Succeed as a change maker

18 ways you can systematically succeed as a change maker

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Many of us are change makers in one form or another, even if we don’t identify ourselves as such right away. But it’s one thing to advocate for change and quite another to bring that change successfully through to realisation. In complex organisational structures with multiple stakeholders, the make or break, it seems, is socialisation.

If you think about your role, there’s a good chance that it involves creating and delivering change in some way. If people are your mandate, for example, you are responsible for evolving culture which means you are, or will be, responsible for shifting entrenched attitudes and habits. If leadership is your thing, then you need to keep a team in a state of change in order for them to remain responsive and competitive. If you’re a strategist, you spend your day thinking about how to change businesses and brands for the better. Then you have to sell your vision (and budget) for that to people who may or may not see the need in the same light. If you’re creative, you look for ways to persuade companies to allow themselves to be seen in a new and compelling light – and that can require them to present themselves that can at first feel very, very uncomfortable.

That means we need to be able to pitch the case for change to those around us or our clients. Now of course we’d like to think that where we see opportunities for change, others will readily agree. But that is often far from the case.

Even an idea that’s seems on the face of it to make complete sense has no guarantee of success. People get into loops: loops of behaviour and thinking that harden into patterns and then into set views. Unthinking something, particularly when you’ve thought it for so long, is hard. That’s why no change making happens without buy-in. But planning for and winning that buy-in is a real challenge, and a key reason for that according to Kristi Hedges is that we succumb to the temptation to sell-in rather than seeking others to literally buy in, by way of agreement, help and contribution, to the development and advancement of the idea.

The four ways that change is suppressed

If people are not ready for what is being presented, the almost inevitable reaction is resistance and in the book Buy-In, John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead suggest that every change maker looking to champion a good idea will almost certainly face these powerful idea-killing strategies:

  1. Fear – this kind of attack strategy raises concern and anxiety about what is being proposed to the point where a measured, objective consideration of the idea, plan or change proposal becomes impossible. This kind of objection often revolves around word associations and precedent. Those looking to stop the idea taking root use words and phrases strongly associated internally with previously unsuccessful change initiatives to stifle consideration.
  2. Delay – discussion is slowed to a stand-still, or those who resist the idea say they need to resolve other “more-pressing” issues first or argue that the matter is important but that other issues need to be finished before this can be started (knowing full well that will never happen)
  3. Confusion – this is death by snowstorm. An idea is barraged by convoluted discussions, irrelevant information, complex data and potential alternatives that sidetrack the core idea and generate new discussions that become increasingly complex and take on a life of their own.
  4. Ridicule – the idea is associated with the change maker, and then the person themselves comes under fire through having their competence, credentials or suitability questioned. This tactic, say Kotter and Whitehead, concentrates on painting the person as naïve or under-prepared or both. It is both highly hurtful and effective because the proponent often faces such overwhelming doubt that they give up.

These approaches can be pursued singularly or in combination. They may also evolve, starting with fear for example and then shifting to confusion and delay followed by personal attack. Together they help explain why 70% or more of all change making efforts fail to achieve their objectives.

The powerful art of change inclusion

So how should you as a change maker frame ideas to encourage take-up? Inspired by an New Yorker article on why innovations do or do not spread and other readings, here’s a range of suggestions I hope you find useful in getting others to embrace and act on your powerful thinking in a timely manner:

Start by providing a compelling motive. Use a Problem-Solution format to lay out the pain points and the proof for them, says Hedges, then use concrete examples to explain how you arrived at an answer, again using hard data and specific examples. Present the problem in ways that people can actually see or experience rather than imagine or process. Give them a reason for change. That reason could be the vanquishing of a common or agreed enemy, the pursuit of a greater goal, the chance to do something that advances them and/or their team. Whatever it is, the motive for change must be big enough for people to want to step forward and join in. Make sure it has some or all of the 8 success factors that are needed for innovation to work.

Connect the answer (idea) with the problem. Seeing really is believing. Show people what happens for the better, not just how the idea works, and ask them to be part of the solution. “Real buy-in involves at least some element of co-creation,” says Hedges. “It invites discussion, debate, and allows everyone to feel even more vested in the outcome.”

Look for disagreement in order to encourage engagement. Provoke conflict, says Hedges because, quoting John Kotter, “Conflict engages”. To do this she suggests that change makers promulgate ideas in such a way that they get people’s attention, then use the reactions they get to explain why the idea is valuable and to secure commitment to making it happen. A powerful way to do this I’ve found is to ask open and intriguing questions.

