughout shared decision making.

For example, in acts of deep inquiry, listening and response; when either person takes, cedes, or shares control or facilitates the other person’s ability to do so; when managers or team members adjusts the information they share based on their level of trust or to meet needs and when emotions and preferences are integrated into a collaboratively constructed decision.

Shared decision making is a dynamic process that occurs within the context of a relationship that includes trust and respect. This relationship may precede a decision or may develop while crafting a shared decision. It is imperative that your core values drive the right behaviours and foster an environment of mutual influence. Values are lived through demonstrated behaviour and not just pretty pictures and words on posters around the office. It becomes part of your Teams DNA.

2. Empower your Team to do great things. Get out of your Teams way and let them do the job they are employed to do.

You employ knowledge workers. People who are highly skilled and motivated to do their best work and delight the customers they serve. Majority of people in this world wake up in the morning and want to contribute to something great.

The problem is management gets in the way.

Any team needs a certain degree of autonomy and control in their day-to-day activities to thrive. Empowerment doesn’t mean that people can do whatever they want whenever they want. It means they have the freedom to act within boundaries and hold themselves accountable for the decisions they make or fail to make. When people are empowered, they produce great work, they problem solve better, and they don’t see change as a problem.

3. Make your workplace psychologically safe.

Innovation, problem solving, and change require diverse perspectives, and by its very nature, diverse opinions may cause emotional reactions. We must all work on making our workplace psychologically safe. Psychological safety is the belief that you won‘t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

How defensive is your culture? Do your teams take calculated risks and are they allowed to experiment and test hypothesis?

An organisations core reason of existence is to have delighted customers. If you have delighted customers, you will always have a successful organisation. However, many exec and management teams who initiate changes are so far removed from the customer and dictate changes. They expect their teams to just go with the flow, implement the changes, and not question things. And then wonder why initiatives fail and get frustrated when change is not happening quick enough.

In my career, I have sat in numerous boardrooms AKA “boring rooms” with an Exec team who want my advice on what they can do to accelerate change within their organisation. My response is always the same. 1. Understand that when your team’s perspective differs from yours, it simply means that they don’t experience the “world” like you do. 2. When teams stop questioning, you have a problem. They have lost their passion for the work, doing what they are told to do, and customers are suffering. 3. When teams question decisions, it is not to be difficult. It comes from a place where they care about the customers and have access to information which you don’t. They are the ones in the hot seat.

The quickest and most effective solution is to allow your teams to experiment and learn. You identified a problem or opportunity and may have even come up with potential solutions. Allow teams to test these options, see what works and what doesn’t. This is how you enable a learning organisation which embraces change.  

4. What you measure is the behavior you get.

It is easy to spend someone else’s money. Imagine for a moment, I told you that the next change initiative in your organisation was going to be funded out of your pocket? How would you respond differently compared to how you respond today? What kind of decisions would you make?

All teams are going to be governed and deserve to be governed well.

As much as we answer to shareholders who are investing in our companies to get a return on their investment, we need to drive the right behaviours. If you had to analyse your KPIs today, what percentage is linked to change, experimentation, learning, interpersonal skills, delighted customers and what’s next? Or is the focus on cost reductions, revenue increases, utilisation and profitability?

When the focus is purely on trailing metrics (lagging indicators), teams don’t have time for change. Leading indicators help predict future performance and drive the right behaviours to enable change. They allow you to see opportunities or obstacles coming your way. In other words, the writing is on the wall and if we don’t change, there will be dire consequences. Leading indicators are particularly valuable for creating a resilient team and business that is both flexible and adaptive. Leading indicators help you make decisions about the future and embrace change. You need a healthy dollop of both lagging and leading indicators to allow teams to pivot, course correct and create a sustainable organisation. What you measure is the behaviour you get. And what you measured three months ago, may be very different compared to what you need to measure today.

5. Fix the system, not the people.

Many change initiatives in an organisation fail or don’t realise their full potential because the change focuses on fixing or changing an individual function or team. It is no use having the “perfect’ culture, people, processes, data, and systems in one business unit, but the hand off to the next team in the system makes their life difficult and encourages dissatisfied customers.

A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behavior. Your organisation is a complex adaptive system. It is effectively a collection of interacting teams who deliver value to a customer. Every product or service you sell delivers value to a segment of customers. The way the customer experiences value is through their entire experience with your organisation, i.e., a value stream. Every team needs to collaborate with and support other teams. Each of these teams will learn and evolve its way of working over time.

We need to appreciate that high-level business processes and change initiatives often cross multiple systems and teams and seeks to optimise the entire process, not just the work of a single team.You are not going to have delighted customers if the sales team implements a change, does an awesome job in the sales process and then a couple of months later the customer needs assistance and contacts your customer service team, holds on for 45 minutes listening to a recorded message accompanied by a depressing tune. The customer finally gets through to a human being and because the human being is not empowered and needs to follow a script, they cannot give the customer the answers they need.

Every one of your teams has its own way of working – which is imperative.What works for some teams may not work for others. And even if a specific way of working does work for another team, there may be unintended consequences outside that team. Poor systems will defeat almost all but the greatest of people.

If we trust people, we don’t need to work on them; we need to improve the system.

The role of management is to create great systems so that people can work autonomously to achieve the organisations vision. You need to keep the customer experience at the core of all your decision making. It is not about “He who shouts the loudest, gets what they want”. Use your customer experience data to make informed decisions around your change initiatives. This makes your change initiatives less messy, and your teams will be less change resistant.

In the book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (1993), W. Edwards Deming wrote, “A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves… Components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system … The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization.”

In summary, to move your teams to what’s next quickly and effectively, you need to focus on:

  1. Drive the right culture. Culture is the context in which all Change must happen.
  2. Empower your Team to do great things. Get out of your Teams way and let them do the job they are employed to do.
  3. Make your workplace psychologically safe.
  4. Measure the right stuff. What you measure is the behavior you get.
  5. Fix the system, not the people.

Want to take a deeper dive to equip your Teams to navigate change? Climb onto our 2-day People and Organisational Change Management Course to kick-start your change transformation journey today!  


  •, October 29, 2019
  • The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education. W. Edwards Deming. Published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for, 1993.








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