How to Engage Your People in Making Genuine Change

Why is it sometimes so difficult to make significant organizational or operational change? No matter how great the ideas may have been, employees can resist doing things differently from the ways they’re used to, or else seem to keep their heads down, waiting for the change to pass over them—and there are hundreds of ways that new initiatives can get derailed and go awry.

When you dig a little deeper and interview employees about what’s going wrong, they tend to say things like, “Oh, they’re constantly launching a new flavor-of-the-month program. They want us to do something different, but they don’t necessarily understand how things work for us now, and they don’t think about how the changes will affect us.” 

That’s understandable: When we conceptualize huge new results or make detailed plans to reach big goals, they can sound and feel great while we’re thinking about them or writing them on white boards in the conference room. But then we assign implementation and follow-through to individuals, groups, and teams that were not as closely involved in the planning as we were, and we often can’t understand why they refuse to sally forth with vigor and zest, complying with every adjustment and carrying the torch for our goals.

Sizing the Change for Greater Success

The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of inherent value in an exciting new idea or BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal). It’s how to motivate and persuade a group of people to modify a going concern when they already have certain set expectations and feel they’re managing well enough. So until your group or organization has a significant track record in making substantive change, consider the fact that small changes are often easier to execute and are also hardier and more sustainable than big changes

When you start small, concrete and tactical adjustments are easier to explain and rationalize as well as more likely to last. The compounding effect of many small changes over time usually pans out to be much more significant than a huge change initiative, which can collapse like a popover. Big, drastic changes require greater belief—a kind of sustained interest and commitment—from both individuals and groups. It’s as if too much organizational willpower is required. So if you can come up with small experiments to test your big idea, you’ll be much more likely to make and keep the effective changes for the long haul.

Plus, smaller changes have a much lower cost if they fail. To build the organizational competence and stamina needed for ongoing change, look for small shifts that will pay off quickly and demonstrate a return on investment. You’ll demonstrate to those around you that you’re making smart choices, and as they see these small wins working out, they’ll learn to rely more on the reasonableness of what you’re asking for. You’ll gain lots of pluses in your column instead of big negatives.

Involving Your People to Get Their Commitment

Once you’ve got a change initiative or plan in mind, proceed as if you are the host for a discussion. Think deeply about all the parties that will be affected by the change, and invite them to participate. Assume that there are more people who should be involved than you may have thought when you originally had the new ideas. Get that entire crew together, whether in person, on video, or even asynchronously, and give them multiple ways to comment. 

Tell the group that you’re looking at a certain change or contemplating some new thing, and explain the reasons it’s important. Then make a commitment about involving them: “We want to figure out everything we can that could go wrong, and how we could avoid, mitigate, or repair any damage. We’re doing this in advance, so that we’ll be as ready as possible and as successful as possible. So please tell us about what can go wrong and how can we prevent it.” 

Part of what’s useful about this approach is that most people actually want to help and agree with their leaders. They may even believe that it’s not smart or safe to disagree with their leaders’ proposals, and therefore they tend to agree up front, without disclosing their concerns. Their leaders often presume that everyone supports the change, so they don’t look for problems—not because they’re uncaring, but because they’re hopeful. But such optimistic leaders are often more crushed than anyone else when things get messy. They can wind up feeling shocked and dismayed when they don’t see the follow-through and success that they’re anticipating

It’s much better to start from a place of acknowledgment: “We’re imperfect humans, and even with best intentions and good planning, things are bound to go off-track. I want you to help figure out what those things are likely to be. Then we can build safety nets, sequence better, and make sure we have the right resources in place. This way, we can also run low-cost experiments first, without going full tilt in a direction that we don’t really know enough about.”

The Winning Combination

If your forays into new territory have had underwhelming results in the past, try this effective one-two punch. Harness the power of accumulating small wins by piloting and testing any new approaches. Involve your people explicitly in critiquing and debugging your plans and take their comments—both negative and positive—seriously.

Onward and upward —

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