The elephant in the room blocking change

Shot of a board meeting with an elephant in the room to illustrate the key element holding back change

Business transformation is always an uphill struggle. But unless you address the elephant in the room it may be an impossible one, writes Mark Vincent from change management specialist Applied Change 

It’s almost a given that most large-scale change initiatives fall short of expectations. Credible sources such as McKinsey, IBM and Harvard Business Review all quote failure rates of around 70 per cent. While acknowledging the debate on the numbers, most people who have been involved in major change would agree it’s tough making it happen. So what’s making it so difficult?

Firstly, why do we care?

The trouble is that large-scale change (or “transformation” to use a popular buzzword) is more common now than it has ever been. Globalisation and advances in technology are driving a new pace and highly competitive trading environment for everyone. If we don’t move quickly enough, someone else will… and they will eat our dinner, so to speak.

So are the problems with change simply due to a lack of knowledge? This seems unlikely given the huge amount of information available on change management. On Amazon alone, a search on the term “change management” shows around 17,000 results!

So what is it then? Is all this information wrong? Is it being ignored? Or maybe, like leading a healthy lifestyle, most people know what they should do, but actually doing it is something quite different.

Elephant in the room

The often-overlooked elephant in the room is motivation. This is the difference between knowing the path and walking it. I’m not just talking about the motivation of the person at the top or a few senior executives; it’s that wider emotional driving force across the organisation that makes everyone want to move in a certain direction.

You may have noticed how creative people can be in resisting (passively or actively) what you are trying to do when they don’t see the benefit to them personally. When you then consider that they may fear losing some of their team, their beloved corner office or maybe even their job, then it’s not really surprising it sometimes feels like an uphill struggle.

Put simply, the force for change must be greater than this resistance or inertia, otherwise it will run out of steam pretty soon, even with the most skilled project managers or consultants.

Emotional vs rational

To begin addressing this inertia it’s worth remembering that our emotional side is stronger than the rational one. The former is typically lazy, skittish and wants instant gratification, even at the expense of greater long-term benefits.

Anyone who has tried dieting may recognise the internal battle that ensues between our rational and emotional sides. And we all know which one eventually wins out in most cases.

Scale that thinking up to an organisational level and it’s easy to see why effecting major change is a real challenge. We’ve been at the centre of some of the biggest industry-wide transformations and, in our experience, failing to develop strategies to really motivate the critical mass is one of the key reasons why large-scale change either moves too slowly or fails altogether. So maybe it’s time we acknowledged the elephant in the room.

In the end, we can try to force people to do things they don’t want to, or we can persuade them to want what we want. We’ll leave you to decide which is more likely to be effective in the long run.

 Applied Change logo for elephant in the room post

To find out more, including key strategies to address this inertia, visit our website, call us on 0800 6123548 or email us.


Applied Change has been helping our clients to a position of strength in delivering transformational change in challenging and fast paced environments. We take a holistic approach to change, working alongside executives and their teams, fostering a culture of openness and shared learning which helps us all grow stronger and realise our true potential.

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Director commercial and sales

Director commercial and sales

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