Kristi Hedges talks about the need for productive advocacy – which is about absorbing other people’s opinions in order to make your idea stronger – and productive inquiry which is about engaging with others and probing their criticisms and reservations in order to seek clarity.

Once you have people involved, and they feel that they are being listened to and their points considered, use their feedback to strengthen your case for change and include them as players in the socialisation process. Change works best when it is powered by a network. I’ve always found the key to success in this regard is getting influential people on board (particularly those who see themselves as change makers already) and then drawing on their support to widen and deepen the influence network.

Speak to them, their way. One of the most important consideration factors for success is really knowing the communication styles of the people you are engaging with, says Sharlyn Lauby. “If you want their support, then you must deliver the message their way. At a time that works for them. In the environment that also works for them.” Too often, those fighting to launch an idea engage in the way they feel most comfortable without carefully thinking through how others best process information, challenges and opportunities.

Work with people’s inclinations not against them. Understand why they believe and behave the way they do. Leverage as much of that as you can by giving people enough of what they recognise for them to speculate on the remainder. Know the history behind the problem you are seeking to resolve, how changes were proposed then and the outcomes. If you don’t understand what has happened, or not happened, in the past, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s critical to be able to acknowledge what has already been tried and then to show how the new idea counters what went wrong or didn’t happen.

Close the window. Help people understand why the time is right to implement a specific change. I often talk this through using arguments like “We couldn’t have done this a year ago because …” and “If we wait 12 months, we’ll miss our window because …” Such specifics are a very good way of explaining why a particular point in time is the exact time to undertake the process of change making to best effect. Unless you can give people a reason to act now, of course, they will almost inevitably delay, either because they feel uncomfortable or because they will feel that they want more information before going out on a limb. Time-limiting the opportunity turns lack of action into a risk that is as great or perhaps greater than doing nothing. You also need to allow for the fact that everything will take much more time than you expected.

Make take-up easy. Solve their problem, not yours. Alongside solving a problem that others see as pressing, create a change vision for a new and better normality that people can start to live with. Make sure you highlight who stands to benefit, why and how, so that people can consider the proposed idea in human terms.

Find common ground first between you as the idea creator and your audience as the idea receipients. People accept ideas more readily from people they like; people they come to believe are a lot like them. Build empathy in order to gain support.

Identify and quantify the rewards. Make sure the emotion of what the new idea will deliver is greater than the emotion people derive from the way things are now. Make the answer warrants the effort of supporting change and its take-up.

Identify and quantify the actions. Be extremely clear about what needs to happen at company, region, team and even individual levels. Actions need to be as simple and as measurable as possible – and the cause and effect of those actions can in fact be a great way to pitch an idea. “If every person in our company did [this little thing] every day for a year, we’d see [significant impact that is directly aligned to the company’s overall strategy]. We’d generate a benefit of [X] and it would cost us just [x]. Here’s how it would work …”

Prepare for pushback in advance. Make a list of likely objections, says Jason Shen, because much of the pushback will follow predictable patterns, and have your responses to any or all of the following ready:

  • We haven’t done this before and/or invested here (so why should we start?)
  • There’s no allocation in the budget for this (so what are we going to sacrifice to make it happen?)
  • We could be over-committing (the idea’s a good one but we already have a lot on our plate)
  • And of course We tried that before (so why will it work this time?)

Shen suggests that change makers also need to have a plan to actively engage with naysayers and win them over or remove their concerns from the decision agenda:

  • Work with them one on one to understand and resolve their concerns
  • Bring someone else in to win them over that they respect (this is where that group of champions can be so helpful)
  • Use momentum, traction and peer pressure to show that their concerns are noted but that others are less worried than they are
  • Cut them a deal by offering to support them in something they hold dear

Agree parameters for change. Knowing that everyone will want to contribute in some way to what they are being asked about, be very clear about the parameters of the idea and the level of negotiation/adjusted change you are willing to consider, says Lauby. Too little interest in accommodating others’ ideas may lead them to feel you are ignoring or disrespecting them; too much latitude in taking on board others’ inputs will lead to a solution by committee that is too diluted to be effective.

Prep the dip. “The dip” is Seth Godin’s term for the hard yards that precede success. If your idea is going to hit bricks before it reaches bouquets, tell people what to expect, and why. Also tell them how long you expect the dip to last, when it is most likely to occur, what will resolve it, the resources required to make that happen, and why you will emerge stronger and better off as a result of doing so. This level lof frankness I have found goes down well and helps people feel that they are not going to be unpleasantly surprised.

