Change_CatalystEighty eight per cent of change initiatives fail, according to a 2016 Bain & Company survey of 250 large companies, Campbell Macpherson, takes a closer look. 


While there may be some debate about the percentages, several studies by several consultancies over several decades have all concluded that change is so difficult to achieve, and so fraught with obstacles, that organisations usually end up abandoning change programs altogether or settling for significantly watered-down outcomes; wasting vast sums of money doing the former and foregoing opportunities for increased revenue, profit and shareholder value doing the latter.

The reasons why seven out of eight change initiatives fail are numerous and they are all intertwined – but they could be summed up with two words, “the leadership”. The leadership fails to be clear about what they are trying to achieve, and more importantly, why. The leadership fails to understand the implications of the change. Their inadequate governance sets the project up to fail. The company’s success makes them complacent. Their corporate communication is one-way and disingenuous. They forget that emotions trump logic every time. The leadership doesn’t stay the course or, often without knowing it, they preside over a change-averse culture.

The leadership obviously needs help. After many decades of assisting organisations large and small to instigate across many industries and continents, I have come to the conclusion that change leaders need a special kind of support if they wish to increase their chances of success.

They need a Change Catalyst.

A Change Catalyst is one of the essential ingredients to successful change – and yet one that is almost always overlooked. Too many organisations think they can get away with a programme manager and a part-time Executive overseeing the change. The statistics show very clearly that they can’t.

A Change Catalyst is a business person who bridges the gap between the leadership and the employees – and is the trusted confidante of both. The purpose of a Change Catalyst is to guide the organisation to the ultimate delivery of the outcomes the business needs.  A Change Catalyst is obsessed with outcomes. A program or project manager’s strength lies in his/her ability to drive the process. The Change Catalyst is the ying to the project manager’s yang. You will need both.

A Change Catalyst understands the business; the drivers of profitability, the drivers of shareholder value, the drivers of customer satisfaction, the drivers of employee satisfaction. A Change Catalyst understands the market; the short, medium and long-term trends facing the industry and how successful competitors could take advantage of them. A Change Catalyst is regarded as a peer by the ‘business-end’ of the organisation.

A Change Catalyst also possesses an EQ to match their IQ. They are able to empathise with, and be respected by, people at all levels of the organisation. They are able to gain the trust of the company’s leaders, managers and employees alike. A Change Catalyst makes every group feel safe and confident to openly discuss their concerns and suggestions without fear of adverse consequences. The Change Catalyst must be able to be completely frank with the leadership – also without fear of adverse consequences. Because, if the Change Catalyst is doing his/her job properly, there will be times when they have to tell the organisation’s leaders things they may not wish to hear.

Ideally, your Change Catalyst should be one of your existing managers. Your people should drive your change. However, finding the right person from within your organisation can be a challenge as organisations don’t employ Change Catalysts to sit around in case they are needed one day. I prefer, wherever possible, the synergistic combination of an internal manager paired with an external consultant. This way, the internal manager can benefit from the experience of the external consultant and gradually take-over Change Catalyst duties as the initiative progresses, until there comes a point where the external consultant is no longer required. I have always been a big fan of this model – it uses external expertise in the way it should be used – for limited periods of time to get the initiative up and running, imparting knowledge and experience in the process.

The appointment of a Change Catalyst may only be one of the ten essential ingredients to successful and sustainable change – but it is the first one on the list. Find the right Change Catalyst, trust them implicitly and give the ‘air cover’ they will need to deliver. If you do this, your next change initiative may be the one in eight that succeeds.


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Campbell Macpherson is CEO of Change & Strategy International, business adviser, author and speaker. His book, ‘The Change Catalyst: Secrets to Successful and Sustainable Business Change’ is a 2017 Wiley publication and available now on Amazon.