Do 70 per cent of organizational changes really fail?

The answer to this rhetorical question is – no.

Updated 11th October 2021

The question is the title for a paper that I had published in 2011 in the Journal of Change Management 11(4): 451-464.

I had been troubled by academic claims that organizational change tended to fail, which was being substantiated by apparent research from Harvard Business School that 70% of organizational changes failed. It is gratifying that at the time of writing, this paper has been downloaded 18,344 times.

Abstract

A 70 per cent failure rate is frequently attributed to organizational change initiatives, raising questions about the origins and supporting evidence for this very specific statistic. This article critically reviews five separate published instances identifying a 70 per cent organizational change failure rate. In each instance, the review highlights the absence of valid and reliable empirical evidence in support of the espoused 70 per cent failure rate. Organizational change research and scholarship now exists which enables us to question the belief in inherent organizational change failure rates. Inherent failure rates are critically questioned in terms of the ambiguities of change, the context-dependent nature of change, competing perceptions, temporal aspects and measurability. In conclusion, 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.

Online Access

If you have online access to academic journals the full published paper may be downloaded here:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14697017.2011.630506

Access to the Final Draft of the Paper

I have always been keen to engage with organizational change practitioners, after all it is your practice which we are studying and writing about. In this spirit, I have uploaded to this post the final draft of the paper that was accepted for publication after being reviewed.

https://woodlanddecay.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/evaluatingchangefinaldraft.docx

Human Relations Special Issue on organizational change failure

Schwarz, G.M., Bouckenooghe, D., and Vakola, M. (2021) Organizational change failure: Framing the process of failing. Human Relations, 74(2) 159-179, in a guest editorial of the journal Human Relations, cited Hughes (2011) four times on pages 160, 162, 167 and 168:

Central to this outlook is that organizational research has long been concerned with the features of and mechanisms for how organizations change, while at the same time acknowledging separately that large-scale organizational changes tend to fail (Hughes, 2011).

This framing acknowledges the aforementioned definitional clusters while incorporating Edmondson (2011), Hughes (2011), Mellahi and Wilkinson (2010), and Mueller and Shepherd (2016) in giving a boundary to failure and change occurring together.

We do so recognizing that, even though the majority of change initiatives fail in some way (Hughes, 2011), there is perpetual interest in successful firms and success stories (Bledow et al., 2017).

Most organizations do not obtain the change outcomes that they plan on or desire, despite ongoing efforts to understand change better or learn from change experience (Hughes, 2011).

FOR THE AVOIDANCE OF DOUBT, I never generalized in 2011 that change tends to fail. I never would make such a sweeping generalization given that organizational changes are highly context dependent with outcomes being very dynamic. Either ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ dualisms miss the subtleties of elements of both failure and success in any organizational change.

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