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.