A path lit by words

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Just the facts, Ma’am!


Recently I (re)learned an important lesson in journalism. It’s about checking your facts—no matter how reliable your source appears to be. An old lesson? You bet, but one overlooked by several well-known academics with best-selling books.

Researching a white paper on change management, I uncovered a shocking statistic: Seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail. Seventy percent! These are mergers and acquisitions, technology/systems overhauls, culture reinventions, and a host of other strategic undertakings—multi-million dollar change projects, intended to improve business results by leaps and bounds. Apparently, they don’t.

The infamous “70% failure rate” first appeared when Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote Reengineering the Corporation in 1993. Hailed as “the most successful business book of the last decade,” it set off a movement the authors called “business revolution.” A consultant then, I witnessed the competition among professional services firms to be crowned the one that could guarantee transformative, enduring business process redesign.

Through the years, other change experts—among them Beer and Nohria (Breaking the Code of Change) and John P. Kotter (Leading Change, Heart of Change)—picked up the 70% failure rate in some form or fashion. It became entrenched in the management consulting literature—until recently, when (I surmise; no empirical studies have confirmed it) some change management proponents got mad.

In 2011, Dr. Mark Hughes, of the Brighton Business School, decided to debunk the myth. He traced its evolution from Hammer and Champy, source by source, quote by quote, and concluded, “Whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.” In other words, it was not derived from a controlled, scientific study. It was someone’s opinion or worse, someone’s guess. (Hughes added a few words about “opportunistic business consultants” who may have deliberately promoted an exaggerated figure to sell their consulting services.)

Other change practitioners continue to challenge the 70 percent figure. “Change Whisperer” Gail Severini, Jennifer Frahm, founder of the Australian group Conversations of Change, and others continue to attack the claim as totally lacking in evidence. “Nothing to support it,” Frahm sums up. “No mention of where this fact has come from.”

My point in all this? I don’t think it matters whether 40%, 50%, or 70% of change projects fail. It’s too many, and I would wager that any of those figures would have earned the business world’s attention, back in the day. What does matter is accuracy, and as a freelancer, I’m finding that more and more difficult to guarantee. With the Internet, so much information poses as truth. There are no barriers to entry, no certification required. The potential for many-layers-removed misquoting has increased exponentially.

All I can do is rely on trusted sources; double, triple, and quadruple check my facts; and make sure I document them. What do you do? I’d like to know!

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“The War for Talent” Rages On

tug of war for talent

One of my freelance writing gigs is helping a former colleague create thought leadership for her website. We share a career in human resources consulting, although our specialties are different: I’ve concentrated on people— talent strategy and management—and her focus is the organization, processes, and systems that make HR work efficiently. Or not.

This morning we were brainstorming blog topics. Like any other form of writing, blogging carries idea anxiety. My advice when someone asks, “What on earth can I blog about?” is to keep an eye on current events, professional news, and industry happenings. If something you see, read, or hear makes your heart sing or your blood boil, there’s a good chance you can blog about it.

I’d just made that statement when we came across a report titled, Predictions for 2014: Building a Strong Talent Pipeline for the Global Economic Recovery. A statement on the first page rang a bell, and the sound wasn’t pretty:

“Back in 1997, McKinsey coined the phrase, ‘war for talent.’ Today, one could argue that the war is over and ‘the talent won.’ ”

I had to read it twice. How can anyone believe that employees have won much of anything in the 17 years since McKinsey published “The War for Talent”? Gallup’s latest research on worldwide employee engagement, “The State of the Global Workplace, 2013” reports that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work. That means 87 percent of employees have jobs they’re eager to leave in companies they aren’t proud to work for. That’s winning the war?

Just as “selfie” wormed its way into the urban dictionary, “the war for talent” has invaded the business lexicon (Google the term and you’ll get 110,000,000 results). Legions of researchers and consultants have borrowed, modified, and sometimes butchered the phrase. My favorite misquote is “the war on talent”— an appallingly accurate description of the atrocities employers commit against their “most valuable resource.”

My colleague and I stand with the majority who see the talent war as ongoing, and the contributing factors as complex and abundant. One factor we’ll explore in an upcoming Insight is the impact on employees of HR transformation. Our premise is simple: Intent—for two decades—on becoming a business-savvy strategic partner, HR has focused too much on processes and systems, particularly technology overhauls and upgrades. The unintended consequence? They have shortchanged improvements that would have made their employees more capable, more confident, more creative and innovative—and fully engaged in their work.

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re learning a lot. We’re also finding new angles to explore–and to write about. Stay tuned!