Change Management Failure Statistics Explained


Business Statistics

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Change management is exactly what it sounds like: A company changes protocols, processes, or personnel in an attempt to be better in some way — or at least, that’s the theory. In practice, change management appears to fail more than it succeeds. So why is that? 

According to most estimates, 70 percent of all change management efforts fail for reasons such as employee resistance, poor leadership and communication, and improper planning and execution methods. However, this statistic has recently been called into question. 

In this article, you’ll further understand the statistics and reasons behind change management failure. Once you do, you can rest assured your efforts won’t go down the drain should you choose to change your company in any way. 

Origins of Change Management Failure Statistics

If you search for change management failure statistics, two sources are often referenced.

The first one is a book called “Reengineering the Corporation” by Michael Hammer and James Champy, which came out in 1993. The second one is from John Kotter, who published a book called “Leading Change” in 1996.

According to Hammer and Champy, 50 to 70 percent of all change initiatives don’t achieve their objectives. Kotter adds that only 30 percent of all organizational transformation programs have ever been successful, which appears to corroborate Hammer and Champy’s conclusions. 

Since the release of these findings, several well-known organizations have conducted studies on change management, and many of them have had similar conclusions as Kotter in particular.

In 2008, management consulting firm McKinsey and Company conducted a study where they surveyed 3,199 executives from all over the world. According to this study, just one change endeavor out of every three initiatives (i.e., 33 percent) had any chance of success — a number close to Kotter’s findings.

Meanwhile, Hammer and Champy’s assertions were repeated and supported by well-known names such as the Harvard Business Review and The Ken Blanchard Companies.

Given the number and prestige of the individuals and organizations supporting the 70 percent change management failure statistic, it’s no surprise that these claims remained unchallenged until recently.  

The Latest Change Management Failure Statistics

In an article published in the Journal of Change Management in 2011, the assertion that change management is unsuccessful 70 percent of the time was investigated further. After conducting a thorough analysis of five earlier studies backing the 70 percent failure rate, the paper came to the conclusion that there’s no reliable evidence to support the assumption.

Similarly, an article published by the Agile Change Leadership Institute essentially found that what John Kotter said was either an unscientific estimate or an observation not supported by solid statistics.

That said, both sides of the “pro” and “against” the 70 percent failure statistic will likely agree that change management is extremely difficult to implement in practice. 

However, rather than basing companywide strategies on a statement as defeatist as “70 percent of change management efforts fail; therefore, change management in itself is pointless,” it’s worth diving deeper into the concrete reasons change management fails. 

Reasons Why Change Management Fails

Employee Resistance

The most important factor in any change program is the affected individuals agreeing to and implementing the change. Humans are naturally resistant to change as the brain is hardwired to behave in specific ways and follow certain patterns. Pushing beyond those set patterns may cause people to resist. 

Aside from their natural inclination, employees may also resist because of the following reasons:

  • They can be worried about how the shift will affect their responsibilities or perhaps their employment prospects.
  • They may have a skewed perception of the change initiative’s objectives and methods — or, at least, disagree with some of its components.
  • They may have little faith in top management and the company as a whole.

In other words, a change project will meet opposition if the particular concerns of those who oppose it aren’t handled effectively. Dealing with this resistance is one of the tasks a change manager is responsible for.

Ineffective Leadership Skills

Poor or ineffective leadership skills are another reason an intended overhaul of a company or any of its procedures, processes, or personnel may never successfully come to fruition. 

As noted earlier, introducing change will inevitably bring resistance, and the leadership should be capable of dealing with it. 

A leader is accountable for avoiding or resolving issues as they arise. So if an ineffective leader is tasked with the responsibility of executing the transition, what will happen?

In the absence of strong leadership, there’s no one in charge to set the tone for the transition and no high-level backing to see it through. 

The absence of effective leadership has an impact not only on the process of managing change but also on a variety of other project management-related areas. 

Most executives don’t have change management skills, as these skills differ from those required to manage a company that’s been going on as it usually does. 

Organizations are usually dealt with in an almost autocratic style where orders are given from the top and obeyed by those at the bottom. This organizational structure is necessary for utmost efficiency and scalability.   

However, a good change leader must be flexible and adaptable to the sudden circumstances and challenges coming their way. 

Executives set a precedent for the rest of the company regarding change management practices by continually encouraging and positively reinforcing staff efforts to bring about desired shifts.

Leaders shouldn’t undertake organizational change if they’re not ready to remain actively and deeply engaged in the change management process by attending to their employees’ concerns and acting accordingly.

According to a 2006 study conducted by Hrebiniak on 243 executives who participated in the process of implementing change, the most significant barrier to the change initiative is a lack of capability on the part of executives to respond to change and eliminate opposition.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to poor management, including: 

  • Inadequate selection techniques. 
  • An absence of assistance from higher-ups. 
  • A lack of development and training opportunities.

