Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Categories: Dirty LIttle Secret

If you’ve read the first two posts of this series, you may have become a bit uncomfortable with me placing responsibility for at least part of the 70/30 problem squarely on the shoulders of the change facilitator community. When I wrote the first Change Thinking post back in 2009, I promised to be brutally frank about my views on the practice of our craft…the good, the bad, and the ugly. Well, here we are, facing the ugly truth that, not only have we inadvertently contributed to the problem, we haven’t even been able to openly talk about it with each other. It’s time to take a hard look at what role we have played in the dismal statistic, and what we can do about reversing it.

I’m not advocating that this inquiry replace our search for better ways to guide clients. We will always need to invest in more effective methods and processes to help navigate them through myriad implementation difficulties. I do, however, want to encourage us to wake up from the Groundhog Day cycle of always seeing the client as the problem. It’s time to be candid among ourselves about our own contribution to the unrelenting persistence of the 70/30 legacy.

It is within this frame of reference that I offer the following questions for us to ponder as a practitioner community. Many contain links to other blog series I’ve written that address those topics in more detail. This is not intended to be an inclusive list. These are only a few examples of the kinds of things we may not be doing at all (or not doing well) that could be contributing to implementation’s weak track record.

How change practitioners are part of the execution problem

  1. Is it possible that we have been so eager to help with the implementation process that we haven’t always ensured that clients have a clear, compelling, ultimate intent for their change around which to align?
  2. How many times have we engaged in work that had defined installation goals, but which lacked clear realization outcomes?
  3. Do we have a history of agreeing to help with endeavors that clearly lack enough sponsorship to be successful without discussing with clients the downside implications of doing so?
  4. How many times have we engaged change work without properly “contracting” with the client—explicitly discussing expectations regarding things such as access to each other, how and when feedback will be conveyed, level of directness in communications, etc.?
  5. To what extent have we succumbed to client pressure to make fundamental change appear easier, simpler, faster, less risky, and/or less costly than it really is?
  6. To what degree have we focused more on solving problems ourselves than transferring change capabilities so clients become self-sufficient?
  7. Is it possible we have focused too much on teaching clients what to do instead of how to think about change execution?
  8. Have we always been as explicit as we should be about the negative implications when clients attempt to execute more projects than their organization can effectively absorb, instead of narrowing their focus to a few, high-priority initiatives that are truly business imperatives?
  9. To what degree have we put our job security ahead of being frank and straightforward with clients about unpleasant issues they would prefer not to discuss?
  10. How frequently have we reduced or weakened our recommendations so a client would be more comfortable, but failed to explain that doing so required a corresponding reduction of their outcome expectations?
  11. How many times have we worked with leaders who aspired to transform their organizations but were unwilling to transform themselves, yet we didn’t inform them that this reluctance could keep their project from reaching realization?
  12. How many times have we failed to openly admit that we made mistakes when something went wrong during an implementation in order to cover our tracks or to make ourselves look good?
  13. To what extent have we spent time training/advising clients about behavior changes at the expense of addressing the associated mindset shifts that are necessary?
  14. Have there been times when we tried to shore up weak sponsorship by personally taking on some of what the leader should have done, instead of calling out the gap that exists and challenging the person to either deliver the needed sponsorship or lower his or her expectations about what could be accomplished?
  15. How often have we gone along with the myth that it is possible to avoid mistakes during change, instead of encouraging clients to learn from their mistakes?
  16. Are we guilty of sidestepping the messier emotional side of change in favor of the easier-to-deal-with logical aspects?
  17. How often do we accept more assignments than we can properly support and end up providing thinner expertise and/or less of our mindshare than projects warrant?
  18. Is it possible that we sometimes fail to separate who we work with most often (maybe the agents or targets of change) from the sponsors who actually sanction our existence on a project…and in the process, cater to the wrong agendas, priorities, or outcomes?
  19. Are we sometimes overly reliant on our reputation, becoming assumptive about being trusted advisors to our clients, and failing to do what is necessary to earn that status?
  20. Do we sometimes act like a vendor (short-term focus on job security or revenue generation) instead of a partner (long-term focus on what’s best for the client)?
  21. To what extent has our belief in and enthusiasm for our particular approach to change come across as inflexibility or obstinance?
  22. To what extent have our efforts to be malleable and accommodating come across as if there isn’t any real structure or discipline to what we do?
  23. Do we have a history of paying more attention to our methodology and deliverables than we do to how we “show up” with clients? (Are we more concerned with what we do than who we are?)

I encourage you to consider what questions you would add that might help our profession better understand how we unwittingly add to, rather than help mitigate, the overall success rate for organizational change. I believe, as change practitioners, our aim should ultimately be to reverse the 70/30 ratio so that most major change endeavors accomplish their intended outcomes. To reach this objective, however, we will have to examine and address our own culpabilities. We can help our clients only to the extent we are not part of the problem.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: July 24, 2012 05:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

Categories: Dirty LIttle Secret

Studies show that the change facilitation profession has had little positive impact on the overall initiative success/failure ratio during the last decade. This is a real problem, and the fact that we don’t talk about it makes it worse. (You can read last week’s post on this topic here.)

