Back in September 2013 I wrote a myth busting post about the commonly used statement “70% of Change Management projects fail”. It received a strong positive response from readers and had good social reach. When I re-published a version of it on LinkedIn a year ago, the reach grew further and periodically some-one finds it and gets the viral reach moving again. It’s now had nearly 1000 views on LinkedIn which is big for my posts (they average about 300 views). As I noted at the time of first publishing, I was not the first to bust this myth, I was keeping good company.

We’re increasingly seeing more of the myth busting activity in management “science”. Paul Gibbons has about 20 myths busted in his book “The Science of Organisational Change” and some of the really popular myths I have read busted in the last three years  can include:

  • The emotional lifecycle of change (modelled on Kubler Ross)
  • The 70:20:10 best practice model of learning
  • The LSI typologies
  • The VAK learning preferences of people
  • That all people resist change

And you know what? I’m increasingly getting uncomfortable with the myth busting for a couple of reasons. Primarily, I’m concerned we are throwing babies out with the bathwater.

Here’s what I am thinking.

Too many times I am seeing people refer to the myth with “well that’s just a myth and doesn’t mean anything any more” … with a casual indifference to the creative destruction cycle (e.g. once something is destroyed, something must be created in its place).

I ended my myth busting post with a call to action, and a subsequent post on how we should define success. In his book, Gibbon’s offers insights and challenges to how we think differently. Yet, I am not hearing the conversations evolve along this line. The myth busting is just a slap down. End of conversation.

The other thing that has me uncomfortable is the belief that if science can’t (hasn’t proved) it, it can’t be true. I just don’t buy that – I think there are many things in life that will never be proven scientifically but just feel right or true to us. There are many things that we do not yet know how to study scientifically. AND I know I use a scientific research argument in my 70% post…

An example of this if the emotional lifecycle of change – the Kubler-Ross version.  Those in the “anti” camp will tell you it was never empirically proven as a model of death and dying. They will tell you it paints an overly negative and pessimistic model of change. That it does not account for learning cycles, resilience, well designed change, and assumes that everyone goes through this cycle. Practitioners who use it with clients are frowned upon and whispered about in snarky tones (much like I use with those who use the 70% myth…)

But you know what – I use it frequently. One, because I believe that it is a very valid representation of what I see happening in many organisations. Believing that it is true, does not prevent me including appreciative inquiry approaches or designing for learning cycles and innovation. And two, because it has utility.  It helps me:

  • explain what change management does (change management makes the curve skinnier and more shallow)
  • and why I need leaders to step up and lead and resource change (you risk under performance while people move through the curve)
  • and expectation set / sense making (don’t be alarmed if you see this, or this is great, you can see this group has moved through the curve to the point of experimenting)

And this is where I think we need to move the conversations of myths to – what is the utility of this myth? Why has it taken purchase? If it is so ingrained in our organisational life, what could (should) we retain and use.

I’d shared in an earlier post, that there is a trade-off in the development of good theory. Accuracy, simplicity and generalisability. If you want something that is simple and general (and thus memorable like the  the Kugler-Ross change cycle) it will lack in accuracy. Are myths born of theories that attempt to be general and memorable – a sticky story, ala Jonathan Champ’s comment below?

Last month I was really fortunate to meet up with fellow organisational change management practitioner and blogger Garrett Gitchell in San Francisco, and it was a debate with Garrett (who is anti) about this curve that made me realise we spend so little time on being curious – Really? You use that model or framework? How do you use it? In what way? Garrett is the curious kind, and his questions provoked some good thinking! Instead I fear we are quick to play out the myth busting smack down and dump and run… and throw babies out with the bathwater.

So. A new challenge. When some-one says “oh but that’s a myth”… grab them, hold them in conversation, fuel the creative destructive cycle – “it’s a myth? That’s really interesting – so what are you using now to fill the need it created…”



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