In the past few years I have run many workshops, trainings and delivered lots of presentations on Transformation & Change. On these events I meet a wide variety of participants from many countries and companies ranging from small businesses to large multinationals. I always start by asking the same question: “What would you say is the average success rate of the millions of transformation & change initiatives run by companies all over the world?”. The answers are always the same: 10%? 20%? maybe 30%? And when some participants announce these guesses, the others nod approvingly: yes, of course, we all know that this is the situation! And it always happens in such a matter-of-factly manner, that it is frightening: all these leaders and managers accept that they are busy launching an ever increasing number of change initiatives acknowledging that they have a 70-80% chance to fail!?!

I try to confront them by asking a second question: “Imagine that you are planning a weekend trip to visit friends/relatives in the countryside, a good 3-4 hour drive with the kids on the backseats, and somehow you learn that due to various reasons (weather, roads, car conditions) you have 70-80% chance that you will not get there. Would you go?” And the answers are always clear NOs. So then, what about the 70-80% expected failure rate of your planned change initiatives???

(In these conversations, the definition of “failure” always comes up. My definition is that we talk about failure of a change program when (a) after an initial hype the program dies away or (b) the achieved changes prove to be temporary and things reverse back to the original status or (c) the program does not bring the originally set results and outcomes.)

 The first well-known source of these statistics is John Kotter’s research results published in his book in 1996: 70% of change initiatives fail! Since then, thousands of books have been published on change management and transformation management. (Literally thousands. Check it on Amazon!) Millions of change management trainings have been delivered around the world. (It is difficult to meet a manager now who has not yet participated on at least one.) All MBA programs cover change management as an important subject. Almost all companies above a certain size have Change Management Managers/Experts dedicated to this function.

A lot has been invested, so we might expect that the situation has improved. But over 20 years after Kotter’s study, we learn from new research results of universities and consulting companies that actually NOTHING HAS CHANGED. THE FAILURE RATE IS STILL MINIMUM 70%!

Something is seriously wrong here! After thousands of books, trainings, courses and models, we seem to accept it as a fact of life that change initiatives’ death rate continues to stay at a very high level.

 So, what is wrong? There are only two alternatives:

  • Maybe the success rates are actually better, but it is in the interest of consultants and scholars to maintain our sense of high risks to be willing to buy their books, trainings and consulting services, or
  • the numbers are true, and we really miss something serious about change management.

 My personal experience suggests more the second alternative: I do see a very high percent of change initiatives fail.

If we analyse the root causes of the failures, five interrelated fundamental reasons can be identified:

I will elaborate deeper on these five reasons in further articles.