Good news: 70% of change initiatives don’t fail

Last week, we attended the Association for Project Management’s (APM) launch of their new ‘Introduction to Managing Change’ guide. Surprisingly this was one of the professional body’s first dives into change management and its relationship to Project Management.

Dr Mark Hughes, who wrote the preface of the guide, opened proceedings with an impressive speech, where he shed light on the myth that 70% of change initiatives fail’. This has become common parlance in the project community, often being cited in reports and used as a rhetorical device by companies wishing to promote their services. There aren’t many people in the change community who haven’t come across this statistic at least once in their career. But as this blog explains, the poorly evidenced line needs revisiting.

What is the truth behind the ‘70% of change initiatives fail’ statistic?

Hughes’ speech recapped his related research paper (Hughes, 2011). In both, his main argument has been that almost all usage and citation associated with this statistic lacks evidence. Through his research he identified that the quotation originates from a single reference: a speculative quotation by Beer & Nohria (2000) from the Harvard Business School, in their book ‘Breaking the Code of Change’, in which they make an unsupported suggestion of a general 70% failure rate for organisations’ change initiatives. Major strategy consultants, including McKinsey and Bain & Co, have also fallen foul of citing this statistic in their own publications.

What is wrong with the stat?

As Hughes’ put it in his speech, it is unrealistic to establish a single percentage that can reflect the overall outcome of change initiatives, or categorise them between ‘success’ and ‘failure’.  There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Ambiguity. Managing and planning change that will affect people is tricky. Whilst some benefits are expected and conceived at the inception of a planned change, many unintended benefits will also be realised but may not be formally accounted.
  • Success is subjective and a function of our perspective. What is deemed a positive outcome for a project or change manager, will differ even if only slightly, to the business or an executive board.
  • Timing. Whilst some effects of a change initiatives come to light during implementation or shortly after completion, latent effects can take years to emerge. If a project is not sustainable, initial effects might even disappear. The truth is that ongoing change in inevitable.
  • The scale, style, sector and scope of change initiatives vary tremendously.
  • Whilst evaluations can be based upon quantitative measures, related to cost or time, it is much harder to collect data which shows improvements that are more social in nature. Measuring improvements made to team cohesion, ways of working, culture or capability is tough, if not impossible. As we have recently found with a new NFT client, if there is no set monetary business case for change, it will be very hard to prove whether their change has been satisfactorily delivered.

What might we say instead?

As a result, the closest we can get to a general and definitive rule for change initiative outcomes is that ‘change initiatives often do not deliver what is expected’. Firstly, because we should stray away from assigning the words ‘success’ or ‘failure’ to a project evaluation. Neither add clarity to the outcomes achieved and problems encountered. We should instead use spectrums, scales and score cards to measure against a number of controls and variables.  Second, there is little value in an evaluative statement using a percentage as a means to refer to all change management endeavours. Any change practitioner knows that all change initiatives vary so greatly in context and outcome, that they cannot be summarised accurately as a collective.

The statement proposed also reflects the fact that when leading change with people, there is no predictability over what people will find difficult, what will be needed to ensure that people are supported through the change and therefore what benefits can be realised. But whilst most change programmes are unpredictable and challenging exercises, they are also extremely exciting and promising. If delivered well, many will uncover as many unforeseen benefits as they do planned ones.

See Hughes paper for further reading :

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

From the blog

  • What are the barriers to cultural change for charities?

  • How will digital transformation affect your company culture?

  • Overcoming the fear of technology investment: Strategies for successful technology selection