Change Management Research vs. the “70% Failure Rate”

Do 70% of change efforts really fail? Shockingly, change management research says otherwise.

This widely-cited statistic has been quoted for almost two decades in the change management industry.

However, a bit of investigation reveals that this number may have little basis in reality.

Below, we’ll look at:

  • What the statistic is
  • Why this number is treading on thin ice
  • Why the real picture is brighter
  • What change managers should focus on instead of this myth

Let’s start with an examination of the statistic itself:

Do 70% of Change Efforts Really Fail?

Everywhere you look you can find this “70% of change efforts fail” statistic.

It turns up in:

  • Google searches
  • Blogs
  • Magazines and journals

However, when you actually dig into the facts behind this number, you will quickly find yourself falling into a rabbit hole.

Most people cite this number as a simple fact … without realizing where the number came from.

And without realizing that evidence actually does not support this number.

However, as we’ll see below, understanding the facts can benefit change professionals and their organizations.

What Change Management Research Says…

The research rabbit hole is quite deep.

Consultant Jack Martin Leith summarizes the myth as follows:

” The various sources of the widely-quoted 70% change failure rate, notably McKinsey & Company, and the person who started it all: John Kotter, who undertook a 10-year study of 100+ companies but provided no evidence in support of his findings. “

Most fascinating, the original quotation that formed the basis for this statistic doesn’t even claim that 70% of change efforts fail.

It says:

” Our unscientific estimate is that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of the organizations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended. “

Clearly, this is hardly the same as claiming that “70% of change efforts fail.”

John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, is also a widely cited source for this statistic.

In it, he states:

” From years of study, I estimate today more than 70 per cent of needed change either fails to be launched, even though some people clearly see the need, fails to be completed even though some people exhaust themselves trying, or finishes over budget, late and with initial aspirations unmet. “

Here, Kotter “estimates” a great deal, but doesn’t claim that “70% of change efforts fail.”

However, over the years, it has evolved into quotes and headlines such as:

However, all of these quotes merely rely on the unsubstantiated claims of previous links in the chain.

But what about other change management research that supposedly supports this statistic?

A 2011 article in the Journal of Change Management critically reviewed five published instances that identify a 70% failure rate.

Its findings – “the review highlights the absence of valid and reliable empirical evidence” supporting this statistic.

The author concludes that this narrative is popular, but lacks supporting evidence.

How to Change the Narrative

Over time, the original quotes became oversimplified, re-cited, and re-cited some more.

However, as the aforementioned article reveals, these citations inevitably lead back to the same unsubstantiated sources.

We could cite change management research that contradicts this finding.

One report studying change management within the government sector, for instance, found the following:

  • 31% of programs were very or moderately successful
  • 43% were somewhat successful
  • 26% were not successful

Obviously, private sector and governmental change programs operate in different contexts. Differences in results should be expected.

However – aside from the fact that 74% of the programs were somewhat, moderately, or very successful – what we should observe is the framework.

“70% of change efforts fail” imply that there are two kinds of programs: successes and failures.

Reality is not black and white … there are many shades in between.

For instance, the above study breaks change results into 3 tiers:

  • Very or moderately successful
  • Somewhat successful
  • Not successful

A research report by Google, The Value of Change Management, expands on change management statistics even further.

It breaks a program down into its objectives. They then used percentage points to explore the results of a program in detail.

Elsewhere in the report, they used more granular data breakdowns, such as 5-point scales.

This type of approach offers a much higher-resolution image of the change program itself … and of what constitutes “success” or “failure.”

Conclusion: Failure Is Not an Option

By using granular statistics instead of sensationalist myths, change management professionals can:

  • Set more realistic expectations
  • Define “success” more appropriately
  • Put the focus on quantitative objectives
  • Have conversations grounded in facts and data

Change programs will not be viewed as “perfect success or complete failure,” all-or-nothing propositions.

Using real statistics and granular frameworks will be more beneficial to change managers and the organizations they are helping.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.