Why Good Initiatives Fail

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Anyone who has ever worked for a human service organization, has witnessed a steady stream of new initiatives that seem destined to fail before they ever get off the ground. We have all seen the eye rolls and heard the groans of skeptical employees thinking “here we go again.” I once worked with an organization who had actually stopped using the term “initiative” because they claimed it held such negative connotation.

Even necessary changes rooted in groundbreaking research, like trauma informed initiatives, can get lumped into the category of “fads that will fade.”

The problem is not initiatives in general, nor is it usually the merit of the initiative. I also don’t buy in to the “change is hard” theory for why initiatives fail. Life is change. We all grow and change every day and organizations are no different. The question is, will our organization grow in a way that it becomes who and what we intended it to become.

What makes good initiatives fail is usually embedded in organizational structure, practice and change strategies. Deep and lasting organizational change requires alignment between the implementation plan and organizational systems and organizational culture.

  • Systems: formal policy, procedures and structure of the organization. It is how      things are done.
  • Culture: beliefs and practices of the people in the organization. It is the values and beliefs that are consistently demonstrated throughout the organization (These may differ from the values hanging on the wall.)

Both systems and culture can be a formable barrier to change. Change strategies need to consider both and align with the values of the change initiative.

Before an implementation plan is developed it is necessary to do the following:

  • Identify the principles, values or commitments of the change initiative
  • Identify current system and cultural barriers to the change initiative

To ensure the success of your initiative it is helpful to examine some common reasons initiatives so often fail.

Incompatible policy and procedure

Have you ever purchased a software package and then discovered that it is not compatible with your operation system? Trying to implement something that is in direct contrast to your formal policy and organizational structure is similar to trying to run an Apple program on a computer with a Microsoft operating system. It won’t work. That does not mean it’s impossible to achieve your intended outcomes. It does mean that you might have to choose a model or implementation strategy that fits your system, or better yet, make the necessary policy or structural changes to support implementation. I would consider both.

Lack of implementation strategy

Many practice models claim to have a high level of effectiveness supported by evidence. Such models usually come with precise descriptions of what it needs to look like when the model is successfully put into practice. Some even come with practice manuals and even provide formal training. Very few, however, come with implementation guides. This leaves the organization with the false notion that training equals implementation. It also ignores crucial pieces to the puzzle such as formal systems and structure, leadership and organizational culture.

Implementation plans should include both system and culture objectives as well as indicators to measure progress. They also need to involve strategies and action steps that are consistent with identified principles or values. This leads into the next barrier to a successful initiative.

Strategies that are not aligned with the values of the Initiative

Personally, I think this is the most common and most fatal mistake organizations make. The problem resides in how we implement change. After all, an organization will never become anything other than a reflection of what they practice day in and day out at all levels. Too often, organizations choose implementation methods that directly contrast the principles of the initiative.

Let’s take the example of trauma informed models. Trauma informed practices adhere to specific principles. Safety, shared decision-making and transparency are a few examples of these common values. Yet, often implementation decisions are dictated with implicit threats and little multidirectional feedback. Fidelity is measured through rigid practices that promote fear and the data collected is only shared with higher-ups. Thus, creating practices that contradict the intended change and move the organization in the wrong direction. Doomed to fail.

Lack of buy in

If your organization has experienced past failed initiatives, some skepticism is unavoidable. But failing to recognize this and create opportunities for buy in is not. Having employees recognize the need for the change is essential to having employees own the process. This is true for leadership as well as all direct and indirect service providers. Buy in can happen gradually, but it needs to include all functions of the organization.

Even organizations that take the time to conduct a self-assessment and create an implementation plan, often fail to involve all levels of employees. Even more detrimental, they fail to include the population they are serving.

Failure to encourage innovation

Initiatives, especially evidence-based initiatives, often come with rigid rules. Too often, we sacrifice flexibility for fidelity and the result is a lack of innovation. If new practices don’t achieve immediate results, skeptics will likely blame the initiative, thus deflating enthusiasm.

This does not mean we don’t need to set parameters, but within those parameters there should be opportunities for experimentation. Start small, test a hypothesis, collect evidence and share successes. Of course, this means developing a culture that tolerates mistakes and encourages open communication. But, doing so not only results in increased ownership of the initiative, it also leads to the discovery of effective practices that move your initiative forward.  Thus, improving the chances of long-lasting successful change.


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