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Myth busters: busting the myths of organizational change

Vincent van Heumen
December 15, 2020

Many business leaders struggle to make organizational changes successful. Some say that up to 70% of these changes fail. I’ve noticed that this often has to do with persistent myths about how change actually works. These misperceptions drive ineffective plans and actions. Below, you will find a selection of these myths so you can focus on the things that work and ensure the effectiveness of your plans and actions.

  1. The only way is bottom-up, top-down approaches are dead.

These days, it seems that the only way is a bottom-up approach. Development- and experiment approaches are king, agile is everywhere. Top-down changes are outdated, not effective and politically incorrect. They are dominated by top management, the change approach is overly planned and rigid, employees aren’t involved enough, and adoption of the outcomes of the change is limited.

However, top-down versus bottom-up is a false dilemma. It’s not that top-down doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work enough. Also, bottom-up requires clear focus and direction. Too often development and experiment approaches are used as an excuse for lacking coherent well-thought-out execution plans. Bottom-up needs top-down and vice versa. The context, objectives and challenges determine the balance between both.

  1. Large-scale change is small-scale multiplied.

Often, change is tested in a small part of the target audience. If it works, the change is scaled by multiplying it for the rest of the target audience.

Large-scale change is not small-scale change multiplied. What works on a small scale doesn’t automatically work on a large scale. The large context often has completely different rules and dynamics. The success of the test is in many cases the result of the small team working in a conditioned “hothouse”. Furthermore, what works for one department or team doesn’t by default work for another one.

Start with understanding the larger context in which the change should take place. Identify levers and pitfalls for scaling. Define success of the small change in terms of scalability.

  1. Change is successful when the outcomes are robust.

Change initiatives are successful when the agreed outcomes are realized and when they are robust.

Robust outcomes and deliverables are not good enough.

The context is not stable and will change, so what you also need is changeability. Focus from the beginning of a change initiative also on developing capabilities to adapt to the changes in the context.

  1. Involvement is ownership.

To make change happen, business leaders need to accept the responsibility in all areas they influence and control. Therefore, they are involved in all kinds of workshops to assure ownership of the change.

It’s a false assumption that ownership is involvement. Involvement is, at best, a first step.

True ownership of the change is about making choices and accepting the consequences, creating preconditions, willingness to take unpopular measures, and spending (personal) time.

  1. Communication and training change behavior.

If you provide a compelling vision, communicate, and train people, behavior change comes naturally. If people don’t change, you have to explain it once more, provide extra training.

It’s a widespread misconception that awareness and ability are enough to change behavior. Increasing awareness and motivation leads, at best, to increasing intention to change. A call to action doesn’t lead to people acting.

Improving the skillset with extra training doesn’t imply that people will change their behavior. First, learning new things costs energy because, deep down, we prefer fully automatic habits instead of new things. Secondly, our brain prefers to avoid loss, pain, and discomfort. We don’t like to make mistakes, even though we learn from them.

So, communication and training are not enough. If you want new behavior to stick you should also change the context and apply five building blocks: build in cues, make new behavior easy, normal, attractive and social. In my blog “Make new behavior stick” I explain the building blocks in detail.

  1. First individual change then group change.

People know what motivates them to change. People only change when they have the right attitude.

Unfortunately, this is a dogma entrenched in our thinking, but it is not real. A lot of individual changes happen because individuals copy behavior of the group. Social norms have the biggest impact on individual behavior. The greatest predictor of behavior is seeing someone else do something.


I started this blog with the statement that 70% of organizational changes fail. Some say that’s a myth too! First of all, the data on which the 70% is based is unclear. Secondly, failure rates depend on the kind of change. Research shows for instance that culture change is more likely to fail then for example strategy implementations or process improvements.

Please contact me to learn more about sustaining change and embedding results.