Change – Pursuing What’s Possible

Pursuing what’s possible requires change. Leaders help people and organizations make changes to achieve the desired vision. The following are important aspects of implementing change.

  • Know your goals
  • Understand key roles involved in a major change effort
  • Create the need for change
  • Plan for the change
  • Implement
  • Institutionalize

Know Your Goals

A vision is a general statement of a desired future state. It needs to engage and energize people to move forward. In addition to stating their vision in a clear, concise, and convincing way, leaders need to identify their top three to five priorities and the initiatives that will be taken. The final step is the establishing of long-term and short-term goals.

Specific Goals

Goals need to be specific, measurable, and time-bounded. The following are examples:

  • Salaried employees will be proficient at fully utilizing all aspects of the new software by 12/1.
  • The merger of the two marketing groups will be completed by 4/1.
  • All managers will be trained in how to evaluate employee performance and conduct performance appraisals using the new core competencies model by 6/1.

Many change efforts fail because the goals are never clearly defined and explained. I’ve heard company presidents say things like, “Our culture needs to be more customer focused,” or “Teamwork is critical for our success.” Employees heard the message but weren’t sure what actions to take. In some cases employees thought they already were “customer focused” and a “team player.” My advice is to show people what the desired behavior looks like. Give them a concrete example. What does “customer focus” look like? Being able to see the desired behaviors takes the mystery and guesswork out of what’s expected.

Understand Key Roles

In pursuing any major change it’s important to understand the following roles.

  • Sponsor – This is the senior level person who wants the change to occur. In major change initiatives the sponsor is usually the president, vice president or other senior executive. Leaders who sponsor change provide the resources and support to make the change happen. They don’t get bogged down in all the details, but rather establish a roadmap to follow.
  • Project leader – These people are responsible for implementing the changes. Each project leader needs to establish a detailed project plan that identifies all the steps needed to make the change occur.
  • Target group – This is the group of people who must change in some way. It might be a group such as first line managers, a department, division or entire organization.
  • Secondary group – This is the group that must change to support the primary change being made by the target group. In many cases it’s the managers of the people in the target group.

Create the Need for Change

Most organizations only change when they have no choice. For example, the American car manufacturers began working on quality only after they had lost enormous amounts of market share and profits to Japanese and German car makers.

Most people like staying in their comfort zones. In our comfort zone it’s safe, secure, and predictable. However, there is a consequence for not changing. Effective leaders pump up the urgency for change. They take steps to increase people’s openness and readiness to change. The following actions are helpful in creating the need for change:

  • Focus on the marketplace. Customers are demanding. Circulate customer feedback. Ask customers what they like and dislike. Customers’ expectations keep increasing. What was “great” yesterday is “average” today.
  • Inform people about what the competition is doing. How have your competitors improved quality and service? Involve people. Ask questions that plant seeds. “What would increase customer satisfaction?” “What changes would you like to see in our department?” “How can we improve quality?” Greg L. Thomas, author, 52 Leadership Tips, states, “The first big mistake most leaders make when attempting to introduce change is they fail to get the valuable input of others before they introduce or begin the change process. Too many leaders believe they single-handedly can initiate or force change upon others without ample explanation or consensus. This will guarantee greater resistance and resentment toward change even when introduced with the best of ideas or intentions.”
  • Find and circulate articles that describe best practices at other companies. Study the best performers. Stew Leonard’s Dairy in Norwalk, Connecticut regularly takes groups of employees on “One Idea Field Trips.” They travel to other supermarkets and each employee is expected to find one new idea he will use back on his job.
  • Ask for consideration. Sometimes the most straightforward thing to do is simply ask employees to try something new. “I’d like you to consider a new approach on this project.”

Leaders sometimes stage symbolic acts to stress the need for change. For example, one leader put all the company policy manuals in a pile and then set it on fire. The message: the old rules no longer apply; it’s a new ballgame. However, “creating the need” is not a once and done activity. The need for continuous improvement and the changes that implies need to be discussed on a regular basis.

John P. Kotter, retired Harvard professor, says that some leaders fail at this step because they are impatient. They’re too action-oriented. “Let’s get on with it.” They don’t spend enough time getting people to understand and support the need for change.

Force Field Analysis

Kurt Lewin, an American social psychologist, developed the concept of “Force Field Analysis.” It’s a simple but powerful technique for analyzing change. According to Lewin, human behavior is caused by forces – beliefs, expectations, cultural norms, and needs within the individual and organization. These forces can be positive, urging us toward a behavior, or negative, propelling us away from a behavior. A force field diagram portrays these driving forces and restraining forces that affect change. In most change endeavors there is also a group of people who are “on the fence.”

