Why Change Initiatives in The Workplace Fail

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, 6 min read

Dr. Craig Knight is the founding director of corporate psychology firm Haddleton Knight, director at Identity Realization Limited, and a faculty member at the University of Exeter. He specializes in the psychology of working environments with especial regard to well-being, creativity, and productivity. His research has also focused on improving how businesses recruit, evaluate, and get the most value from employees.

Following is an excerpt from our ebook called "Make Your Work Matter: 7 Thought Leaders on Why Work Isn't Working For You and How You Can Change It." You can download the free ebook here.


Pursuing productivity is at the heart of almost every change management and design programme, yet its definition seems more elusive than alchemy. Although it is the most ubiquitous measure, it is impossible to measure productivity by questionnaire.

Just as with a car, a survey will tell you how comfortable people may be, or what they think of the air conditioning, but you need the equivalent of a stopwatch for the performance data.


See "Are You Truly Productive or Just Crazy Busy? 5 Common Productivity Pitfalls" to learn how to make sure your productivity efforts are bringing results.


Consequently, employees in telephone call centres tend to know little other than constant measurement. Emergency services operators in the UK are tasked to answer the phone, deal with the call, and handle associated administration as rapidly as possible.

Under this regime, an operative who answers incoming traffic immediately, tells the caller to go away, and hangs up.

One change management guru once explained to me that most mobile phone providers claim to measure productivity via a satisfaction survey. “A customer would be delighted with a free phone and free data, wouldn’t they?” he winked. “Wouldn’t be awfully productive though, would it?”

Productivity, then, is a variable that is misunderstood, approached through methods that are ill-conceived, and assessed by measurements that tend to be simultaneously pointless and misleading. In other words, the keystone of change initiatives is cracked.

When Change Fails

Further insight into the failure of so many change initiatives comes from the most popular change management methods in the Western world.

With productivity dangling just beyond businesses’ reach, we bumble instead into the alternative realm of cost saving—because measuring cost saving is a piece of cake.

For instance 70 percent of offices operate what is called lean philosophy, often bedded into a sister programme called Six Sigma. It is easy to see why when you see the promises made:

  • “Every lean enterprise seeks to maximize the value delivered to its customers while minimizing waste.”
  • “(Lean will) help improve workflow by increasing office productivity and improving the bottom line.”
  • “The goal of Six Sigma is to eliminate defects and minimize variability. An organization...will have no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities.”

If, in passing, we acknowledge the idea that, to eliminate all waste, variability and defects must leave no business at all, we move properly into the dark realities of managerial hegemony.

Here we find free address workstations—where nobody owns their own desk—set in open plan spaces. Processes must be standardized across the organization, work is managed in set patterns—its tools laid out in the right order—as assigned by the management.

In these zero waste environments, if something is unconnected with work, it has no place in the working environment. So lean offices do not entertain ephemera or distractions such as photographs, souvenirs, plants, or messy desks.

This clean desk is at the heart of the system. It allows managers to precisely monitor jobs being done and to affect discipline accordingly.

The logic is simple: where there is nothing to distract workers and where all the necessary tools are provided, then employees are bound to be at their most effective and therefore most productive.

The system sounds convincing; it proliferates and has global advocates. But is it successful as a change initiative? The scientific research is unequivocal on this point: lean is entirely successful if your goal is to set up the worst possible space for your employees.

The truth is, research finds that lean creates work spaces that depress all key variables, including productivity.

No animal, not just homo sapiens, thrives in a psychologically impoverished, high-surveillance space. A rat in a lean cage, a chimpanzee in a lean enclosure, and a human in a lean office are all beasts at their lowest ebbs.

On the other hand, when people work in a space that has been psychologically enriched—where there are a few interesting pictures, some plants, different styles of lighting, and splashes of colour—they are much happier.

For example, Google’s installation of ski gondolas in their Zurich canteen have proved very successful. In enriched surroundings, humans engage more, feel less stressed, and work about 15 percent more productively than they do in a lean space. 

But there is a far more important ingredient to building a productive workspace—and a successful change management strategy, really: unless team members are offered a say in development, it is inevitable that some initiatives will be less popular than others.

Giving Team Members a Say in Change

In studies, rats are found to be far happier scampering under the floorboards, living in a nest of old socks, than living in a cage. Rats are happiest when they can realize their own identity and not have a designer’s stamp on their cell.

Precisely the same principle applies to humans. Allow humans to develop their own space and—compared to a lean space—wellbeing can increase by up to 40 percent, productivity by up to 32 percent. 

If you want a real-world example of a good business, look at something small, run by an open- minded boss.

Here, people decide together where each should sit, what colour the walls should be, and the most suitable hours to work. Here, staff sees its own identity reflected in its workspace, engagement is high, positive change thrives, and productivity is maximized. 

Sadly, this model is often squashed under the bottom of the business behemoth.

Typically, when a company employs more than 20 or 30 people, areas of previously shared decision- making tend to come under the aegis of one expert.

Somebody somehow knows more about management styles, design, and working patterns than anybody else—and these concepts are imposed on everybody else. Popular management-led initiatives become the quality targets for the rest.

Companies Santander, Direct Line, and Shell all draw enormous plaudits from change management practitioners yet lag considerably behind the cutting-edge science of this chapter.

Companies may have consulted their colleagues to a greater or lesser extent but the final solutions are all imposed with varying degrees of consideration for the workers. 

Managers become in loco parentis to their staff, whose voices are muffled, identities suppressed, and performances consequently degraded. While it may be more pleasant, it is just as infantilizing to give workers a slide to play with as it is to monitor their every keystroke and utterance.

The harsh truth is, companies can do a better job of implementing change that will get maximum satisfaction and productivity from team members. But how?

Can You Handle the Truth?

If you want your business to thrive—using methods entirely supported by science and its application—you must be ready to face the truth. Fortunately, a very few companies, notably Virgin and Gore-Tex, have begun to walk this path.

If you can handle the truth, the following steps should help you implement the right change in your organization—change that empowers team members to achieve their peak satisfaction, effectiveness, and productivity.

  • Remember the shared decision-making of small businesses—keep it alive as a company grows.
  • Change managers and designers are professionals, but they are not the experts in your working environment. You are. Meanwhile, you are not the expert in your employees’ working environment. They are. Treat the experts like experts and not like children. Let the experts incorporate the ideas of the professionals and never vice versa.
  • Calling the workspace “agile,” “flexible,” or a “new way of working” does not make it any better. If you have too many people for your premises, congratulations, you are doing well. Ask the staff what they think should happen and be prepared to extend or move.
  • Workspaces—and change initiatives—should reflect the identity of the employees, at least as much as they reflect the identity of the business. If all you see are the mottos, corporate logos, and reified managerial ideas, it is a bad idea.

Follow these practices and you will be trail blazing. The evidence will be overwhelmingly in your favour. Are you brave enough?


Don't miss our four-part series on the stages of change, where you'll get expert advice on managing workplace change. See the first post here.

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