How Studying Organizational Change Lost Its Way

Introduction

A grandiose title, but as the claims that I am challenging have been equally grandiose, when in Rome…

At the end of this post, you will find a link to the published paper, Reflections: How studying organizational change lost its way, as well as, the accepted draft version of the paper.  My focus in this post is broadly explaining and differentiating the three frames.  If you want to delve deeper, you will find full references in the linked posts and papers at the end.

It is the repeated assertions that all organizational change tends to fail that I find so problematic.  In a world of limitless social science funding, it would be difficult to envisage a research design that could meaningfully research such a silly sweeping generalization.  It is unsurprising, that meaningful evidence in support of this generalization has not been forthcoming.  In advancing this debate I introduce three potential frames for studying organizational change. 

  1. Organizational change tends to fail
  2. The management of change is failing
  3. Leading change will succeed

The first frame reflects the current orthodoxy if gauged by what elite journals and prestigious business schools are keen to promote. The second frame about the management of change failing has not been acknowledged to date. The third frame about leading change succeeding is implicit rather than explicit in theories and practices.

It isn’t just evaluating change that has lost its way in failing to challenge the assumption that change tends to fail. Current studies of change agency fail to explain the shift from managing change to leading change. They fail to either explain or debate failure being attributed to management and success to leadership.  Instead, the unchallenged assumption is that a tendency for organizational change to fail was empirically established. Equally, the implication is that a shift from managing change to leading change was empirically driven.

The claims that I am making are not new.  They have been informed by my scholarship around the shift from managing change to leading change and around change evaluation over the past decade. I am grateful to the Journal of Change Management for enabling me to voice my concerns about a field of study with which I have been involved for the past three decades.  

Frame one – Organizational change tends to fail

I am neither an organizational change apologist nor an evangelist. I am very aware of change initiatives failing to achieve desired outcomes and I have worked in and with organizations in which changes failed.  Equally, I am not persuaded by unrealistic rhetoric in which change universally succeeds.

The current failure versus success dualism is too simplistic to satisfactorily inform either theories or the lived experience of processes of changing.   Notions of all change tending to fail haven’t grasped the contextual, processual and dynamic nature of change processes and change outcomes. We shouldn’t underestimate these academic advances. I lived through the initial sweeping generalizations about organizational change and I was fortunate to witness a field of study evolving and maturing. Three decades ago, there was a heady enthusiasm in the literature and practice for change management success.  In this sense counterclaims of change failure provided a healthy reality check. However, attempting to replace change tends to succeed with change tends to fail isn’t good social science.   When respected journals and respected academics want to take us back to an era of early organizational change generalizations, I am left perplexed and annoyed. 

Organizational Change Tends to Fail

Career academics claiming that all change tends to fail, begs the question if they believe this why study organizational change? Why waste your life studying practices you perceive as pointless and futile? Equally, why are elite journals and prestigious business schools so keen to promote notions of organizational change failing?  The performative nature of academic journals and the enterprising nature of business schools make their failure rhetoric, so perplexing.  The advertisement reads something like – Is your organization going through organizational change, come to our business school and we will explain to you in detail how it is failing and will continue to fail! 

No, these individuals and institutions are clever and enterprising, there are darker arts at work here.  There is a rationale behind depictions of all organizational change tending to fail and the repetition of these depictions over the decades. Business schools do business as well as reporting about business. This isn’t about reducing their involvement in organizational change business. This is about creatively developing new income streams, delivering on demanding institutional performance metrics through blurring distinctions between facts and fictions.

I have been one of the few scholars explicitly challenging unchallenged change failure assumptions.  Putting it crudely, at times I felt like I was pissing in the wind! But then in 2021 that wind dramatically changed direction.  Suddenly and surprisingly, I found myself being cited in support of the assumption that change tends to fail.  On one level I was flattered to be cited in an elite journal.  On another level, I was left perplexed at this apparent miraculous conversion.  The main opponent to change tends to fail generalizations was now cited as the main proponent.  My paper highlighting that the 70% change failure rate was without evidence was reimagined as the change tends to fail evidence that had eluded academics for so long.  I don’t want to become side-tracked on what was a challenging, although informative example of a debate actively being framed to serve powerful interests.  In the Reflections paper (please see links at the end), if you are curious, I reflect upon my futile attempt to have this misrepresentation corrected. I get knocked down, but I get up again (Chumbawamba, 1997)!

Despite my agitation, we do need to be clear about the current organizational change studies orthodoxy, as I am certainly not orthodox.  In prestigious business schools today, students are taught about a tendency for organizational change to fail.  In elite journals, claims are still being made that organizational change tends to fail.  Academics and journals still promote the spurious statistic that 70% of all organizational change initiatives fail.  This is the first way in which I believe organizational change studies lost its way. However, preoccupations with change failure, either intentionally or unintentionally, hide wider academic change agency confusions currently impeding organizational change studies.

Frame two – The management of change is failing

Over three decades, I observed and was academically engaged with a shift from managing change to leading change both in theory and practice.  The fact that my career mirrored this shift was by default rather than design.  That said, I was personally invested in making sense of a debate that ran parallel to my development.  In 2006, my first organizational change textbook had ‘change management’ in the title. In 2010, my second textbook had ‘managing change’ in the title. In 2019, my textbook had ‘managing and leading’ in the title.  We moved from management as a ‘thing’, to managing as a ‘process’ and then to managing and leading as a ‘duality’.

The Management of Change is Failing

Over three decades, I became more and more critical of organizational change theories being espoused in journals and by business schools. Perversely, my respect for organizational change practices and practitioners grew as we worked with very different practitioners in very different contexts.

