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Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?

Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?

What do we know about organisational change ? We know that most change is step based, underpinned by Kurt Lewin's unfreeze-change-refreeze model. We know that it causes a lot of psychological and emotional stress for those experiencing it. And, according to HBR, 70% of it fails. 

But is that all true? 

Recently, we've discovered that Lewin's foundational step-based change model doesn't exist. He didn't design a model. He didn't even write unfreeze-change-refreeze. He just speculated, in a tiny minor subsection, that you might think of change like this. It was made "real" by one person telling us that's what Lewin thought ten years after Lewin's death. And then many other people assuming he wrote it (of which I was once guilty).

So, no surprise that 70% of change fails, huh? If the model sucks, then change will suck. But does it?

Dr David Wilkinson has examined this claim in detail. He's found that most change works. He argues that 89.4% of change is very successful to somewhat successful. Only 5.88% is not successful at all. 

But add somewhat successful and not successful at all and you get 65%. Which begins to back up the 70% claim. 

So, what to believe? I'm not sure anymore and I've been researching this stuff for a decade. 

One problem is Harvard Business Review (HBR), the publication that first popularised the 70% claim. Two of the three most quoted sources for this claim are HBR articles.

HBR is low impact. It has an impact rating of 1.27, compared to 41.456 for the most impactful research journal in the world. It's ranked 29th for management journals and 24th for business journals.

These rankings mean it isn't going to generate much extra academic research. So the figure doesn't get backed up. Quite simply, it's not a serious research journal. But one that popularises ideas. 

It's important not for the quality of its research. But because it's the journal managers outside academia are most likely to read.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Good ideas need to be transmitted to the wider world. As does quality research. HBR achieves both. 

It becomes a problem if, as Dr Wilkinson points out, it makes strong claims with "no source, no research, no evidence." Or when editorial articles make completely different claims than the article they are talking about. 

As, for example, the editorial on John Kotter's article that supposedly made the 70% claim. Kotter wrote, "A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale."

The editorial?

Most major change initiatives— whether intended to boost quality, improve culture, or reverse a corporate death spiral—generate only lukewarm results. Many fail miserably. 

Not exactly the same thing, is it?

Other publications that popularise this 70% claim are Bain and McKinsey reports. Both companies that make serious money from their own change management methodologies. So, perhaps it's in their commercial interest to perpetuate this stat? Who knows? 

I don't want to make any absolute claim here, as the evidence is far too fuzzy. But I would argue that we need a lot more research. Because we really, really don't seem to know what we are doing!

Perhaps the only conclusion we can reliably draw is this. Change is pretty constant. We don't have a reliable model for delivering change. We have no idea how much of it works or not.

But we do know that it produces volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments. And that this, in turn, produces five responses in humans:

  1. Some people struggle psychologically and emotionally, to the extent that some poor souls suffer total breakdowns. 
  2. Others become zealous for the change.
  3. Others resist it with the same passion. 
  4. Some struggle in baffled bewilderment and chaotic confusion.
  5. Others still to develop an ironic, humorous or cynical attitude towards management directives. 

Unlike the change modelling or success rate evidence, this is solid research. It has been replicated time and time again. We have over 25 years of evidence illustrating that change, especially cultural change, produces these responses in humans. 

But a lot of it is locked up in academic journals and books. Doesn't get trendily transmitted into the business world.

It's also a bit too complex and messy. Doesn't fit with a managerial worldview. Is tricky to measure or quantify. 

Yet, despite these blockages, we have been implicitly addressing this. 

We have seen increased interest in organisational psychology. Who hasn't done some form of psychometric testing? Heard about the importance of attitude? Such tests determine how you might perform during change. It is measurable and quantifiable, so management likes it.

We just won't talk about the fuzzy set of criteria, dubious testing methodologies and non-replicable results. 

We have seen a rise in interest in emotions at work. We've all read about positive psychology and the happiness imperative. Get told we must become passionate about what we do. Hear about ways we can use emotional intelligence to mitigate the stress. And become more successful employees.

We just won't talk about how this authoritarian demand for unthinking happiness is a key theme in George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

And we know about the method of using early adopters to change to persuade others to come along. Use their zeal for the project to generate enthusiasm for the change. To overwhelm any influence the hardcore resistors might have. 

