Why Transformation Fails – And How To Avoid It

The concept that 70% of change and transformation programmes fail emerged in the mid 1990’s. There’s actually little evidence that this is true.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success looks like – and that most people have a bad experience of them.

My contention is that programmes fail for three reasons:

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It

When was the last time you heard an organisation openly talking about what didn’t work? The problem we face is that large scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

The irony is that this silence is the root cause of failure – as we become eternally doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (2)

Most organisations exist in a fixed state of transformation – time-limited programmes of change (usually 3-5 years) rather than a flow state. 

Amazon, we hear, have never had a transformation programme. That’s because they exist in a flow state – where the culture is accepting that change is perpetual rather than something that – if we just grin and bear it – will be over in a few years.

The danger with a fixed state is that the driver becomes a business plan focused on implementation not experimentation. 

Accordingly we end up with optimisation not transformation.  Or, as Emma McGowan has said, we end up digitising the status quo.

Why Transformation Fails And How To Avoid It (3)

Too often we focus on transforming parts of organisations rather than looking at whole system change. This results in the creation of more efficient silos rather than anything fundamentally different.

There are cultural reasons for this. We have a western bias towards individualism rather than looking at the whole picture. Rice farmers in South-East Asia tend to be more collaborative and cooperative as a successful crop requires a holistic approach to nature and irrigation systems rather than just a focus on the self.

Most change programmes do not look at interconnected systems – they narrowly focus on efficiency.

Accordingly , as Andy Reeve said, transformation gets a bad reputation as it often becomes equated with fewer jobs rather than creating a different world.

The End of Change Management

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change. People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

We need to get back to basics;

  • We need a clear vision of why we need to change and what benefit it will bring. If you step behind the rhetoric of transformation you’ll see it is usually about reinforcing existing business models rather than truly challenging them.
  • We need influence devolved to people closest to the change. Change is best served when we devolve power, and institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.
  • We need change through small experimentation. We shouldn’t initiate change without a clear problem statement and some evidence that any proposed solution would result in a net positive outcome.

And we need a new honesty about what’s not worked well. Chris Bolton has suggested a Museum of Failed Products for public services.

Perhaps we need a Museum of Failed Change Programmes too?

Surely the best way we can avoid repeating our mistakes is to put our previous ‘failed attempts’ on show for everyone to see.

This is an edited version of a talk that was originally given at #HQNFlight on 11th October 2017

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.

12 Months of Failure: Lessons Learned in Year One of Bromford Lab


Guest post by Tom Hartland

One year ago the Bromford Lab was established as a way of accelerating new ideas, driving innovation in the business and building our external networks.

‘Failing fast’ was a founding principle, any idea was a good idea and our 12 week window to complete work was the target to aim for.

It’s good to see that we’ve failed to realise each of these ideals at least once – failing slow, watching good ideas turn bad and blowing our 12 week window to pieces… technically I’m still involved in a concept that went live in October!

These failings have helped us build, test and rebuild the processes that guide us, but only because we’re willing to learn from them. What we’re left with is a better way to frame potential concepts, a robust and flexible process to test new ideas and a separate, more defined pipeline for service pilots.

We’ve helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems/opportunities from themed areas and getting things to test quickly – particularly the tests that require significant resourcing (i.e. a designated colleague). This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

We use the word ‘test’ more and more nowadays because we’re constructing them as safe environments to fail – typically time-limited, minimal resource and therefore low risk. The impetus is on testing more and piloting less, and where pilots are launched they’re supported by a raft of pre-testing to prove their value.

We’ve recognised that we need to be more ruthless – killing potential zombie projects and burying bad ideas in the innovation graveyard.

Working out loud, sharing everything we do on our website and trello board, we’ve become one of the most transparent teams in Bromford. In the same breath we’ve been reasonably useless at publishing updates on our internal network, yammer, something we’re going to get much better at in the coming year.

It’s hoped that by sharing our progress we can keep building our external networks – cross-pollenating ideas and sharing learning from similar concepts. We’re also working on an offer for potential partners to share our innovation-addled brains, toolkits and processes, negating much of the difficulty establishing a lab from scratch.

For now, have leisurely flick through our slide deck and enjoy our imaginary Bromford Lab birthday cake.

Here’s to year two!


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