Fostering Transformation Triumph: Why Corporate Change Has a Massive Failure Rate and What to Do About It

We all know it to be true: “Change is the only constant in life” (Heraclitus of Ephesus c. 535 BC – 475 BC). The same applies to business, of course. Not only is it a critical competitive advantage to be adept at change, companies know they must evolve to survive. It’s one of the things that keeps business executives up at night, because the ability – or inability – to continuously transform determines both who leads… and who loses.

It is also understood that the majority of corporate transformations founder, to great expense and negative impact on everyone involved. There are myriad opinions on why change initiatives crash and burn, ranging from execution to lack of alignment, incongruous timing, unpredictable external factors, and more. So, it’s no surprise that almost half of 534 corporate executives surveyed by Oracle and Forbes in a report, “Making the Change: Planning, Executing and Measuring Successful Business Transformation,” believed that their organization was “only somewhat or not at all prepared to successfully execute a business transformation today.” The path to corporate success is littered with failed change exploits, resulting in wasted dollars and jaded employees.

On the flip side, when people impacted by change are invested in the process, there is a significantly greater probability that the transformation will flourish. A March 2010 study conducted by McKinsey, “What successful transformations share: McKinsey Global Survey,” revealed that ~75% of the respondents from companies that experienced “extremely successful” transformations involved staff members in defining the change strategy on the front-end of the initiative. When ownership is shared across an organization and/or transformation is driven from within the ranks, success rates for organizational change rocket to an astounding 79%. Undeniably, audience engagement results in audience resonance and “sticky” transformation.

Despite this reality, companies often make decisions about organizational transformation (as well as other corporate strategy, process and content decisions) from the comfortable confines of a conference room, without the input and insight of key constituents who will be impacted by the change, which – in many cases – is probably the most vital intel. Based on cited research and results, the inside-out approach to change does not foster adoption nor success.


This begs the question: What if change was driven from the outside-IN? If three fourths of corporate executives experienced success with transformation initiatives when they engaged staff in strategy definition, change management practices that do not incorporate constituent inputs need to… change. Imagine how the potential for transformation triumph can increase when external audience (e.g., customers, partners, etc.) inputs are added in the mix, as well.

At the core, the outside-IN approach to transformation is all about asking the right questions of the right people in the right way, at the right time across the change lifecycle. In doing so, we are able to derive the insights required to identify, prioritize, clarify, create, drive, execute, and measure change initiatives. Asking questions is part and parcel of communications. Asking the *right* questions to elicit true insight that will solve problems and seize opportunity is a skill – and vital to successful change management.

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U2’s frontman Bono said, “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.” One mega beverage company can attest to that, to the tune of $30 Million in unwanted product and a black eye to the beloved brand – a failed launch that many will remember from the 1980s.


Coca-Cola conducted more than 200,000 taste tests for a new formula that was developed to compete with the sweeter-tasting Pepsi in response to a decline in market-share and an influential younger demographic. The questions that were asked in the tests were focused on palate preferences. The questions they did not ask was what the response would be if the new taste replaced the original formula. The outcome was disastrous. Three months and a few hundred thousand angry phone calls and letters later, Coca-Cola pulled all the “New Coke” off of the shelves and launched yet another costly campaign to re-brand old Coke as “Coca-Cola Classic.” They had asked plenty of questions of consumers in focus groups… but not the right questions that would lead to consumer engagement, enhanced brand loyalty and change ROI. The reality is that we often do not know if we are asking the right questions until the execution phase of a transformation – when it is perhaps too late in some cases – but this example does emphasize the importance of thoroughly questioning ourselves and impacted audiences about expected impacts of the change process.

There are many current studies and perspectives on how to ask questions that will generate meaningful response, including a recent article from Harvard Business Review, “The Surprising Power of Questions,” that stated the impact of “closed” questions on response because they introduce bias, which implies that multiple choice and yes/no prompts will not generate honest and helpful replies. Celeste Headlee, author of the lauded book, “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter,” advises that open-ended questions that start with “who,” “what,” “why,” “when,” “where,” or “how” will get the most interesting (and perhaps illuminating) responses, and that complex questions elicit simple answers, therefore simplify to obtain more robust response.


At the outset, companies need to ask themselves and impacted constituents:

  • How are we identifying and prioritizing transformation opportunities and needs in our organization?
  • Can the planned change be clearly defined based on need or opportunity? In other words, WHY is the change important and what is the expected result?
  • Do we have the most pertinent inputs that will help drive decisions about transformation?
  • What are the potential barriers to change adoption and how can they be mitigated or eliminated?
  • Are we asking the right questions about how to improve our organization’s results?
  • Who will be immediately and ultimately impacted by the transformation – both internally and externally – and how can the organization enable engagement and assimilation of the change?
  • Are the right people in place to feed and lead the change process?
  • How can we know if you are making the right changes to accomplish our objectives?
  • What are the communications processes to facilitate alignment and collaboration during the transformation definition and execution?
  • How will we measure results of the transformation to know if it was a success?

Asking provocative questions within the organization will illuminate the path forward for a resonant change initiative.


Once these questions are addressed, there are several steps across the transformation process that can be fueled and/or led by people outside the core change management team to enhance success:

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1) IDENTIFICATION of transformation opportunities, including prioritization of needs and clarification of specific change requirements.

Customers, partners, and employees should all have feedback mechanisms to the business for ongoing process improvement input. Trends in feedback should be channeled to change management leaders to fuel decisions about transformation needs and opportunities. Constituents potentially impacted by change can provide valuable insight into what needs to happen first, whether out of requirement or for enhancement. When scoping out the initiative, external parties to the transformation team can provide critical input on which tactics will have the greatest positive effect on the overall transformation.

2) CREATION of change strategy, goals and metrics, encompassing definition and ownership of tactics and timeline.

Gathering fodder from impacted audiences to fuel the plan will help ensure an on-target strategy. Do the plan strategy and goals align with the needs or opportunity that prompted the change? How will success be measured during the plan execution? Engage staff in identifying and leading tactics that support the strategy and goals. Have them take ownership for execution, working within deadlines that are collaboratively established vs. dictated.

3) EXECUTION through communication/engagement with audiences, including measurement of results.

Because communication strategy should always be an integral part of change management, collaborate with internal audiences impacted by the change throughout the execution stage to identify ideal communications channels and create resonant content for constituents. Distribute metrics and feedback mechanisms to relevant impacted parties for change execution, adoption and evolution to garner ongoing insight into transformation results.

Result of Evolving from Change Management to Change Engagement

By applying an outside-IN, question-driven approach to transformation initiatives, organizations will be better positioned to maximize potential ROI through more frictionless change adoption and distributed ownership. A bonus of this method is that, through consistent practice, the organization’s culture can shift to be more inquisitive and engagement-focused overall, increasing resonance with key audiences across multiple business functions. More importantly, asking the right questions of constituents as an integral part of the process can mean the difference between change collapse or transformation triumph.

Co-authored by Trish Nicolas and Rich Litner. Trish is co-founder and principal with Sales Resonance, which has partnered with Litner Consulting to offer communications-infused change management counsel. Rich is the founder and principal of Litner Consulting. With more than 70 years of collective experience, the Litner Consulting/Sales Resonance partnership enables businesses to drive resonant, successful change by grounding transformation in audience insight and engagement.


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