7 Things to Try When You're Leading that First Big Organizational Change

And they all start with the letter C, which seems pretty cool.

Scott Mabry
Sep 13, 2018 · 6 min read

I know there are about 1 Billion articles and books on change. I’ve read many of them. The list below is stuff I have used, mostly successfully, to lead some big organizational, process and culture changes that involved teams from 60–1,200. They are people-focused. Because change is people-focused.

You might use one or two or all of them depending on the scale and complexity of the changes you want to make. I’m not giving you a step-by-step, just general themes on which you can build. As always, take what you like, and leave the rest.

Craft the Story

Change is a story. It has a plot, plot twists, crisis, drama, near-misses, ups, and downs. It’s a lot more fun to talk about a story than a project. So why not use this as your framework?

Describe the change in the context of a bigger story in which we are all participants. Weave the business or social context into the story. Remember, while the goal of the change is usually about things, the experience of change is about people, (employees, customers, suppliers, etc.).

I suggest giving your change-story an interesting title that doesn’t include the words process, re-engineering, project, realignment or any other tired corporate term. Then start sharing bits of the story, refining it and testing it until you’re ready to invite others to join you.

Capture the Image

Several years ago I helped take an organization through a fairly radical culture change. At the end of the kick-off meeting, I asked the leadership team to join me on a visualization journey during which we tried to imagine, in very specific ways, what life will be like in the organization once the change is in place and the results have been achieved.

In other words, what happens at the end of the story. How will it feel? What will people be doing? What will our customers be saying? I asked them to write down what they imagined, and then we shared these imagined moments together as if they were already happening. Together the individual images painted a compelling story we could all get behind.

This type of exercise invites emotional connection and help team members frame the story in personal terms. It may take some effort as people are often programmed to disconnect their imaginations and emotions at work. Also, consider the maturity and dynamics of the team. This might be too much for a team that just started working together. Use whatever works for you but the key is to help people begin with the end in mind.

Challenge the Core

Begin with a small group of people who are excited about the message and invite them to help you with the change. This core group will be critical to sharing the story and multiplying organizational faith. I use the word faith because any time you ask people to move out of their comfort zones and into a story you can’t promise will have a happy ending there is an element of faith involved.

I usually put a lot of time and effort into the core because I knew they would be critical. If they weren’t ready to make the leap, chances are the rest of the organization was going to balk.

This core group will help get the story to people you cannot reach or with whom you don’t have a strong relationship. It is critical they believe in the change and are ready to go first both in their words and actions. I recommend developing this group before you fully engage in bringing the story to the rest of the organization.

Communicate the Story

Sure you could hold a company meeting and walk through a bunch of PowerPoint slides but what fun is that? How about skits, home-made videos or testimonials? Find a way to build the story that will be memorable. You don’t have to get a standing ovation, just surprise them by going beyond the normal change management sales pitch.

Make it a conversation. Repeat as necessary, clarify, gather feedback and keep working until you have sufficient evidence that the message was effectively delivered, (even if at this point the jury is still out on whether they think you are crazy).

Keep it simple. Focus the message on what you want people to feel, what you want them to remember and what you want them to do. Help people see how contributing to our story is also going to benefit their story. This isn’t a change you are doing to them, it is a story you are creating with them. If the only outcomes you talk about are presented on a spreadsheet this is going to be a very tough sell.

Change the Scenery

One of the first steps you can take to make the story real for people is to make visible changes to the work environment. This means more than just putting inspiring posters on the wall or moving seats. The bigger the change, the bigger the change in environment may need to be.

Sometimes this can mean knocking down walls, shifting team locations, opening up part of the workspace or arranging the furniture differently. It can also mean virtual changes to the environment, like how and where meetings are held and names of teams or new job titles that better align with the change.

You can also create a change of scenery through a field trip. Get them out of the same four walls to see what is possible. I once took a group of 20 employees to Las Vegas to tour Zappos so they could get a visual and personal experience of how other organizations operate and how different cultures function. In another experiment, I took my print operations team to a plant that built air compressors. It’s so powerful when people can see the change in 3D.

Claim the Momentum

This one is simple. When you see people acting in ways that support the story, share their story! If you hear positive feedback from outside the company, shout it out! Use a social platform where people can post success stories, create story walls people can write on and decorate, start every meeting with stories, instigate random acts of story sharing around the office, etc.

The more ways you capture how the story is coming to life the more people will want to be a part the adventure.

The key here is to be laser-focused on every signal that the change is taking hold and be intentional about celebrating progress. Too often the story begins with a great fanfare and dies in the middle because momentum is lost and obstacles bring progress to a halt.

Connect the Dots

Finally, as the story unfolds be sure to track progress and report the results to the organization. While the journey is where you’ll experience the long-term benefits, the destination (results) you envisioned when you began the journey is still very important.

People need to know that the hard work, struggle, and patience are paying off. They want to sense the story is progressing toward a resolution. Again, this can be managed through many channels such as newsletters, status boards, town hall meetings, break room postings, scrolling electronic marquees, random gatherings or wherever it makes sense.

So there you have it. You’ll notice I didn’t spend any time on the creating the tactical strategy, details, plans, goals or other managerial activities. I’m assuming you already tackled that or you wouldn’t be contemplating a change.

Besides, my experience is that you don’t need to know precisely how you will get there when you have a bunch of people excited about the journey. One thing is for sure, your plans for change will change.

You may end up somewhere you never expected and maybe somewhere better than you expected. If the people side of change is managed well, each successive story will be easier to write. Enjoy the ride.

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Scott Mabry

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Make the world a better workplace. @scottamabry

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