Why Change Agents Are Destined To Fail

As part of my day job, I often counsel clients who ask if they should bring in a change agent, like a new CEO or CMO who “thinks radically different from us.”

My answer is almost always a resounding “No.” And if that leaves any doubt, I will add, “Please, for the sake of your business, don’t.”

I understand the desire for the change agent, because when you’ve gone beyond the point of exasperation, you’re ready to try anything. And sometimes the dramatic change in leadership is really needed. But let me explain why I think bringing in a revolutionary change agent in most instances is a very bad idea.

First of all, industry literature is littered with examples of failed change agents. Just Google Julie Roehm and Walmart, Jack Griffin and Time Inc., or Ron Johnson and J.C. Penney if you want to read about well-documented, fairly high-profile journeys that ended with a  loud thud. There are also reams of academic studies that explain the reasons change agent leaders fail.



Change is incredibly hard and is actually unnatural to the human condition. No matter how “out there” you think you are, even you will find it difficult to change something as simple as, for instance, starting your daily shave on the other cheek, or changing the order in which you put on your clothes each morning. Try it if you don’t believe me -- it takes a true and conscious effort.

Typically, the C-suite hires the change agent. They define the change they want, they find the person that they believe can deliver it, and then place him or her on a podium in front of the whole company, saying “This is the person to change everything for us -- and trust us, we will be better for it.”

At that point, one third of the company will cheer loudly -- because they are the people who think, “At last we have someone who is going to be open to doing things differently. I have always said this place stinks, and here is the person to set things right. Hurray!”

A second third of the company will think “Whatever -- it will probably lead to nothing -- and besides, I am quite happy with the way things are...”

And the final third of the company will think, “Over my dead body! Who does this person think he/she is? They don’t understand anything about our business. If everybody would just leave me alone, I will do my job the way I know it works best.”

And there you have your recipe for disaster: two thirds of the company is at best uncommitted or worse, completely dead-set against change from the start.

In my experience, it’s far better to find someone who has about 65% the same DNA as the company, and 35% of something new. That way, proposed changes won’t feel like radical departures or complete turnarounds, but instead evolutionary and doable. This also applies to finding new marketing partners like agencies. Here, too, you’re better off with an agency that is not the diametric opposite of who you are.

The end result tends to be more positive, with less bloodletting and disruption. And even that guy Bruce in accounting will go along with it. Score!

5 comments about "Why Change Agents Are Destined To Fail".
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  1. Joseph Jaffe from HMS Beagle, LLC, November 2, 2015 at 12:07 p.m.

    So what you're saying @malbarda is not so much that change agents are destined to fail...but that they will fail if they are external / brought in from the outside v inside.

  2. Maarten Albarda from Flock Associates (USA), November 2, 2015 at 3:15 p.m.

    @jaffejuice: I think it is almost immaterial whether you bring in a swashbuckler from the outside or appoint a Chief Interruptor from the inside, either way is not the fastest way to change. For a change process I like the analogy of a marathon: push the company to the point where it might hurt a little bit, but everybody makes it to the finish without people getting hurt.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 2, 2015 at 6:16 p.m.

    Newspapers are a great partial example. (The other problems...well, another topic.)

  4. Mark Berns from MediaLink, November 3, 2015 at 9:23 a.m.

    Whether the company leader is from inside or outside isn't really relevant. The leader's thinking is more important than his or her last stop on the train - Einstein's quote about solving new problems with old thinking applies. What is important is the change process, which requires clear strategy and communication and the engagement of those affected by the change.

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics, November 3, 2015 at 9:51 a.m.

    Very good advice, Maarten. Not only will the new CMO or CEO be considered an "outsider" by all of those who work under him, but he (or she ) will soon find that the entrenched way of doing things is rigid and unyielding. Worse, no matter what those who hire this new "zero-based" talent promise, as soon as the organizational grumbling starts and no immedioate "miracle" is performed the new CMO/CEO will get thrown under the proverbial bus.

    As for how to effect changes and new thinking, I would say that a special task force of three or four top, but fairly young, people at the company---amply funded and empowered, including the hiring of qualified consultants---would be a better way to go than trying to find someone who has enough "outside" experience, plus knows how your company and industry works----that's a very tall order. Given about 6-12 months to do its job, such a task force would come up with an analysis and recommendations for management's consideration. Would management listen and act on said recommendations? Who knows as very often, management, itself, is part or all of "the problem".

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