If you’ve performed any change management research, then chances are you’ve encountered the following claim:
70% of change efforts fail.
This statistic is everywhere. In fact, if you Google the phrase “70% change failure rate” then you’ll get over 102 million results. This includes many articles published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. Change is hard, so why invest time and effort into something that the experts agree is almost guaranteed to fail?
In this article, we’ll explore where this 70% statistic comes from – and why it has little basis in reality. We’ll then share some simple advice on how to combat the negative mindset surrounding change, so you can set your next project up for success.
Reengineering the Corporation: An unscientific estimate
While it’s difficult to find an exact source for this statistic, the earliest articles all seem to reference the Reengineering the Corporation book. Published in 1993 and written by Michael Hammer and James Champy, this book includes the following claim:
“Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended.”
Here, the authors clearly state that this is an unscientific estimate, rather than a well-researched fact. However, this guestimate really took on a life of its own in 1994, when the peer-reviewed Information Systems Management journal presented it as fact. They also put a more headline-friendly spin on this unscientific guesstimate: “50 percent to 70 percent” became a firm “70 percent.”
Since then, this opinion has been cited as fact by many respected publications, including the Harvard Business Review. Interestingly, McKinsey seems to have deleted their The Inconvenient Truth about Change Management article, where they first presented the 70% statistic as hard evidence.
Apparently concerned that his opinion was being misrepresented, Hammer attempted to set the record straight in The Reengineering Revolution. In this 1995 book he clearly states that:
“In Reengineering the Corporation, we estimated that between 50 and 70 percent of reengineering efforts were not successful in achieving the desired breakthrough performance. Unfortunately, this simple descriptive observation has been widely misrepresented and transmogrified and distorted into a normative statement…There is no inherent success or failure rate for reengineering.”
Change management’s 70% failure rate: Exploring other sources
John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, is another widely cited source for the 70% failure rate. In this book, he states:
”From years of study, I estimate today more than 70 per cent of needed change either fails to be launched, even though some people clearly see the need, fails to be completed even though some people exhaust themselves trying, or finishes over budget, late and with initial aspirations unmet.”
Here, the 70% failure rate is clearly another estimate, although it does seem to be based on personal research and first-hand experience.
Another frequently-quoted source is the Harvard Business Review article, Cracking the Code of Change. Here, the authors state that:
“The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail.”
However, they don’t provide any evidence to support this claim.
So, is there any hard evidence to support the assumption that 70 percent of change management projects fail?
The Journal of Change Management critically reviewed five published instances that identify a 70% failure rate. They concluded that:
“Whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.”
While change is difficult and some initiatives will fail, there is no reason to believe that change management projects have a 70% failure rate.
The real-world consequences of change management assumptions
The widespread belief that the majority of change management projects fail, is particularly damaging as it plays into our natural negative bias.
Research from Ed O’Brien and Nadav Klein at the University of Chicago found that we all assume failure is a more common outcome than success. We’re naturally inclined to perceive negative results as proof that something was always going to fail, while we dismiss positive outcomes as a lucky fluke.
As part of this Tipping Point of Perceived Change study, participants were presented with statistics from a star athlete who had recently recorded worse scores than usual. The participants concluded that the athlete’s career had begun an irreversible downwards spiral. However, when presented with a season’s worth of statistics from a player who was performing better than expected, the same people dismissed this as a lucky streak.
This mindset, when combined with the widespread assumption that most change management projects are destined to fail, can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Few projects run smoothly, so it’s natural to experience delays, setbacks, and missed deadlines. However, your employees are primed to view every minor issue as confirmation that the change was never going to succeed.
Successful change management hinges on convincing your workforce to adopt the new tools, procedures, or experiences that you create for them. If your staff are motivated and enthusiastic about the planned changes, then immediately your initiative stands a far greater chance of success. If your staff are actively looking for evidence that your project is faltering, then they’ll quickly become less committed to the change. In this environment, your change management project is almost guaranteed to fail.
Each unsuccessful change management project will serve as yet more evidence that these kinds of projects never end well. It will be practically impossible to motivate your staff when they’re convinced that the latest change management initiative is doomed, just like the last one. At this point, all of your attempts to implement positive change will likely be met by the attitude of “here we go again.”
How to create a more positive change management narrative
Change management can be complex and time-consuming, full of missteps and false starts. You may need to adjust your plans, or even rethink them entirely, especially if you’re following a highly-adaptive decision making model. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that most people who commit to change will succeed to some degree – you just need to communicate that fact to your workforce!
When creating your change management plan, it’s important to build positive messaging into your communications. This may sound simple, but the Tipping Point of Perceived Change study found that it can have dramatic results. After reminding participants that people can improve with a little bit of effort, these people were quicker to notice changes for the better and more willing to overlook changes for the worst.
You can strengthen your positive messaging by including real world examples. The great thing about change, is that it’s happening all the time. You should have no issues finding instances where your employees have implemented change successfully. This might be something as simple as mastering a new application, or a major change such as migrating to a new platform, or completing a staff training course.
Highlighting these personal success stories can be a powerful way to put your employees in a more positive headspace where they’re ready to embrace change.
It’s also important to identify and celebrate success, particularly if the change will take a considerable amount of time to implement. During the planning phase, it’s a good idea to identify (or even manufacture) achievable, tangible milestones. This might be “low hanging fruit” that you can resolve within a week, or major milestones that you can celebrate at the six and twelve month marks.
By communicating these victories across your organization, you can continuously reinforce the fact that your project is on track. For this reason, once you’ve identified a milestone, it’s always worth trying to break it into smaller milestones. By creating lots of small wins, you can create a steady stream of positive press for your project, which will help keep staff morale high.
This can also be powerful ammunition that you can use against any naysayers – whether that’s employees who may be unusually resistant to change, or key stakeholders who are considering pulling their support for your initiative.
If you don’t communicate positive progress, then your workforce may struggle to remain fully invested in the project. Even radio silence can be dangerous! In the absence of any news, your workforce will likely slip back into the assumption that change management projects are more likely to fail than succeed.
For the best results, we recommend giving people ownership over these milestones. Being recognized for helping your company achieve an important milestone can be a powerful motivator. It may even transform this person into an enthusiastic change evangelist who will encourage other employees to support your change initiative.