Sustainable change requires ownership

Change initiatives fail at an alarming rate — as high as 80 percent.

The cost of a failed change initiative can be staggering, from a loss of morale to a loss of a key customer due to poor quality. And we know that these initiatives fail in large part for two reasons: a lack of ownership by the workforce of the initiative; and a lack of sustained leadership support. Our focus today is on the first point.

People take care of what they own. They don’t wash rented cars. The bottom line for sustainable organizational change is to build ownership, and to do so by creating an ownership strategy that addresses peoples’ natural resistance to any change. An ownership strategy means direct involvement of the affected workforce, engaging them in contributing to the solution, and building two-way communications so that everyone has a stake in the future. The payoffs can be substantially reduced resistance (less than 10 percent), increased trust, and increased leadership credibility. To not build ownership produces the opposite results.

Here are five things we know that lead us to this understanding about sustainable change:

Organizations do not cause change — people do. Someone once said, “There is no such thing as an organization — only people, buildings, and things.” To cause change, though, the workforce will make conscious choices about their work lives, how they behave, and whether or not to adopt the change. Sustainable change is inevitably about people’s conscious choices to change.

Sustainable change is culture-driven. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and the change process too. Sustainable change comes from the inside out — from shared beliefs and values, people’s willingness to take risks, to innovate, and from a high level of trust and safety that come when leadership authentically engages them. Behaviors follow commitment follows beliefs.

It’s a journey of character, will, and discipline. Sustainable change is a journey, not a program, event or destination. It involves some level of struggle as we work to redefine who we are and how we will work together differently across the organization. This means leadership commitment and the will to stay the course, especially in when times get rough.

Change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Human beings are incredibly slow to change. Because we naturally resist it, it takes much longer. There is no silver bullet. With an ownership strategy, we also get a new way of working that enables us to speed up the change process.

“We, not me.” At the end of the day, sustainable change is not about a single leader, nor a single individual, silo, or heroic act. It is collective action and mutual trust that comes when people own their workplace. If we are a “we,” the change is irreversible.

Sustainable successful change means a leadership commitment to an ownership strategy that fully and systematically engages the workforce in the business of the business. In a complex, highly competitive global economy, an ownership strategy unleashes the full potential of the workforce, strengthens synergies, and enables real collaboration across boundaries. This is most likely the only way to beat the competition on a consistent basis.

Dr. Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at, or 919.265.9616.