Have you ever heard someone claim that research shows that 70 or 80% of all change initiatives fail? Have you noticed that usually such a claim is not backed up by a specific reference to one or more studies or publications? I argue the claim is too general to be valid and useful and can even be counterproductive. Here is why. In 2002, Martin Smith systematically studied Success rates for different types of organizational change by comparing 49 published reports of success of organizational change, representing over 40,000 organizations. Based on his study the following conclusions can be drawn:
- Published success rates vary rather widely per type of change. As an example, Smith found that culture change programs fail much more often than strategy implementations and redesign projects.
- Published success rates vary rather widely over time. Older findings on success rates for certain types of change may differ from more current findings (due to contextual factors and or improved state of art).
- Success rates depend on the success criteria used. In general, the study shows that more broad criteria (financial performance, shareholder value) tend to show higher success rates than more behavioral measures (client satisfaction, management behavior).
- Vested interests of people reporting the research may downplay actual success rates. Reported low success rates may be used to sell different change methodologies.
Thinking and talking in terms of general high fail rates of change initiatives is not only unjustified, it also can have some negative consequences.
- Unjustified pessimism: thinking that organizational change is nearly doomed to fail creates a negative expectation of success which is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even it is true that a certain type of change is associated with lower success rates this says little about your current project. Moreover it deemphasizes the fact that there are still many projects which succeed.
- Paralysis: as a consequence of (1) a feeling of helplessness may emerge which may result in paralysis. If you think change is doomed to fail, what else can you do than .. nothing?
- Wrong decisions: being convinced by consultants who claim to have a silver bullet approach to making change work may undermine your independence, your uniqueness and your change capacity.
- Wrong measures: thinking in these general terms (fail/no fail) may lead you to think too superficially about organizational change. An initiative can be a relative success in one respect (profitability) and a relative failure in another (market share).
It is hard to provide general advice on organizational change because the subject is huge and complex and huge. Still, here are some tentative suggestions.
- Don't change more than necessary. Organizations are dynamic systems in which continuous change is inevitable. Constant renewal is essential to keeping the system vital. It seems wise to be careful with the introduction of drastic change, however. If drastic change fails, the consequences can be quite damaging. Think carefully about the message you send to the organization. A message of everything-must-change can be highly demotivating for personnel (apparently we have been failing up till now).
- Follow a success perspective. Make explicit why you need the change and define the desired situation in positive terms. Focus your efforts primarily on indentifying what works to make progress in the desired situation.
- Be reluctant to rely heavily on external help. Most of the time organizations have the potential of defining their own goals and finding their own solutions to solve their problems and achieve their goals. Outside help can be useful and practical but can also be costly and can undermine your uniqueness and your own capacity to change.
- Evaluate thoughtfully. In evaluating the change intiative, refrain from un-nuanced, one-dimensional evaluation approaches. Instead, use a success-oriented evaluation approach (see example here).
Are you involved in organizational change? Are some of these comments and suggestions useful?