The answer to this rhetorical question is – NO!
Updated 17th January 2022
The question provides the title for a paper that I had published in 2011 in the Journal of Change Management 11(4): 451-464. It is gratifying that at the time of writing, this paper has been downloaded 18,931 times.
I was troubled by academic claims that all organizational change tended to fail. The claims had apparently been substantiated by Harvard Business School research with a 70 per cent organizational change failure rate cited. In the paper I highlight the complete absence of either empirical evidence or theories in support of these rhetorical claims.
The 70 per cent organizational change failure statistic was frequently cited by leading business schools and in leading journals before 2011. I would like to tell you that after 2011 the academic claims that organizational change practitioners tend to fail ceased, but sadly this has not been the case.
Human Relations Organizational Change Failure Special Issue
A decade later in a Special Issue of Human Relations on organizational change failure the 70 per cent failure statistic was still being cited. More troublingly my 2011 paper was cited in support of the belief of the guest editors (Schwarz et al, 2021) that organizational change tends to fail:
Page 160 – 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).
Page 167 – 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).
Schwarz, G.M., Bouckenooghe, D., and Vakola, M. (2021) Organizational change failure: Framing the process of failing. Human Relations, 74(2) 159-179.
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.
Accessing the Hughes (2011) Journal of Change Management Paper
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:
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.