We just won't talk about how one-dimensional zeal or hardened belief is psychologically unhealthy and can result in long-term damage. 

We've supported this by trying to become clearer about culture. Created more and more rules and regulations. Written more and more exacting project documentation. Developed a multitude of methods to ensure people understand and comply.

I believe the motivation is pure. Just misplaced. We want to provide coping mechanisms. To keep people sane and enthusiastic during change. And we are doing the best we can do. 

But this is problematic. Organisations are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We know people struggle to cope. We can't possibly expect static rules to be effective. Or to develop predictable behaviours. So why do we keep trying?

A focus on developing coping mechanisms and compliance methodologies is short-termism at its worst. They will help people and organisations survive. Keep their heads above water. But not to thrive! 

They aren't helping us learn about the impact of change. How we can deliver it more successfully. And how we can succeed in conditions of constant change. 

They don't tell us how we could or should use local knowledge. How to develop hybrid and synthetic solutions. How to encourage creative and creative thinking. How to design and test innovative ways of doing things. How to generate collaboration between the thinkers and the doers. 

All the things that are necessary for effectively dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments. We are using industrial methods in a post-industrial environment. And we must move beyond that. 

There are two things that can help in this regard. New ways to think. And new ways to listen.

New Ways of Thinking: We are seeing the emergence of a bunch of “New Ways” of thinking about organisations. We can place them under the loose banner of Organisational Complexity. Contributing ideas, books, websites and theories, in no order of importance, are:

  • Future of Work
  • Reinventing Organizations
  • BetaCodex
  • Corporate Rebels United
  • Stoos Network
  • Radical Management
  • Management 3.0
  • Sociacracy
  • Responsive Org
  • Drucker Forum
  • Holacracy
  • Beyond Budgeting

The uniting factor is that all appreciate the complex reality of constantly changing organisational environments. Google them. You might find some great. Others stupid. And some somewhere in between. But they all challenge conventional thinking. Which, given it is based on wafer-thin theory and dubious evidence, is not a bad thing.

While these ways of thinking about organisations are slowly becoming more established, we still fall short on how we think about and listen to employees. That's nowhere near complex enough!

New Ways of Listening: In the previous section, I illustrated how we help employees cope. You might have noticed, I left one group out. Group Five. The ironists and the cynics. 


Firstly, because psychological, sociological, historical, literary and organisational research suggests irony, humour and cynicism are healthy ways of dealing with ambiguous conditions. We're talking over two millennia of evidence. 

These people don't need help. They are coping just fine, thank you very much. 

The problem is that we don't listen to them. We focus on attitude, happiness and passionate zeal. The perfect recipe for a perfect employee. Or for happy little robots.

And we ignore irony, humour and cynicism. Or treat them as forms of resistance. Types of unwanted, noncompliant negativity. Employees who are difficult. This is nonsense. 

Irony, humour and cynicism emerge when actual reality doesn't match expected reality. When achievements fail to match aspirations. When dreams risk becoming nightmares.

They are forms of truth speaking to power. Delivering difficult messages. By people who can cope, survive and thrive in these conditions. 

If you seriously listen to what these people say, you will get a clearer picture of organisational conditions than through any other means. 

In conditions of change, they provide raw data.  It's not corrupted by any type of filter. Those who tell management what they think management wants to hear. For personal, professional or commercial reasons.

Listening to irony, humour and cynicism is absolutely vital if you want to correct absurdities on the fly. Before they become too entrenched and dysfunctional to do anything about. 

Combining Thinking and Listening: All the tools you need for a successful change are within your reach.

  • Irony, humour and cynicism identify where the change is becoming problematic. Where things aren't working as expected. And where assumptions are shown to be wrong. 
  • By making the expectation-reality gap explicit, they open space for a meaningful discussion about what to do. You can't ignore the gap because if you've "got" the irony or humour, you've seen the gap yourself. 
  • You then creatively think about ways in which to address the gap. Experiment and test. Develop  synthesised hybrid solutions.  And deliver something valuable to the company's unique environment. 
  • And let the process repeat throughout the change. 
You work with Irony in Management! WTF?
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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


Consulting on change, transformation, culture, organisational narrative, innovation and creativity, and communications to private and public sector organizations and entities.

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