The answer to this rhetorical question is – NO!
Updated 19th January 2023
Do 70 per cent of all organizational changes really fail? (Hughes, 2011)
The question provides the rhetorical title for my paper 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 21,550 times with an altmetric score of 80.
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 2011, I highlighted 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. My suspicion is that business schools depict change as failing in order to underpin their highlighy lucrative leadership courses, research and consultancy.
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.
Journal access If you have online access to academic journals the full published 2011 paper may be downloaded here:
Access to the final draft of the 2011 paper Alternatively, I have linked to this post the final draft of the 2011 paper, accepted for publication, after review. Please click on this link:
How studying organizational change lost its way (Hughes, 2022)
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 now cited in support of the belief of the guest editors (Schwarz et al, 2021) that organizational change tends to fail. For example:
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).
Source: 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 and outcomes very dynamic. An either ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ dualism misses the subtleties and processes of both failure and success in any organizational change.
I did write to the lead guest editor on the 10th June 2019, collegiatly restating my position, but I never received a reply. In 2021, I included the lead guest editor in a tweet, highlighting my concern that I had been misrepresented, immediately after my tweet he left Twitter. I turned to the editorial office of Human Relations, seeking an impartial review. Their conclusion was that I hadn’t been misrepresented. If you have the time/inclination I have included a link below to my 2022 paper, in which I respond to the perceived misrepresentation.
As this paper is part of the journal’s Reflections series it should be freely accessible (no firewall) to download using the link below.
Hughes, M. (2022) Reflections: How Studying Organizational Change Lost Its Way, Journal of Change Management, 22:1, 8-25, DOI: 10.1080/14697017.2022.2030980
If you have any difficulties accessing this paper, or you want to agree/disagree with my conclusions please email using the contact form on the home page.