Falling off the Curve: Six Ways your Change Project can Fail

There are many different articulations of most models, and the Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve is no different.  What is different is that it is hard to be sure what the original looks like.

I like to read the original papers that present authors’ work in their own words, so I subscribe to a service called EBSCOhost that offers journal articles from a wide array of business journals. One of them is Training and Development, formally known as Training and Development Journal.  But sadly, when I select the article “Building Commitment to Organizational Change” by Daryl Connor and Robert Patterson, I get the message: “This database normally includes full text of articles available from this publication. However, this particular article is not included at the request of the rights holder.”

Failure to find "Building commitment to organizational change".

So I have to rely on third party representations.  Robert, Daryl, if you see this article, please do get in touch – I would love a copy of your original work.

I suppose that doesn’t matter, because I always feel free to modify a model according to my own experience and, judging by the variety of versions on the web, I am not alone.

The Original

Here is my version of what I believe to be the base model.

The Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve

Patterson and Connor suggest a series of milestones along the process of change, that sit within three phases:

  1. Preparation
  2. Acceptance
  3. Commitment

Modes of Failure

This model leads me to list six modes of failure, each arising from failure to achieve one of Patterson’s and Connor’s milestones.

Falling off the Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve

Change projects fail when:

  1. The promoting team fails to make meaningful contact with all of their stakeholders.  They do not engage them and properly consult, so failing to understand their needs, desires and expectations – setting themselves and their projects up for failure.
  2. Having contacted stakeholders, change agents fail to create adequate awareness of the driving need for change or the real benefits of the selected solution .
  3. Stakeholders may be aware of the change that is to take place, but fail to understand it fully – or worse, they misunderstand it.  This leads to scepticism, cynicism and rejection.
  4. Stakeholders may understand the change, but they may not like it.  Negative perception may be illusory or real.  They may not like the change for spurious reasons linked to misunderstanding, emotional reasons linked to fear of change, or real reasons arising from genuine negative outcomes for them or for people they care about.
  5. Despite positive perceptions, the change may be rejected prior to commitment.  This could be due to new constraints or priorities, or a failure of organisational will.
  6. Adoption does not always lead to effective organisational change, where the new ways of working are institutionalised and made a “how things are”.  All sorts of failings – in the project and outside – can frustrate your ability to harvest real value from the change.

The “so what?”

The Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve is an excellent model of the stages of change.  However, for me, its greatest use is in understanding and predicting the modes of failure.  A lot of learning research shows we learn best from our failures, so I speculate that we may plan best when we identify failure modes and plan for them.  At the very least, this approach addresses planning fallacy (irrational belief that our plans are somehow “right”) head on!

Building commitment to organizational change.
Conner, Daryl R.; Patterson, Robert W.
Training & Development Journal, Vol 36(4), Apr 1982, 18-30.

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