Driving forces could be seen as pushing for change while restraining forces stand in the way of change. A force field diagram is used to analyze these opposing forces and set the stage for making change possible. Change will not occur when the driving forces and restraining forces are equal. For change to be possible, the driving forces must overcome the restraining forces. Usually, the most effective way to do this is to lessen or remove restraining forces. It can be tempting to pursue change by strengthening the driving forces, but this approach tends to intensify the restraining forces at the same time.

Handling Resistors

Marshall Goldsmith said that when someone tries to make us change our ways, we first think the other party is confused or misinformed; second, we go into denial mode, thinking that the criticism does not apply to us; and third, we attack or discredit the other party: “Why is a smart guy like me listening to a loser like you?”

I’ve found that about 20 to 30% of the people resist almost any change, and a small group (five to ten percent of the people) will be very vocal in complaining about the change. How should you deal with these naysayers? Listen to people’s concerns and the reasons they think change is not needed. Resistors may have some valid points that need to be considered. When resistors feel their views are heard and understood, they’re more likely to listen to other points of view. Ask resistors to stay open and give it a try. In some situations if they can’t support the change, they may be happier at another company.

It’s important to remember that to make things substantially better, you often have to make things worse in the short run. For example, to upgrade manufacturing efficiency, you may need to redesign the production process and train employees. While machines are being moved and people are trained, productivity goes down, not up. When productivity goes down and new problems occur, resistors are quick to say “I told you this wouldn’t work.”

Planning for the Change

Pursuing what’s possible means change. In most change initiatives people must change their thinking and behavior. To support the required changes, leaders formulate plans focused on the following:

  • Training and development
  • Communication Plan
  • Reward and Recognition
  • Plan to Institutionalize

Author and consultant Donald Mitchell states, “People need to realize that most change implementations require quite a lot of course corrections . . . as things veer off in the wrong direction or fall behind schedule. I usually find that having people who will have to make the changes be involved in setting the objectives, developing the plans, setting the check points, etc. works rather well.”

Training and Development Plan

What specific changes are needed? Do you want people to think differently? Have a new attitude? Behave differently?

It’s important to provide the target audience with appropriate education and training. The first step is to conduct a needs assessment. This identifies the gap employees have in knowledge and skills needed to perform at the new level. Once the skill/knowledge needs are clear the next step is designing or finding the right training program.

Training can run the gamut from the following:

  • One-on-one coaching
  • Classroom
  • Online
  • On the job
  • Self paced

There are many effective training programs that provide instruction on everything from increasing assertiveness to writing reports. Training can be conducted by internal staff or external consultants.

I have found it is very important to help people apply the new knowledge and skills to their job. In addition, it’s often important to provide psychological support. Help people deal with the doubts and fears they have about learning new things.

Communications Plan

Effective change initiatives require a great deal of communication. The communication plan should include a kick-off event and a schedule for ongoing progress reports.

Kick-off event – Like a politician announcing his or her candidacy, the kick-off event is the opportunity for the company president to announce the change. What it is, why it’s being implemented, and how it will help the organization. Eric Hatch, Ph.D., President, Hatch Organizational Consulting, says that the first thing leaders need to do is define the business reality that is dictating the change so that people see it, feel it, and understand it. It’s also important to let people know what’s in it for them. Describe how the change will help them.

The kick-off event needs to be festive, exciting and uplifting. Giving attendees hats, t-shirts, and other mementos is common practice.

Ongoing progress reports – People need regular updates describing how the change is being implemented, including successes, setbacks, and new opportunities. Effective leaders use a variety of approaches to keep people informed, including company newsletters, group meetings, memos, e-mail, videos, speeches, and one-on-one informal conversations. Of course leaders also communicate by their actions.

It’s important to identify and encourage people who support the change initiative. Provide opportunities for them to voice their support.

Reward and Recognition Plan

Determine what methods and approaches you will use to reward and recognize people for changing. Let people know what will be measured and why it’s important. Provide frequent feedback, especially during the early phase of change.

Most people give up their diet if they don’t see results in one to two weeks. Create opportunities for short term successes. Celebrate early victories. That builds momentum. Short term wins are the stepping stones to achieving the overall goal.

Plan to Institutionalize

Incorporate the needed changes into all the company’s policies, procedures and methods of operation. The new employee orientation program, job descriptions, and employee manuals may need to be updated to support the changes. A consultant advises, “Make sure the infrastructure supports the new changes. That makes the change stick.”


Leaders not only have ideas on how to build a better mouse trap or create an improved company culture, but they also have a plan of action. They implement. They execute. They make it happen. Leaders support the change is by setting the example. They practice what they preach.

Pursuing a new agenda is hard work. In every change endeavor there are problems and difficulties. Dr. Kevin Drumm, President, Sheridan College states, “Setbacks do happen. Old habits are hard to break. Under stress people often snap back to the old ways of doing things. It’s important to expect this and to have mechanisms in place to detect these and address them. I have found this phenomenon to be the biggest barrier for me. Persistence is the key here.”

That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” Leaders achieve the goal!