I’ve just completed a two-day retreat with a fast-growing leadership team. They scored themselves at the lowest levels we’ve seen on our Team Dynamics Survey. Rarely do we see a leadership team as dysfunctional as this one. Their unique products and growing revenues were papering over many huge cracks and barely holding them together. The CEO and second generation owner of this family business was completely frustrated, very unhappy, and hated coming into work every day.

18th century American explorer, Daniel Boone, once said, “I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.” This team was quite bewildered. They’d slipped and face-planted into all five of the following failure factors I’ve noted over decades of research, writing, and consulting work.

The Top Five Failure Factors


1.  Priority Overload

Less effective managers (often micromanagers) confuse motion with direction and “busywork” activity and meaningful results. They’re 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 measuring effectiveness by volume (quantity) rather than whether real value is added (quality). Many organizational change and improvement efforts have 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, were discussing how well they’ve done in moving paperwork through their organization. “Let’s not forget how many dockets we’ve moved through our sector in the last year,” they reminded each other.

Okay…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 we work is less important than what we accomplish.

2.  Partial and Piecemeal Programs

The senior management team of a large national retailer, enjoying a dominant position in its markets, realized they had to make several radical changes to reduce costs while boosting service levels. They hired consultants and launched a series of restructuring and improvement projects in warehouse and shipping logistics, branding, renovating stores, revamping product lines, customer service training, IT systems, and the like.

Besides having a fuzzy focus, the efforts were uncoordinated. Each group fiercely protected its own initiative or project. Most of the projects floundered amid political infighting, turfdom, and miscommunication. Higher performing, newer competitors are now mauling the company as it heads toward bankruptcy.

Many change and improvement efforts are too narrow. Broad, system-wide, cause-and-effect issues aren’t identified and addressed. Project 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 slipping hazard for many less successful organization and personal improvement efforts. As with New Year’s 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. Opportunities to reenergize members of the team or organization are missed.

A big — and too common — change blunder is not involving those who will ultimately make the effort work in planning for it. Often, they don’t even understand the why, how, what, and who of the changes thrust on them. Poor communication skills and processes compound the problem further.

4.  Fuzzy Focus

Too many change and organization improvement efforts are disconnected from the vital strategic issues keeping senior managers awake at night. Improvement for the sake of “making things better,” getting people involved, employee engagement, retention, fostering teamwork, and other noble but vague goals are defused and unfocused.

A team or organization’s ultimate customers and internal/external partners are often lost in the improvement fog as well. Their needs and expectations aren’t the primary driver of improvement activities. Rarely is the improvement work 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 development or organization improvement effort is the behavior of those leading it. Successful transformations 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 projects or improvement efforts are headed by managers who’ve done little more than give permission and then delegate 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, engagement, leadership development, new technologies, safety, 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.”

If You Don’t Change Where You’re Headed, You’ll End up There

Some change and improvement efforts have been hugely successful. They’ve created increases in customer service, quality, teamwork, engagement and retention, safety, agility, productivity, innovation, profitability, and the like in the dozens or even hundreds of percentages. Others have been somewhat successful in some areas of those improvement activities.

But most change programs slip and fall. The frantic activities are lost or badly bewildered. A classic Harvard Business Review article by Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria on “Cracking the Code of Change” concludes, “The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail.”

The leadership team I just worked with had a productive two-days together. They’ve recognized how they’ve been slipped on all five of these failure factors. They agreed on their organization and team vision/values, moose issues to be addressed, and strategic imperatives. They’re in a much better position to boost team and organizational effectiveness.

As ancient wisdom teaches, “The first part of the cure is the wish to be cured.” The team rebooted their leadership. They’ve fallen, but they can get up. Of course, charting a new path is the easiest part. The ultimate test is whether they follow through and change direction to end up in a better place.