Why aren’t we talking about our failure to have an aggregate impact on an organization’s chances for change success? Here are a few possible factors:

  • First, most clients don’t stay current with the latest studies that chronicle our profession’s collective effectiveness. This means that when we individually toss around the 70% failure rate and claim that the particular approach we use (whatever it may be) will help secure a spot in the 30% success category, few leaders will ask questions about the impact the overall field of change management has had. They’ll want to talk to others we’ve listed as references to see if our respective version of change execution has been helpful, but it is highly unlikely we’ll be challenged about the track record of our overall profession.
  • When most change practitioners read study after study confirming the 70/30 ratio, all they see is validation of how essential their work is. They seldom ask, “Why, after all these years, isn’t the change management profession any better at helping organizations execute change?” One would think there should have been some degree of increased implementation proficiency created from all our efforts…even a modest one. The data doesn’t reflect any such movement, however. More importantly, we haven’t asked ourselves why.

I’d like to suggest that, as a profession, we have developed a rather self-serving myopic view about this issue. We fail to see that we individually use initiative failure rates to convince clients to secure our services even though the change management solutions we collectively provide, over time, have not proven to affect the aggregate dismal numbers for all organizations substantively.

  • The main reason we maintain this self-absorbed perspective is that we practitioners tend to distance ourselves individually from the “aggregate” view of how our profession performs. In effect, we use the 30% success story to sanction our own personal work but then disassociate from the industry average. It’s like a physician who says, “Well, 7 out of 10 patients with your condition get worse or die, but don’t worry—you’ll be fine with me. My way of treating your illness is different from what other doctors do. I hate to brag, but I outperform all my peers.”

You might be justified in putting your trust in a specific doctor who tells you this if you know and have confidence in him or her. However, what if you learn that all doctors who perform the procedure in question say the same to their patients? A logical question would be, “If every physician is successful, how is it that the procedure’s overall failure rate is so high?”

It’s no different for us. When we say to clients that most change projects fail (so they should work with us in order to benefit from what change facilitation has to offer), we are subtly implying—if not overtly stating—that our way of practicing the craft will increase the likelihood that their organization will become part of the thirty-percenters. No doubt, we each believe this to be true about our respective approaches, but that leaves us with the sticky issue of determining who among us is kidding ourselves. We can’t all be highly effective and still face the same dismal failure rates as our profession as a whole.

  • Then there is the issue of our overactive egos. Arguably, the most influential factor keeping us from coming to grips with our inability to shift the ratio in a positive direction is our collective arrogance.

Much of the research that supports the findings and almost all of the practitioner conversations, articles, books, speeches, blogs, and tweets referencing the poor success rate point a subtle accusatory finger toward the clients. This usually takes the form of a three-step sequence:

  1. A statement of the sobering statistics and a declaration that client initiatives are at risk unless something is done
  2. An explanation of what clients are doing wrong that has led to such poor performance (e.g., not being good sponsors, faltering on their commitments, succumbing to resistance, failing to address cultural implications, pushing too much change too fast)
  3. Advice about how to deal with these shortcomings that just happens to coincide with the consulting approach or the training, books, certification, or tools being promoted

The misplaced self-importance I’m calling out here is not reflected in the three steps themselves…there’s nothing wrong with any of them. Initiatives are at risk if clients remain vulnerable to the low success rate. Without a doubt, most clients don’t adhere to the mindsets and behaviors associated with realizing change, so they do need to understand how they contribute to the problem. Finally, most of the time, the advice practitioners provide does help clients better align with success patterns.

The arrogance our profession has been displaying isn’t found in what we’ve done; it’s in what we haven’t done. This is a case of lack of humility born out of omission, not commission.

What is missing here is some self-reflection. Yes, clients should examine their actions and be open to learning new perspectives and skills, but where is our introspection? Why are we not asking ourselves how we might be inadvertently contributing to the persistence of the infamous 70/30 dragon? Is it possible that our professional egos are so entrenched that it just doesn’t occur to us that there is a larger picture to consider than our own individual involvement with clients?

Yes, of course we must determine whether we are creating value for our particular clients, but don’t we also have an obligation to pull back for a more inclusive view of our whole profession?

In no way am I suggesting that we are solely responsible for the persistently weak implementation success rate, but it seems disingenuous of us to think (much less behave) as if we have no impact on or accountability for the fact that such a sobering prognosis has remained stable as long as it has. We owe it to our clients and ourselves to spend at least as much time examining what we could do differently as we do focusing on what clients need to modify about their views and actions.

  • Finally, it’s as if we’ve been caught in a Groundhog Day loop with Bill Murray as the reoccurring 70/30 nightmare goes on and on and on. If you remember how the movie unfolds, Murray’s character is the only one who knows about the unending cycles of the same day. Everyone else experiences the events of the day as fresh, unfamiliar territory. In effect, we have been playing the role of “everyone else”…caught in the specifics of our own client experience…not challenging ourselves to see the larger pattern.

It’s time for us to step out of this naïve perspective and recognize that, despite our declarations of individual victories, the evidence suggests we collectively aren’t helping organizations be any better prepared for change than they were before our interventions.

In my next post, I’ll describe what we can do about it.

Go to the beginning of the series.



Posted on: July 17, 2012 11:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Dirty Little Secret Behind the 70% Failure Rate of Change Projects

Categories: Dirty LIttle Secret

“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 evidence 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.


Posted on: July 12, 2012 12:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it."

- Tallulah Bankhead