So Why Do Most Change Projects Fail?

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William Goldman

It’s almost two decades since I completed my primary degree.  During that time  I’ve read countless articles explaining why the majority of change projects fail.  The common wisdom back in the mid-90s was that about a third of them succeeded, and that figure seems to hold firm today.  Of course it’s a complex process and very difficult to sustain- even with the use of Heinkel bombers and Panzer tanks…just ask Adolf, Heinrich and Josef about that one.

The Irrational Side of Change Management which appeared in the McKinsey quarterly in 2009 is one of the better ones I’ve read.  It’s also always worth citing that well-known passage from The Prince where Machiavelli lays out the pitfalls of political and social change – “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success and more difficult to manage” due to those losing out being incandescent in their opposition and those who are proponents of the change being unsure as to how they will benefit.

But for a bit of fun maybe it’s worthwhile having a look at what screenwriter William Goldman said in his classic memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983).  In the section on studio executives and their poor run rates when trying to pick screen plays guaranteed to translate into box office gold he says the following:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.  If there is a Roman numeral I to this book, that’s it…Again for emphasis- NOBODY KNOWS ANTHING.  Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.  Every time out it’s a guess- and, if you’re lucky, an educated one…Did you know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was offered to every single studio in town- and they all turned it down? All except Paramount.  Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody know anything.  And why did all the other studios say no?  Because nobody knows anything.  And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars?  Because nobody, nobody – not now, not ever – knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office…David Picker, a fine studio executive for many years, once said something to this effect: ‘If I had said yes to all the projects I turned down, and no to all the ones I took, it would have worked out about the same.'”

Ouch

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