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.

Vision: Develop an inspiring Vision.  

Will the proposed change improve the lives of the team, leaders and stakeholders?


Leadership: Make sure to have engaged executive support - leadership which is Realistic and Infectiously Optimistic.

Why is this is important to leadership of the organisation?


Stakeholders: Define the stakeholders.

Who are the stakeholders? What is their culture?


Scope: Determine the scope so everyone is on the same page

What are we going to do to achieve the Vision?


Resources: Properly resource the program with supporting budgets and personnel

What resources are needed to make it a success?


Strategy and Processes: Determine the strategy and processes to move from current state to desired state

How are we going to do it?


Engagement: Engage people to embrace the change via demonstration, championing, education and communication throughout the project lifecycle

How do we engage and communicate?


Governance: Govern the program with an optimistic and positive outlook, as opposed to fear, where risk is assessed as an enabler not a preventer

How is the project monitored to inspire a successful outcome?

How will we Measure and evaluate progress and outcomes based on defined milestone KPIs?

How do we measure and evaluate success?

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, recognise the unconscious bias that exists and instead of feeding the biases, dispel 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.  


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