How they framed organizational change failure (Notebook No.1)

How they framed organizational change failure

Post in 28 words – We need to question the currently favoured persuasive narrative that organizational change tends to fail. This post introduces Notebook No.1 and its chapter content questioning currently favoured change failure framing.

Academic journals, monographs and textbooks repeatedly claim that organizational change tends to fail.  However, the more that you examine this persuasive narrative the more doubtful you become.

The label organizational change covers many types of change. Change is undertaken in different sectors and different countries. Approaches to making change happen are many and varied.  Specific organizational changes will succeed and fail with considerable variation given the contextual differences. Depicting organizational change as tending to fail is a problematic generalization.  It is problematic like a sexist or racist generalization and we know such generalizations do great harm.

If still persuaded by the narrative that change tends to fail, look to the main proponents Harvard Business School (HBS) professors.  They claimed that change and transformation initiatives failed. However, a large part of the work of their school involves facilitating change and transformation. Should we applaud a business school for its social responsibility in sacrificing all that income through so publicly acknowledging change failure? Or was a far more subtle narrative at work?

Today I believe that it was change management which they wanted to depict as failing, this was so that we would believe that change leadership would succeed.  Unfortunately, my insight has turned into an albatross for myself.  I have been unable to convince academic journal Editors and their reviewers about the wisdom of my little epiphany.  They reasonably want evidence, they rightly claim that in telling my story, multiple stories are at work.  Notebook No.1 and Notebook No.2 are my best effort to retrace my steps in clarifying and explaining my thinking.  I feel oddly obligated to offer an alternative narrative to the current dominant narrative that organizational change tends to fail.

In this first Notebook, I reflect on my successes and failures, perhaps a little too candidly. The idea of the Notebook label is to signpost that these aren’t the usual sanitized and contorted words we commit to paper.  The following discussion introduces the chapters in this first Notebook.

Do 70% of organizational change initiatives really fail tells the story of how I came to write the paper of the same name. I tell the story of how one of the HBS professors reviewed the paper and what I learnt from him.  Who killed change management also shares a title with a paper. This chapter takes an enjoyable postmodern turn when I decide to investigate the conceptual murder of change management. I begin to appreciate that it wasn’t organizational change which was failing it was change management. The role of textbooks in framing organizational change failure asks an awkward question. If we believe change tends to fail, why is there so little coverage of evaluating organizational change in textbooks?  In A tale of change management failure on the misty literature mountains, I share my learning from writing the monograph The leadership of organizational change. In that monograph, I wanted to establish the origins of change leadership which required a narrative review of 35 years writing. The chapter tells the tale of an author going off on a Tolkienesque adventure in search of the precious thing. A different organizational change failure story is the penultimate chapter. I offer my account of an alternative organizational change failure frame.  In Beyond the rhetoric of failure, I reflect on my successes and failures and the need to do things differently. I also reflect on my hopes for the future framing of organizational change failure.

The first two Notebooks include unusual appendices which require a little explanation. Ernst Bloch’s (1995) The Principle of Hope made a big impression on me.  Bloch (1995:195) wrote ‘even disappointed hope wanders around agonizing, a ghost that has lost its way back to the cemetery and clings to refuted images.’ Academics invest hopes in unpublished papers. The graveyard of disappointed hope offers a public resting place for an unpublished paper.

I do hope that these Notebooks might provoke meaningful practically orientated organizational change debate beyond the firewalled academic journals and costly academic books. As change is all about moving into an unknown future only time will tell…  


Bloch, E. (1995) The Principle of Hope. Translated by N. Plaice, S. Plaice, and P. Knight. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Hughes, M. (2011) Do 70 per cent of organizational change initiatives really fail? Journal of Change Management, 11 (4): 451-464.

Hughes, M. (2016) Who killed change management? Culture and Organization, 22(4): 330-347.

Hughes, M. (2016) The leadership of organizational change. London, Routledge.

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