Why Good Change Happens (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

If change is a constant reality in business today, then why doesn’t it come more easily?

In my January 2013 column, I wrote about the need to spread an appropriate level of discomfort among prospective customers if you want them to consider you differently. But I also see company leaders trying to drive change internally — getting everyone to move faster, become more efficient and learn to engage customers in new ways. 

This column is about change or, more specifically, the steps I’ve seen good leaders follow to make change happen. Of course, not all types of change are good for the organization. (“After all, Jim,” you might say, “even decay is a form of change.”)

However, positive change is an ongoing imperative and it doesn’t happen by accident.

During the past few months I have been assisting a client with communicating a series of product launches. Many of these new products represent substantially different types of solutions or pricing models for the team. Responding to changes in competition and in customers’ needs, the company’s management team is working to drive some long-term, internal changes at the same time that it sells more stuff. 

This client follows a change-management model popularized in the 1990s by Harvard Business School professor John Kotter. (Yes, I also wonder how many times he has heard the “Welcome back, Kotter” line.) You might have seen this model before, but even if that’s the case it deserves a revisit from time to time. The logic and sequence of the model matches those situations I’ve seen over the years when leadership was able to drive some positive change — and actually make it stick. 

Kotter’s model follows this eight-stage sequence: 

  • Create urgency. According to Kotter, the first step is also the most difficult. Most of us resist change. In order to overcome that inertia, the teams need to both get the change imperative intellectually and feel the urgency in their guts. Kotter suggests that at least three-quarters of the leadership must truly buy into the need for change. Which leads to … 
  • Form a powerful coalition. You’ll need a team. Change champions might not always be in the most obvious or highest places on the organizational chart. In our team’s consulting engagements we typically select a team of high performers (with “street cred”) from different units and with different tenures in the company.
  • Create a vision for change. Everyone needs to know more than just “the status quo isn’t working anymore.” (By itself, that tends to induce anxiety.) They need a simple, achievable and compelling view of your destination — something the leadership team and change champions can be comfortable in sharing in two minutes or less (a PowerPoint deck is decidedly not the answer here). That short story of the change vision is harder to craft and pull off than it might first appear.
  • Communicate the vision. Your champions should be sharing the vision at every opportunity, not just at kickoffs or regular meetings. The group will need to compare notes along the way.
  • Remove obstacles. The barriers to change may be human, structural, informational and/or embedded within incentive systems. For human obstacles, the leader’s role is twofold: get key current employees on board and bring in change instigators as needed. 
  • Create short-term wins. People will look for evidence that the change initiative is going to succeed or fail. You’ll need one or more early wins that are fairly easy and inexpensive and that don’t depend on the involvement of internal critics.
  • Build on the change. Some will declare victory prematurely. The natural temptation is to take a long, deep breath and move from discomfort to comfort again. Savvy executives will over time bring in fresh change agents who don’t own the initiatives that worked well yesterday (while still celebrating the contributions of that original team).
  • Anchor the change in your organization’s culture. This includes sharing success stories as well as embedding lessons learned into onboarding and training activities.  

Change itself, like many other things, happens best when marketed well.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, researcher, speaker and author. See JimKarrh.com or email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com.