In the early heady days, there was a real (if unrealistic) enthusiasm to successfully manage change. Today we can contrast this with talk and writing focusing almost exclusively on successfully leading change.  The either managing OR leading and failure OR success rhetoric still seems unrealistic.  However, I was more curious about why a shift from managing change to leading change had taken place.  Ideally, the shift was empirically driven with research and theory demonstrating that leadership rather than management was required in facilitating successful change. The elephant in the room is that when you explore academic literature in support of the shift, it isn’t very convincing.  So, if this shift wasn’t academically driven, what was driving it?

A shift from managing change to leading change was part of a broader shift from management to leadership.  A greater emphasis on leadership rather than management has been apparent both in theory and practice. If we go back fifty years, we witness American corporations and billionaires requesting a shift from management to leadership. In parallel, we witness academics beginning to question the utility of management and encouraging the adoption of leadership. However, contentiously I argue that this questioning wasn’t arising out of objective research.  It was more a case of academics framing a debate that management fails and leadership succeeds to fit the cultural context requested by corporate America at that time.

Between 1990 and 2000 the titles of three Harvard Business Review articles appeared to frame organizational change and transformation as failing.  For myself, this is part of the explanation why elite journals and prestigious business schools claim organizational change tends to fail.  However, this raises a question about why would Harvard Business School depict change and transformation as failing? Perhaps, you believe it was an act of altruism to give up the lucrative change and transformation income stream.  I would disagree and it is informative to read beyond the headline titles of the three articles. In each article, it is the management of change that is depicted as failing. The articles claim that with the addition of leadership change and transformation will succeed.   This very different frame to Frame One is currently neither being acknowledged nor discussed in organizational change studies. At the very least, it merits further discussion in both change evaluation and change agency debates.   Organizational change studies lost its way in allowing Frame One to hide the existence of Frame Two.  We should be more openly and honestly acknowledging and debating academic disparaging of management.   There are implications for practice when management is academically disparaged when it might still have a role to play in organizations.

Frame three – Leading change will succeed

The third frame is implicit in current leading change theories and practices.  Change tending to fail (Frame One) necessitates leading change (Frame Three).  There is an unchallenged assumption that leading change will succeed.  The contrast between managing change and leading change is important here. Frame Two enables Frame Three in terms of shifting change agency from change management to change leadership.  The authority of change managers was corroded as part of the construction of change leader authority.

Leading Change Will Succeed

We begin to understand why organizational change had to be depicted as failing and how specifically it was the management of change that was failing. In parallel, we begin to see how such framing benefits business schools and leadership research, teaching and development that they now deliver.  Business schools strive to be successful businesses. There is a wonderful symmetry when elite journals and prestigious business schools identify a tendency for change to fail and simultaneously offer a leadership solution.

I believe organizational change studies lost its way in failing to acknowledge and discuss how change agency and change evaluation debates were academically being framed.  Idealized concepts such as we need strong leaders to lead change were never empirical realities. Performance metrics and academic institutional policies increasingly privileged gap-filling research over assumptions challenging critical scholarship.

Academics, business schools and journals echoed the desires for leading change.  Socratic questioning which used to be so integral to academic work was lost.  Academics, business schools and journals moved into the business of legitimating societal and organizational desires, rather than critically questioning these desires.

The debate needs to move beyond simplistic generalizations that organizational change tends to fail. We need to consider academic involvement in both the disparaging of management and the promotion of leadership.  This is achievable and I offer seven constructive hopes for organizational change in the paper (please see below). It has been too easy to date for academics to highlight the failings of organizational change practitioners and their practices. It is now time to take the inventory of those academics, institutions and journals framing these debates and highlight their vested interest in promoting particular lucrative frames.

If you want to explore further the three frames introduced here, you may find the following links useful (please click on the bold titles).

Do 70 per cent of all organizational change initiatives really fail? In this post, I share links to the publisher website for the 2011 paper published in the Journal of Change Management and a freely available draft version of this paper.

Leading changes: Why transformation explanations fail. In this post, I share links to the publisher website for the 2016 paper published in Leadership and a freely available draft version of this paper.

The leadership of organizational change.  In writing this monograph I was interested in literature informing the shift from managing change to leading change.  It was more of a narrative review than a systematic review, but my critical engagement with literature was wide-ranging. The link is to the Routledge website containing further details about the monograph published in 2016.

Managing and leading organizational change.  This is a link to my textbook published by Routledge in 2019. I know many academics are ‘sniffy’ about textbooks, but I stand by the extensive critical scholarship I undertook in writing this text.  In particular, the Evaluating organizational change chapter offers my most recent review of literature in this area.

Reflections: How studying organizational change lost its way This is the link to the publisher website for the 2022 paper published in the Journal of Change Management. It appeared as part of the Reflections series in which Editorial Board members share their reflections on our field of study.

NBReflections: How studying organizational change lost its way, is sometimes freely available to download even if you do not have institutional journal access, it is worth checking the link above.

Final draft: How studying organizational change lost its way – I am troubled by the claims of academics that organizational change practitioners tend to fail, being hidden behind firewalls.  I have included below a draft of the final accepted manuscript which should be freely accessible (not password protected).

4 Replies to “How Studying Organizational Change Lost Its Way”

  1. Thanks for this really thought provoking post and signpost to further reading. I have read you work before so it is good to be reminded of the richness of your insights.

  2. Thank you Stefan for your feedback and kind words, it is always encouraging to hear about engagement with my work.

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