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How does leadership mindset influence transformation project success or failure?

by The Centre for Optimism's Jeff Kerr-Bell, Amanda Noz, Kay Clancy and Robert Masters

“70% of transformation projects fail”. 

There is an embedded belief that this statement is true. The research over the last 50 years supports this belief.  A research paper (1) published in January 2014 in the International  Journal of Change Management reported the results of using a systematic and meta-analysis review of the literature published between 1980 and 2011 exploring the major reasons for organisational change failure. Among other things the study found that unsuccessful change programmes were attributed to insufficient education and training, employees' apathy, inadequate management support, poor leadership, inappropriate organisational culture, inadequate resources, poor communication, inappropriate planning, insufficient customer focus, and lack of a monitoring and measurement system.

These views and the many like them are compelling and based on real outcomes, yet scratch a little deeper and there is evidence that it doesn’t need to be so and transformation leaders can challenge and change this ‘accepted reality’.

University of Chicago researchers Ed O’Brien and Nadav Klein (2) found that there is a bias in organisations towards failure because there is an assumption that failure is a more likely outcome than success. As a result of this bias, successful outcomes are viewed as flukes and bad results as irrefutable evidence that transformation is difficult which has the effect of keeping people and companies in the status quo.

Mindset impact is amplified in Transformations

How does this play out in transformation and change programs globally? Often when something differs from what is stated within the transformation framework – a slip in the schedule, a change in scope, a surprise financial outcome - this becomes the beginning of the end for the project. As fear of failure sets in, decision making changes, blame is apportioned and key resources and personnel are removed. Naturally this destabilizes the transformation program, leading to failure which then confirms the bias that change is difficult.

A 2014 IBM study (3) found that successful transformation projects hinge on people rather than on technology, revealing that “changing mindsets and attitudes” and “corporate culture” were the two most significant challenges and that these were the hardest to get right.

Just what IS best practice transformation?

Best practice for successful transformation is evolving. Many organisations anchor transformation in the processes, rigour, rituals and governance impacting how the transformation project is executed, managed and measured.  This process-oriented approach also impacts how the transformation project is viewed and spoken about by the team members and stakeholders.

Having a realistic and optimistic mindset is critical. Change is hard and it requires significant effort from everyone involved. Starting with, and communicating from, a vision of success, creates a positive orientation for the project team and stakeholders.  This makes it easier to drive cooperation between stakeholders and create enthusiasm for the project outcome as the scope, processes, resources, governance and measurement are defined, agreed and acted upon.

Communication connects people to the vision

Transformation projects are not popular when they land unexpectedly.  People need to be able to imagine the vision because the  leadership have expressed it in a compelling and optimistic way. It is critical to have a strong communication program in place through the entire lifecycle of the project, which includes updates where progress and success are celebrated (and setbacks described honestly outlining how they will be overcome). As people become familiar with the project and the benefits, they will become more comfortable and will be ready to embrace the change, and receive it positively.

The Optimistic Leader’s Checklist for Successful Transformation.

1.     Start with an inspiring vision led AND supported by an Executive Sponsor (How important is this to leadership of the organisation?)

2.     Define stakeholders, their management and reporting strategy (Who cares about the success of this project?)

3.     Have a well-defined and agreed upon scope (What are we actually going to do?)

4.     Be properly resourced with budget and personnel, (What resources are needed to make it a success?)

5.     Have processes to get from current state to desired state (How are we going to do it?)

6.     Govern the program in a manner that is driven from an optimistic and positive outlook rather than one of fear, where risk is embraced as an enabler not a prevention strategy (How is the project managed to inspire a successful outcome?)

7.      Measure progress and outcomes based on defined KPIs (How do we measure success?)

8.      Support people to embrace the change via demonstration, education and communication throughout the project lifecycle (How do we communicate?)

Optimistic leaders drive the right mindset and inspire success

What if a focus on the people and their mindsets was consciously added to the mix right from the start and measured throughout the project?

What if the team talked about what makes them optimistic at key stages of the project?

Would it change the focus and bias from expecting failure to expecting and creating success?

It is time to challenge the frequently quoted beliefs about failure, recognising the unconscious bias that exists and instead of feeding the biases, dispelling them.

When a transformation team starts with a realistically positive attitude and approach, recognising culture and communications are key ingredients, everything changes. It is time to start bringing the voice and practices of optimism to the narrative through engaged and engagingly optimistic leaders.


Jeff Kerr-Bell, France-based Amanda Noz and Kay Clancy are experienced Change Management Practitioners.   Robert Masters is one of Australia's leading Crisis Communications Practitioners and Chair of The Centre for Optimism.  

Kate Olson in “Living in Joyful Resilience: A Roadmap for Navigating Life’s Ups and Downs”

“A big part of #resilience in life is adapting to change. In fact, the only thing in life that we can really be assured of is that things will change. Coming to this realisation, and then seeing and dealing with it in the most #optimistic and productive way is a primary resilience trait and skill.”


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