We Need To Stop Talking About Change Or Get Comfortable With Failure

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging environment.

70% of these programmes will fail.

Or will they?

The concept of the 70% failure rate seems to have emerged in the mid 1990’s most notably through the work of John Kotter and McKinsey and Company.

Except there’s no evidence at all that this is true.

David Wilkinson has presented an entertaining dissection of the myth that concludes that many sources are personal observations, estimates, or smoke and mirror survey results. Not serious research.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success, and indeed failure, actually looks like.

Also – 70% feels about right, which is why it gets traction. Change gets a bad rap.

Many people who’ve been involved in change initiatives self report poor experiences. However colleague feedback is inherently unreliable as we all respond in a way that makes us look as good as possible.

Perhaps we are looking at it the wrong way around.

Maybe our organisations are setting themselves up to fail by the way we talk about change. 

Nick Tasler has written that we don’t do ourselves any favours. When we say “change is hard” people equate “hard” with “failure”.

Change = hard, quickly becomes change = failure.

That’s compounded by the fact that while us as individuals are pretty comfortable talking about failure , organisations certainly aren’t. Nearly everything is successful.

So we need to stop saying change is hard, but we also need to stop saying change is exciting.

It isn’t.

Most of us are up for change – except when it affects us personally.


Change evangelists , just like those who cheerlead for innovation, piss people off.

Giving them a platform to outline their vision is just about the worst thing you can do.

As Stowe Boyd has said, most people hate the future: “the unknowability scares them, and that leads to hatred of even the idea of the future, and especially those that talk about it.”

The 70% failure rule has become mythic precisely because we are predisposed to the notion that the future is worse than the past.

If we agree that this future is best explored through experimentation then things get even messier.

  • Experimentation is confusing – it offers no certainty. There’s no one true path to innovation.
  • Experimentation means shutting down failures – and killing people’s ‘brilliant ideas’. Get ready for discord.
  • Experimentation means being comfortable not fully knowing what you are doing or where you are going.

The future of work requires employees to be continual explorers rather than passive recipients of time limited programmes. They are individual nodes in the organisation , permanently connected to social networks quicker and more powerful than your internal comms plan will ever be.

Our old models of change narrative are defunct.


That’s challenging to the traditional practices of leadership as it means getting comfortable with your people being uncomfortable.

Change is changing  – there is no end date on experimentation.

Now more than ever we either need to stop talking about change or get comfortable with failure.


2 thoughts on “We Need To Stop Talking About Change Or Get Comfortable With Failure

  1. hmmm.. that is fascinating. I had understood that this was a pretty solid research base, and it’s borne out by my own experience. For example, one major ‘systems thinking’ (lean/process/management intervention) consultancy has a 5-7% sustainable success rate. I don’t really ‘do’ video but will follow up that link to look for some text 🙂

    We (actually my colleague, Dennis Vergne) did primary research on 12 major transformation programmes in public services (defined as >40 jobs change significantly or go).
    Of these, two were not valid subjects for the primary MSc research (they imploded before the end of the study).

    Seven failed, and three succeeded.

    What was critical was that the research mapped, in detail, each ‘change intervention’. There were eight categories and a lot of analysis, but the critical distinction turned out to be between top-down, power-based, directive change interventions and bottom-up, emergent, to do with exploration, building a picture, meaning-making etc.

    The failed change programmes were (on average, and quite consistently) 80% top-down and 20% bottom up. The successful few were 30% top-down and 70% bottom up.
    (Oh, and the two that were so disastrous they couldn’t be studied were, in one case 95% bottom-up, but with no sponsors, budget, programme discipline, and 95% top-down).

    This has led us to two major larnings:
    1) shift from a typical ‘pyramid of change’, which offers, in decreasing order, prescription (red lines/must-haves), consultation (see what you think, then we’ll decide), and delegation (the people in the change make the decisions), to an ‘hour glass’ model where the wishy-washy ‘consultation’ is squeezed right out or right down, the prescription is made transparent, and delegation is maximised – that works.
    2) pursue iterative, prototyping approaches which, by time-boxing, achieve essentially the same thing.

    So, I think the 70% failure rate is true. And I agree with all the rest of your arguments.

    1. Meant to say thanks for this great comment – something I’ll return to at a later point. I agree that – despite lack of ‘evidence’ 70% feels much closer to truth.

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