“I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.” —Daniel Boone, American frontiersman and pioneer

Many team and organization change and improvement efforts are lost or badly bewildered. Decades of studies have consistently shown that 50–70 percent are failing. There are as many reasons that improvement endeavors lose their way, as there are people, teams, and organizations trying to improve.

Some change and improvement efforts have been hugely successful. They’ve seen increases in response times, cycle times, customer service, quality, teamwork, morale, productivity, innovativeness, cost effectiveness, and the like in the dozens or even hundreds of percentages. Others have been somewhat successful in some areas of their improvement activities. And some ended up in the swamp.

In reflecting upon decades of our consulting experience and reviewing the research, it is clear that a core number of execution problems or failure factors are common to all of the team, organization, and individual improvement efforts.

The Top Five Failure Factors

“Our tendency is to try things out capriciously. . . without an in-depth grasp of their underlying foundation, and without the commitment necessary to sustain them. When a new idea fails, we give up instead of investigating the causes of failure and addressing them systematically.”  Richard Tanner Pascale, Managing On The Edge

1. Priority Overload

Many managers have confused motion with direction and “busywork” activity with meaningful results. They are like the pilot who announced; “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is we’re lost. The good news is we’re making great time.” A big part of the problem is that many people measure their effectiveness by volume (quantity) rather than whether real value is being added (quality). Many organization improvement efforts have about as much impact on performance as everyone in a passenger jet flapping their arms to help the plane fly.

A management group of a struggling administrative section in a large bureaucratic organization, was discussing how well they’ve done in moving “dockets” through their organization. “Let’s not forget how much work we’ve moved through our sector in the last year,” they reminded each other. Yeah, but. . . how much of it really mattered? I later discovered they had a list of 37 urgent goals and objectives. Little meaningful progress was being made because everything needed to be done — now.

People who get little done often work a great deal harder. They seem to live by the French Cavalry’s motto, “When in doubt, gallop.” How hard you work is less important than how much you get done.

2. Partial and Piecemeal

The senior management team of a large national retailer that had enjoyed a dominant position in its markets, realized they had to make a number of radical changes to drive down their overhead costs while boosting customer service. They hired consultants and launched a series of major reengineering and improvement projects in warehouse and shipping logistics, market positioning, renovating stores, revamping product lines, customer service training, information technology, and the like. Besides having a fuzzy focus to all this, the efforts were not well coordinated. Each group fiercely protected and isolated their own initiative or project. Most of the projects floundered amidst political infighting, segmentation, and confusion. Higher performing, new competitors are now mauling the company.

Many improvement efforts are too narrow and segmented. Broad, system-wide, ’cause and effect’ issues aren’t identified and addressed. Improvement teams work with bits and pieces of processes and systems.

3. No Improvement/Change Infrastructure or Process

Developing a rigorous improvement process with a highly disciplined follow-through is a big problem for many less successful organization and personal improvement efforts. As with New Year resolutions, a burst of energy and good intentions may get things started. But little time is often invested in developing ongoing improvement plans, habits, or approaches. Even less time is devoted to reviewing, assessing, and reflecting on successes, problems, and lessons learned. And so opportunities to reenergize ourself, others on our team, or in our organization are missed.

Another improvement process problem is not involving those who will ultimately make the effort work in planning for it (or sometimes even understanding why, how, what, and who). Poor communication skills and processes compound the problem further.

4. Fuzzy Focus

Too many organization improvement efforts are disconnected from the burning issues that keep senior managers awake at night. Improvement for the sake of “making things better,” getting people involved, forming teams and fostering teamwork and other equally noble but vague goals is too defused and unfocused. A team or organization’s ultimate customers and external partners are often lost in the improvement haze as well. Their needs and expectations aren’t the primary driver of all improvement activities. And the improvement work isn’t framed within the larger context of a personal, team, or organizational picture of the preferred future, principles, and purpose.

5. Leadership Lip Service

The single most critical variable to the success of a team or organization improvement effort is the behavior of those leading it. Successful improvement efforts are led by people who are highly involved leaders. They model, use, and live the approaches they are asking their team or organization to use. Unsuccessful team or organization improvement efforts are headed up by managers who’ve done little more than give permission and then delegated the details to others to take care of. Often they pay lip service, perhaps even passionate lip service, to the importance of customers, quality, teams, innovation, reengineering, new technologies, discipline, training, and the like. Although their words declare otherwise, their actions loudly shout, “you ought to improve in these areas. But I am too busy, already skilled enough, or have more important things to do.”

Each of these failure factors are bad enough on their own, but the more of them you combine, the deadlier they become.