How and why does change fail by Neil Usher

By Guest Contributor Neil Usher

Neil Usher, author of Elemental Change explains how and why organisational change fails through his easy to use Elemental Change framework.

A number of books, articles and presentations about leading change make the claim that 70% of organisational transformations fail. You’ll probably recognise the statistic. It’s a figure that is at first staggering and yet is often supported in our anecdotal recollection of projects in which we were involved or were affected by that appeared to be going awry. It’s a statement that has perpetuated because each has quoted the last to do so. It should come as no surprise that it’s an unproven claim that has no basis in original research, helpfully dismantled by David Wilkinson should there be any doubt. His conclusion is that the figure is more likely 6%. Quite a difference.

If we understand why change fails such that we can address the causes at source, while being aware of how it fails in order to be able to understand it and respond, we can bring this average down still further. There’s no reason to even be in the 6%. Fortunately, it’s not a secret.

It’s been helpful, however, to those peddlers of a cure that a myth regarding the failure of change initiatives has perpetuated. A system, process, list or acronym, a guarantee of success. All between two covers. “Don’t be one of the 70%”. It has also served to ensure we remain nervous and suspicious of change. Why would we want any part of something that stood such an alarmingly low chance of success? It feeds the most inglorious tale about change of all, that people don’t like it. Which is of course garbage. Assuming homo sapiens appeared 300,000 years ago, our relentless thirst for change in the last 0.01% of our time on the planet has taken us from Stone Age to Artificial Intelligence via an increase in life expectancy of 40 years. We may be pattern-seeking creatures and find comfort in the convenience of some aspects of regularity in our life, but change is the essence of humanity.



Where something goes wrong in a change initiative there are usually three potential sources, sometimes more than one:

  1. A lack of understanding of change: why it’s important, how it works and what it is. It leads to a transactional approach, dressed in the garb of resistance mitigation. It expects everything to stand still, when it clearly doesn’t.
  2. A lack of preparation – not to be confused with planning. Preparation allows us to deal with situations that emerge in our complex adaptive world. Planning often commits us to a path where we’re hoping what it is we don’t know we don’t know won’t be significant. It usually is.
  3. An unbalanced approach to the action we take in leading change, usually based far too heavily on communication at the expense of engagement and involvement.

They’re all in our gift to address. While doing so gives us a greater chance of success, we should note, however, that just as the 70% failure rate isn’t true, neither is the 30% success rate. That’s because we also need to understand how change succeeds and fails.



Essentially change initiatives rarely fail or succeed in total. They do so by degree. A shrewd observer of this fact was Professor Piehead from the UK’s adulty satirical comic Viz. After blowing himself and his lab assistant up each month, he would proclaim “Another partial success!” His indomitable spirit would have him back in the lab again the following month, with another opportunity to explore.

The degree of failure explains why with a little focus the 70% statistic looks and sounds so ridiculous. There are three key interrelated reasons for the figure being far closer to 6%. Yet if we don’t grasp and understand each, we’re likely to be on the wrong side of the average.


First, beginnings are rarely beginnings, and endings are rarely endings. They’re convenient bookmarks we ascribe to help us make sense of the situations we face, but they’re often artificial. Our initiative started before the date we gave, and as it develops and unfolds it often becomes something else, either ending after we determine or becoming something else altogether. While it’s intent on changing something, it becomes changed itself. As long as we’re aware of it and watching.


Second, therefore, we’re able to respond within the timeframe we ascribe. There are few initiatives that are so ‘black box’ that we don’t know whether we’ve succeeded until the results emerge. We have plenty of opportunities to re-calibrate, to correct our path as new information becomes available or our environment changes. We can understand that we’re leading evolution. As long as, of course, we’re prepared to do so.


Finally, in the leading the initiative we learn about ourselves. We, too, are changed by the process. However, experienced we believe ourselves to be, each and every change initiative is unique. It has never happened in exactly this manner before. We apply experience, judgment and insight to a unique environment and context, which returns a rich seam of information back to us. This in turn increases our preparedness. As long as we’re listening.


Change is something to welcome, not fear. It’s our essence. As such, we’re uniquely attuned to it. If we understand why and how it fails within organisations, we can ensure it doesn’t happen to us. Where it does, we can ensure we’re better able to respond. And we’ll have no need to be haunted by the prospect of failure, whatever statistics are thrown at us. We’ll know different.


NEIL USHER has almost 30 years’ experience as a business leader who has delivered innovative working environments for large organizations globally. Together with this practical experience, his influential blog (, regular conferences and academic talks have made him a leading thinker in the profession. He is also author of Elemental Workplace.



Suggested Reading

‘You never step in the same river twice.’ Our intensely interconnected world never stops evolving. Amid the chaos of intended and unexpected consequences we’re expected to lead a change initiative. We have to learn fast, as its already started. This highly practical, human and humorous book shows us how to makes complex change attainable – organizational, professional or personal – whether you have years of experience or are facing your first major challenge. It helps us think about what change is and means, how we prepare for it and what we do to make it successful. It may just be the most readable book about change yet.

More information