How Change Initiatives Damage Organizations and Fail

Change Initiative - ForcesA simple (and misunderstood) way people think of their change initiative like this:

Their organization is just sitting there, ready to change in wonderful ways. We just have to tell people how great our new initiative is and they will be lining up to learn more and make things happen. Right?

Unfortunately, organizations are complex adaptive systems with their own dynamics and forces at play.

Note: we could be talking about the whole organization, a group, or a team here.

Forces Acting on an Organization

In the following diagram, I will use the word Culture to capture the existing forces at play in an organization. The real situation will be of course much more complex with various attractors influencing the system in different ways, but this will reveal the essence of what I have seen with change initiatives around Agile.

Forces on Org Change


Some remarks on the diagram:

  1. It is difficult for a change initiative to make real progress if it runs against the culture of the organizations (as is usually the case with Agile). It’s like trying to roll a giant boulder up hill.
  2. When forces pull an object in different directions, the object is under tension. Too much tension and the organization will be damaged (red squiggles). So, when you notice resistance, applying more force will damage your organization. A few weeks ago, this simple explanation helped a client reduce tension by shifting the blue rather than adding more green.
  3. The change initiative will eventually fail. Why? Energy is required to keep the change initiative going. Eventually, people will just declare victory or give up and move on to the next initiative. At this point the boulder rolls down the hill, crushing supporters of the initiative on the way.

Rolling Rocks Downhill

Rolling down hill - culture A much better way to go about this is to forget about change strategies and work on an organization’s culture so that it moves the organization towards the desired outcome without conflict. This is of course a vastly simplified version of reality, but it helps us stop and consider the root cause of dynamics and forces in an organization.


There is a great exercise on force-field analysis called “May the Forces Be With You” that I learned from The big book of humorous training games.

Olivier Lafontan wrote the insightful post Being an Agile transition coach feels like Sisyphus that inspired the boulder in my narrative.

The phrase “Rolling Rocks Downhill” came to mind from Clarke Ching’s new book by that title.

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  1. Hi Michael,

    interesting notion. Can you say a bit more about how in your eyes “working on culture” is different from a “change initiative”? Thanks!

    • Hi Ilja,

      Most change initiatives operate at a tactical or strategic level – not on culture. I outlined my ideas on this in my post on Tactics, Strategy and Culture. I think rebooting the cultural operating system of a company is a special sort of change initiative with an explorative outcome.

      – Michael


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