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2 Never-Fail Rules to Make Change Initiatives Successful

Last week I facilitated a senior staff meeting that focused on silo-busting and improving cross-departmental collaboration. The group leader wrote to me afterwards to say he was very happy with how things went, and asked me to help support the process of carrying the work forward. In advance of our next get-together, I sent him recommendations on how to proceed with his team to give the new initiatives the best chance of success.

I’m sharing here what I told the group leader (which I’ve edited lightly) because it contains my two top rules for sustaining newly-launched change initiatives and making them stick:

  • Rule #1: Look for small things that can be easy wins and pile up a bunch of them to build credibility. Don’t make splashy announcements of any kind of major program or initiative that folks can have trouble believing in. Praise everything anyone does that’s collaborative.
  • Rule #2: As the leader, it’s up to you to go first. When you model better behaviors, there’s some hope that things will actually improve. So ask for feedback on your own behavior; investigate the various ways your plan and behavior might affect others; and shift or adjust as needed, without showing apparent resistance or behaving defensively.

Why are these rules so important?

Let Triumph Build Trust

Every change initiative brings with it the risk that some people won’t believe in it, or that they might even actively resist its intent or practice. Team members may complain about the initiative being “just another thing to live through” or a “flavor-of-the-month” program; some people may even assume — or hope — that the initial effort will blow over, and they’ll be able to go back to business as usual.

The greater the critical mass of participation and the sooner you can show success, the more likely it is that people will recognize that the change is actually underway and start to get involved themselves. So it’s smart to launch with a few quick, straightforward items that you’re confident will turn out well. Think of these quick starts as capturing the low-hanging fruit. As you build up a history of effective change efforts, the entire initiative and all of the conversation around it will develop credibility and “earn” you the right to undertake the riskier aspects of the change.

Acknowledge anyone who makes a movement toward the desired behaviors, results, or impacts. This makes it clear that they’re on the right track and encourages them to do more. And recognize these efforts publicly: Once people get used to hearing the drumbeat of progress, the awareness and positive feelings will build and the desire to change begins to take on its own momentum.

It’s Not Leading If You’re Not Leading

Change initiatives don’t take hold if leaders treat them as conceptual instead of concrete. Leaders must put their bodies where their beliefs are, practicing the desired changes at every opportunity as well as speaking about them.

Leaders demonstrate their personal commitment when they ask for feedback on their own communication and behavior — and take it. Those leaders who give themselves a pass and maintain their old habits while demanding that their team members change squander the trust of their people.

Team members are more likely to feel inspired — or at least respectful — when leaders go first, and are willing to be called out on their own slips and reversions as they try to practice the new way. These team members become more open to making the necessary investments of energy and effort, while their leaders earn the standing to hold others accountable for making the change.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this initiative comes out, and I hope the group leader will be implementing these two crucial rules. If you could use some help getting your change initiatives off the ground or keeping them going, please get in touch.

Onward and upward,


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