Remember, people follow the lead of others. People, not technology, training or even logic, encourage the diffusion of ideas. As the New Yorker observes, “effort is a social process”. Therefore if you want an idea to spread, form conversations around it. Give people things to talk about with others who like and trust them.

Jason Shen suggests that for any idea to truly take off, you need to build a core base of supporters to champion the idea. It means the project/idea starts with a groundswell of momentum that is critical to getting people onboard faster. It also means there is a core group of people who others can seek out and share opinions with.

Share ownership. Give people ways not just to welcome the idea but then to work with you to help develop it. That way change making becomes their idea as well. Try to make their championing of the idea a way for them to enhance their social or communal standing or, at the very least, make sure that doing so doesn’t risk them looking or feeling foolish.

Stay in touch. Keep everyone who has contributed up to speed with what is happening in terms of progressing the idea. If you need more input, ask for it. If you encounter resistance, use strong, open-ended questions to build understanding. I particularly liked Hedges’ final question which she suggests can be used at any time along the way when things get stuck: “[Knowing what I know and what I’m encountering] What would you do if you were me [at this point]?”

Be resilient. If a change making idea still fails to fire, says Shen, use the lack of buy-in as a way to improve what you’re proposing and try again. “Why didn’t the idea get traction? What objections can you better address? How can you improve the timing of your proposal? Make a plan and try again. If your idea is truly a good one, then it’s worth fighting for …”

Finally – never under-estimate the role of storytelling in driving change

In a great piece on how framing change through stories determines the reception that proposed change receives, Julian Birkinshaw explains that powerful storytelling has a more important role to play in the delivery of break-throughs than many people realise.

This is particularly true when people are explaining how they came to the realisation that change was possible and necessary.

His research shows that when terms like fast follower and self-cannibalisation were replaced by concepts like “best beats first” and “master of reinvention”, the language shift overcame inherent biases and helped those making decisions to focus on the opportunity.

Emotive language is a much more powerful catalyst for change making than people imagine.

The temptation is always to explain the business case for an idea in cold and practical terms, but in reality emotional language plays a critical role in the delivery and acceptance of new ideas. The key to success is understanding what constitutes emotional in a business or corporate setting – and of course what will be seen as fluffy or unsubstantiated.

Fast follower may work as an academic term but Birkinshaw points out that telling someone that they are simply going to follow in someone else’s footsteps can make those listening feel second-hand and they are just imitators. “Best beats first” by contrast positions change as an opportunity that has been seen through delay and that others have missed in their rush to get something to market. That in turn makes those listening feel like they are hearing about something smart and that agreement is astute.

Equally, while companies can often innovate effectively by cannabilising their own products before their rivals do, the term itself often understates what has been achieved in order to do that and makes decision-makers acutely aware that they are killing off declining product lines. This can be uncomfortable because they may or may not wish to admit that those lines are declining and/or they could have been responsible for their instigation or management themselves at some point – making the decision an open admission of failure. Positioning such change as “reinvention” allows those listening to feel that they are modernisers rather than destroyers

Birkinshaw provides some other great examples of reframing innovation and change processes in ways that add to their chances of success.

  • A chance discovery should emphasise the ability of those involved to see an opportunity when it presented itself.
  • A process that took some time and faced a range of barriers should focus on the tenacity of the team, their vision and discoveries, and their abilities to learn and pivot in order to get to their goal.
  • Perhaps the most common motivation for innovation and change – the need to adapt quickly to changes in the market – should not concentrate on the happenstance of being in the right place at the right time and instead should emphasise the willingness to recognise trends as they broke and to adjust and reposition accordingly.

Instigating change is hard because while many talk about it and everyone acknowledges it is necessary, far fewer are prepared to commit and act when push comes to shove. For me, the socialisation of change also needs to work both ways: in particular, push-back needs to act as a powerful litigator for the proposed change, a chance to consider the true merits of what you are proposing. It’s easy to be as in love with the change you are promoting as it is for others to be committed to nothing changing. I’m always of the view that powerful change will triumph in the end – but that it needs the right people, the right process, the right market conditions, and plenty of time, energy, resources and open minds for that to happen.

Updated: This article elaborates on a post originally published in March 2014. It has been updated in July 2018 to include more detail and discussion points. The original version of this article was posted on this blog under the title 9 Ways To Get Others To Welcome Your Ideas and elsewhere under the title 9 Ways To Get Others To Embrace Your Brand Ideas.



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