Therefore, programs designed to effect organizational transformation should be entrusted to the leadership of managers who are both skilled and qualified. They should have a proper education in the principles and practices of change management if they are to effectively motivate staff to implement these shifts and advance the organization’s aims.

Improper Planning and Execution Method

When considering an organizational change initiative, executives often concentrate on the nature of the reform as well as the reasons it’s essential. However, any attempt at transformation might be rendered ineffective if no thought is put into determining how the transformation will take place.

Planning is of the utmost significance for effectively implementing an organizational transformation. If the preparations are done poorly or inadequately, it will cause a domino effect that will ripple throughout the organization. In the absence of a well-thought-out implementation strategy, any intended outcomes might be delayed or derailed. 

Fortunately, the likelihood of these difficulties may be reduced, and organizational objectives and transitions can be successfully executed if a proper execution strategy is used while keeping all the elements of what, why, and how in mind. 

Poor Communication 

Poor communication is one of the most common reasons for change management failure. Leaders who implement changes incorrectly and communicate poorly may just end up broadcasting constant and confusing updates to staff and management. As a result, they become unsuccessful in engaging their workforce and getting them on board with the changes.

If the culture of an organization doesn’t encourage people to talk about their experiences and express their ideas, it will be difficult to execute revolutionary changes. People don’t merely develop their knowledge by memorizing and parroting rote facts. Rather, they learn by adopting that knowledge and implementing it in new contexts.

Another aspect of poor communication is when stakeholders aren’t on the same page. When a change initiative is introduced, it’s not merely the responsibility of one person. The change message has to resonate with every stakeholder in an organization, including but not limited to line managers, supervisors, and the rest of the staff. 

According to research published by the Niagara Institute, 68 percent of upper-level managers claim to understand why big shifts are happening in their companies. However, this figure drops to 53 percent when middle managers are asked if they understand the message and why it is happening. Moving down the organizational hierarchy, the number further drops to 40 percent when the front-line supervisors are asked the same question.

One common communication-related mistake is to make an announcement about a change program during an all-staff meeting and then stop communicating about the change after that. 

Leaders at all levels, including the supervisor of each worker who will be affected by the transition, must update their teams often. The change initiative requires participation from all leaders within an organization, not only the individuals at the most senior levels who deliver presentations at top management meetings.  

The leader and the rest of the staff should maintain open lines of communication in which each party has an equal opportunity to ask questions, provide suggestions, and hear the other side out. These conversations may take place in more official contexts, such as group or individual meetings, as well as in more casual ones, such as during lunch breaks or via personal messages.

How To Implement Change Management Initiatives Successfully

Now that we’ve established what can cause change management initiatives to fail, how can you make them succeed — or at least keep the probability of failure to a minimum?

Train Your Leaders in the Art of Change Management

As discussed earlier, most executives and managers don’t have change management skills. Since change is inevitable in any organization that aims to move up to the next level, it’s essential to be proactive about change management training — as opposed to forcing your leaders to learn change management skills at the same time change is being implemented.

For example, you may contact well-respected change management experts and request them to hold a seminar for your organization. The seminar should be scheduled on a day that’s convenient for everyone involved. It should also have a forum where the participants can ask questions about any concerns regarding the change that needs to be implemented.

Plan the Intended Changes Down to the Last Detail

If the change will be implemented on an organizational scale, everyone affected should understand what the change will be about. They should also be given the opportunity to weigh in on the change before it’s implemented. 

To do this, it may help to hold company-wide meetings. Through these, the affected stakeholders can understand why the change is necessary, how it will be implemented, how it will affect them, and other important details. This way, it’ll be easier to point out any potential flaws in the intended change that could adversely affect the organization. 

Have Backup Plans

Of course, even with a well-thought-out plan, it’s possible that an intended change may fail regardless. In that case, it may help to establish a Plan B, Plan C, and so on in case Plan A fails. This way, the stakeholders will not be left panicking and scrambling when they hit a wall, so to speak.  

If it’s not possible to plan the change down to the last detail, there should at least be some allowance for when things will go haywire. 

Implement the Changes on a Piecemeal Basis

Rather than implementing the changes on a companywide scale, it may be better to test it out first. For example, you may choose a department or two where the new processes can be implemented, and the staff therein can be empowered to provide their feedback so the intended change can be tweaked and improved further. 

Also see What Is the Problem With Having Too Many KPIs?

Final Thoughts 

A lot of misconceptions about change management failure come from the widely quoted 70 percent figure proposed by pioneers like John Kotter. The statistic was reiterated by renowned organizations around the globe and therefore established as a near-unassailable fact in the domain of change management. 

However, later studies have called the statistic into question, finding that the figure was, in fact, an unscientific estimate with little solid evidence to support it. Nevertheless, change management failure does occur for reasons that include poor communication, ineffective leadership skills, poor strategy, and employee resistance. 


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