“The cruelest lies are often told in silence.”    —Robert Louis Stevenson


A secret is just information you keep to yourself. It becomes “dirty” when you know other people know and they know you know but no one openly discusses it.

Change practitioners have some culpability for the atrocious 70% failure rate of change initiatives. The fact that we haven’t acknowledged any responsibility for the problem to our clients makes it a secret. The fact that we don’t even talk to each other about it makes it a dirty little secret.

We can’t properly address problems unless we acknowledge them. I’d like to suggest that the first step toward facing our accountability around this issue is for us to start talking about it. We need to discuss openly with each other how we have inadvertently contributed to the fact that 7 out of 10 change projects fall far short of their promised outcomes. Let’s at least take the “dirty” out of the secret by no longer hiding it from ourselves.

This and the next two postings are my way of opening the dialogue. I’ll offer my perspective on why we have been reluctant to address this issue, as well as some suggestions about how we can take more individual responsibility in examining our collective track record. Finally, I’ll invite you to propose questions we could be asking ourselves that might help us reverse the 70% failure rate.

First Vindication, Then Whiplash

Some historical perspective might be useful here. As early as 1995, research began documenting astonishingly high failure rates for major change projects within organizations. Around ten years ago, we started seeing consistent findings verifying that only 30% of major change projects fully succeed.[1] If you were in the change business back then, you’ll remember that most practitioners saw this as manna from heaven. Finally, there was research to support what most of us knew to be true—hard evidence to help convince our clients that change management was not just another flavor-of-the-month luxury.

Armed with irrefutable facts, the change management profession kicked into high gear and stormed corporate hallways with its alarming prognosis: “Beware! Beware! Leaders who don’t attend to the implementation aspects of their strategic initiatives are sure to have a weak ROI.”

In the ’80s, change management already enjoyed a growing visibility among corporate leaders, but once reliable research findings backed up its claim of importance, its popularity accelerated exponentially. One sure sign of its advancing popularity was that major consulting firms during that period steadily increased their revenues tied to change management services; it became a required part of the solution proposals executives wanted for their organizations.

Change management’s escalating acceptance and extensive use of the 70/30 statistics proved to be an effective combination. The profession has steadily expanded its influence and is now recognized as a legitimate part of the implementation landscape. 

The good news is that change management was able to ride the coattails of the 70/30 warning all the way to acceptability and prosperity. The bad news? That hard-evidence gift that fueled our growth as a profession is coming back to haunt us now. Here we are, well over a decade later, and the sobering statistics are about the same as when our profession started promoting itself as the solution to the 70% problem.

There is no way to dodge this bullet.

We can’t claim that corporate leadership hasn’t given us a shot, because change management (in one form or another) has become a permanent fixture in the strategy/project delivery frameworks used by many (if not most) organizations.

We can’t claim there aren’t enough of us in the field to make a difference. The Association of Change Management Practitioners is less than two years old and already boasts over 1,000 members. On LinkedIn, the Organizational Change Practitioners group has more than 27,000 members. Add the armies of change professionals deployed by major consulting firms, along with the smaller boutique operations that don’t have the time or inclination to engage in live or online communities, and the number of practitioners becomes quite impressive.

We could claim that the research is somehow flawed because it included organizations that didn’t use implementation facilitation. Trouble is, that’s not the case. Contending that the data collection missed change management’s influence just doesn’t ring true when you review the array of similar findings spread over many years, and covering the period when our profession was growing in importance. Change execution as a discipline has become so popular that for many organizations it is now considered an essential part of properly supported initiative implementation. It is virtually impossible for it to be this widespread and not to have had some usage in the organizations studied.

The inconvenient truth is that after many years of applying our craft, with plenty of opportunities to have an impact and more than enough practitioners to make a difference, there is no hard evidence that we have made even a dent in the appalling prognosis for executing change. The latest research continues to show what the original findings revealed—7 out of 10 projects still fail to reach their stated intentions.

How many professions can you think of (outside of politics) where solutions can continue to be sold despite documented evidence of their failure to yield results? What is truly amazing is that clients haven’t rebelled en masse. They should be sick and tired of wasting time and money on a solution that looks helpful when assessed within a specific setting, but which lacks any long-term proof of value across time and multiple organizations. At some point, they are going to realize that we can’t all be individually successful if, as an overall profession, our clients are collectively failing to execute well.

It’s also remarkable that someone outside our profession hasn’t already launched an assault on our claims of creating value. It’s just a matter of time before this happens…and the only way to avert it is to become our own challenger. We must be the ones asking ourselves the tough questions. Instead of focusing so much on how we can use the horrible implementation failure rate to drum up business, we should be asking ourselves why the prognosis remains so dismal (and in particular, what our role is in all this). After all these years of facilitating organizational change (and with so many of us doing it), how is it possible that the overall project success rate is no higher today than in the past?

The Bottom Line

A review of all the relevant studies suggests that, as a whole, our profession has had little positive impact on the overall initiative success/failure ratio during the last 10-plus years. With this as a premise, I’d like to explore our contribution to such a weak showing. How can the rate of successful implementation be so clearly defined, its negative impact on organizations be so precisely quantified, and a viable solution like the change execution discipline be so widely applied over an extended period of time, yet we continue to get the same dismal outcomes as a decade ago?

I’m proud of the accomplishments our profession has made helping specific organizations realize critically important initiatives. At the same time, it is clear we are not addressing certain issues that prevent us from having a greater impact at the larger aggregate level. In the next two posts, I’ll offer my view on how the change facilitation community has inadvertently inhibited the collective ability of organizations to navigate major change successfully, and what we can do to begin to address the problem.

[1]The three-out-of-seven success rate is an average view from many different research findings. Some studies reported success as low as 10%, others as high as 50%. The research span across many industries and countries and the nature of the change initiative studied varied widely—customer relationship ,management , enterprise resource planning , shared services endeavors, supply chain projects, mergers and acquisitions, cost reduction initiatives, restructuring/reorganization efforts, customer experience initiatives, etc. Any way you examine the findings, there is ample evidence that the change initiatives are far more likely to fall short of their stated objectives than to reach their promised outcomes.

Next: Looking in the Mirror for Answers to the 70/30 Question