How to end the misery of constantly failing organisational change, once and for all.

For decades organisations have been lamenting the failure to get all the change they need done in the way they need it. After all this time, the years of practice and the billions spent on delivery, it’s fair to expect that it shouldn’t be the problem it once was and it’s understandable why the continued failure is a source of immense frustration. Particularly when the result of great expense and mammoth effort on the part of all concerned is that the organisation still has the challenges in place it was attempting to address:

  • Missed opportunities
  • Pro-longed inefficiencies
  • Unmitigated risks
  • Unnecessary operating costs
  • Suboptimal performance

…to name a few.

But that’s not all. Millions upon millions have also been spent trying to fix this; adopting new frameworks, methods and tools, moving from waterfall to agile, restructuring the organisation, then restructuring it back again, hiring new ‘change’ leaders, engaging consultants, calling on expert training and providing certificated education programmes for all staff…these are a few of the most common measures undertaken.

Yet despite all this, the rate of failure remains stubbornly around 70%.


Is it because it’s one of those insurmountable problems that you’re wasting your time trying to address?

Or because people aren’t trying hard enough?

Or perhaps there just isn’t time to work out what needs to be done to fix it?

There’s certainly more than an element of truth in the latter. But often this is perceived as a ‘Catch 22’. You need time to fix the problem, but you can’t have that time until the problem is fixed.

Well, there is a way…

A way to get all your change done as you need it, giving you the ability to fulfil your potential and achieve your ambitions, perpetually.

And the means by which you can adopt such an approach is within your grasp and can be adopted in a matter of weeks without a major upheaval and huge expense.

The first point to understand is the underlying problem of continued failure. It lies in the approach organisations use to prioritise and execute on those priorities.

In essence, the underlying problem is caused by trying to do too much at the same time. In other words, trying to do more that the organisation can cope with. This increases the risk of failure by not allowing the right amount of the right skill to be applied at the right time to get things right. As a result, mistakes and delays happen. They need to be addressed, which adds to the backlog, which in turn adds more pressure to the already overloaded constraints, which in turn leads to more shortfalls and catch up work needed. By continuing in this vein, you become trapped in a cycle of failure, constantly driven by delivery pressures rather than investment priorities and becoming a slave to the portfolio. Hence perpetual failure at a relatively steady rate:

The Cycle of Failure. Organisational Change: Make it Work for You, (Wilson, 2020).

Hidden in the mass of resources engaged are ‘pinch points’, constraints if you like. They are often found in subject matter expertise, technical services or even sometimes in the physical estate. Constantly breaching their capacity is putting the whole undertaking at risk.

In essence this is simply a demand and supply balancing act – organisations need to balance their priorities with their capacity to achieve them. It’s encapsulated neatly in the Theory of Constraints (The Goal, Cox & Goldratt, 1984): An organisation’s ability to achieve is only as strong as its weakest link.

This is far from rocket science; in fact, it is based on a principle stretching back to the origins of operations management.

So, why has it eluded so many…apart from the fact there’s no time to think?

Over the last twenty to thirty years, organisations have come to think about change as the delivery of projects and programmes. Understandably, they strive to find ways of improving their performance. Rightly so. But most organisations commission and run projects and programmes on a silo basis – business units forming their agendas to meet their objectives, which are only brought together as a ‘corporate list’ after commitments have been made. There’s usually a central facility administering this – a PMO perhaps – stapling business unit lists and their MI reports together to give a summary of the whole. This doesn’t allow the ‘whole’ to be joined up effectively to tackle the underlying cause of failure.

Instead, a true portfolio view needs to be brought to bear. Before commitments are made. It means running projects and programmes as a holistic investment in the future of the organisation, collectively addressing the following points:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Where do we need to invest?
  • What can we safely cope with?
  • How does that affect our ambitions?

Capturing all this in a rolling portfolio plan provides the platform to deliver successfully, continually.

To illustrate the point, think air travel.

Projects are flights, programmes are journeys (multiple flights), portfolio management is air traffic control (ATC). However good your aircraft, pilots, cabin and ground crew are, without air traffic control in place you expose them to a very high risk of failure. 70% apparently.

A rolling portfolio plan (your ATC) allows priorities to be balanced with the capacity to deliver. This keeps the workload manageable, by massively reducing the risk of failure (and the costs associated with it) and avoiding unnecessary additions to the backlog. It also allows all the investment in project and programme delivery performance to bear fruit. And it enables exploitation of investment synergies to get more from less. Consequently, the cycle of failure turns into a cycle of success, enabling the organisation to be led by investment priorities rather than delivery pressures. The portfolio will be working for you, rather than the other way around.

Shifting the emphasis to a real portfolio approach is dependent upon a change in mindset – and the air travel analogy is just one small part of this. In fact, it’s one of seven key factors to adopt, all of which will be readily recognisable and, in many respects, will be claimed to be already adopted. Once they’re embraced, you’ve embarked on your journey to change the cycle of failure into a cycle of success.

Contact us to learn more about the mindset pre-requisites, how to bring all this to life and make change work for you, in a matter of weeks.


Cox, Jeff; Goldratt, Eliyahu M. (1984). The goal: a process of ongoing improvement. Great Barrington, Massachusetts: North River Press. ISBN 0-88427-061-0.

Wilson, John M. (2020). Organisational Change: Make it Work for You. ISBN 0-88427-061-0.

Author: John M. Wilson. Expert in leading delivery and improvement of organisational change in global financial services companies. Author of ‘Organisational Change: Make it Work for You’, a recently published fresh perspective on why organisational change continues to fail and how a simple approach to portfolio management can fix it.