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The ugly truth about change management and strategy execution

Posted by Martin Harshberger

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May 26, 2015 12:58:00 PM

change management_Let's be honest, the truth is most strategies are never executed, and most change initiatives fail. These are well documented facts in numerous studies.

I've been in management for over 40 years and have been involved in many "turnaround" situations. Early in my career I moved quite frequently with a Fortune 500 company to address problem areas. Later on when I became a coach, most of my referrals were from lenders that were concerned about a company's ability to repay. To be blunt, most of the problems I saw were obvious, and should have been corrected long before I was involved.

In most cases management either refused to recognize the issues or refused to address them. Like the fellow above, they would rather stay on the "dead horse" than make the effort to replace it.

The problems were so common I wrote a book a few years ago that documented the most prevalent problems and causes that I'd seen.

If I had seen the information below I might not have written the book. The Dakotas had the information all along.


The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from one generation to the next, It says that if you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.

However, in modern business, because of the heavy investment factors to be taken into consideration, often other strategies have to be tried with dead horses, including the following:


  •  Buy a stronger whip.
  •  Change riders.
  •  Threaten the horse with termination.
  •  Appoint a committee to study the horse.
  •  Arrange to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
  •  Lower the standards so that dead horses can be included.
  •  Appoint an intervention team to re-animate the dead horse.
  •  Increase the rider’s load share.
  •  Reclassify the dead horse as living-impaired.
  •  Post a form that reads: “This horse is not dead.”
  •  Hire outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
  •  Harness several dead horses together for increased speed.
  •  Donate the dead horse to a recognized charity, thereby deducting its full original cost.
  •  Provide additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.
  •  Do a time management study to see if lighter riders would improve productivity.
  •  Purchase an after-market product to make dead horses run faster.
  •  Declare that because of lower overhead, the dead horse is actually performing better than ever.
  •  Form a quality focus group to find profitable uses for dead horses.
  •  Rewrite the expected performance requirements for horses.
  •  Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position.

I was unable to find the original author of the dead horse strategy, but they must be very wise. While this may seem funny, I could probably site real-life examples for most of these. As I said most of the problem's I dealt with are obvious and not uncommon.

So why do change management initiatives fail?


Simple we're human. We only change when the pain to change is less than the pain of staying the same. Unfortunately by that time it's often too late. We only need to look at health care to support that statement. There are a few disease processes that are the most expensive to treat and cost taxpayers the most money. A few of these are cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The root causes of these diseases are smoking, diet, lack of exercise and stress. All these are behaviors that can be modified. But even at the risk of our own health, many of us struggle with change.

For true strategy and change initiatives to work, "people have to change, or people have to change." In other words if you can change your behavior and that of your leadership team, someone or some thing will make that change for you. 


Thomas Kim sums up the problem of corporate inflexibility very well.

“There are companies that perform reasonably well, and are completely dysfunctional.” But then the market changes. “In the companies that we see that hit the wall, that dysfunctional corporate culture really becomes a problem.”

A booming economy can hide a lot of problems, when times get tougher the stronger companies gain market share by acquiring weaker competitors or worse acquire their customers for free when they go out of business.

Being happy with the current situation and not recognizing and addressing your weaknesses can have catastrophic effects when the market or economy changes.


I recently received an eBook from a colleague entitled “Why most ideas fail.” The same principals apply to strategy execution or change management. One of the chapters in that book was the “Curse of Knowledge.”

Two sections of that chapter are excellent examples of communications issues.

We assume we are great communicators and that because we know the direction we want to go, everyone understands it as well as we do.

“If we transport the Curse of Knowledge to the business world, it’s not difficult to imagine that when an idea creator, a CEO, manager, policymaker or entrepreneur, finishes communicating and thinks, “I’m sure everybody gets my great idea after my extensive communication efforts”, he’s probably reached no more than 3 percent of his target population. Houston, we have a problem.”

The second point is:

“The more power we have, the harder we find it to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective. We are used to others adapting to our point of view. It also means that the effect of the Curse of Knowledge is likely to be reinforced when the person communicating is the boss. Houston, we might have a big problem.”

The truth is if you are serious about strategy execution or successful change initiatives it might be wise to consider outside help to facilitate the processes.

Did you ever wonder why turnaround specialists are successful?

It’s simple, when I was doing it I recognized change was critical, that’s why I was there, No need to convince me! I had no emotional ties to the people or processes that were in place, and I was in a position where I was expected to speak out. It was much easier for me than the people committed to getting the dead horse to run.

The same is true for an external adviser, they have no emotional ties to the status quo, had better not be afraid to speak up, and should provide a confidential sounding board to you and your management team to help you execute change,

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