It's a long, complicated road to create change where it matters most.

Change Management for Change-Makers

Our hearts and thoughts are with black and brown Americans throughout the United States, as our country confronts yet another crisis in the wake of police brutality. We’ve been inspired by the upswell of support and activism as people come together to fight for positive change. It’s these kinds of moments and efforts – while painful and all-to-slow – when progress is possible.

Change is indeed on many of our minds these days. We might be thinking about changing the racial dynamics within our country, or we might be thinking about changing diversity and inclusion efforts within our companies. We might want to fight for changing protections for small businesses in the wake of Covid-19, or we might be thinking about how to change the speed and nimbleness of our company in a rapidly evolving business environment.

As a brand-building company, we’re passionate about creating change in businesses – in reality, every (real) branding effort has some component of change management attached to it as organizations adapt to a new message, mindset, approach and culture. So, while our minds are all attuned to making progress in the world, we want to share some of the most relevant lessons we’ve learned on driving change.

To write this article, we’ve leaned not only on our own experience, but also on the research and insights from two books from three authors – Leading Change by John Kotter and Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Both of these books make excellent reads if you’re looking to learn more about change management.

Importantly, while these lessons are rooted in driving change throughout companies, we believe they have applicability to change efforts everywhere – whether those be department-level change efforts, self-improvement or community activism.

So, if change is on your mind, here are four essential things to be thinking about to drive that change home.

Rule 1: You Need a Burning Platform 

There’s a reason why Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” It’s because when we’re comfortable, we’re too willing to let the status quo be.

John Kotter’s first lesson of creating change is that you must define your burning platform – the little piece of wood keeping us afloat, which just happens to be on fire. The best change-makers know that if they want to create change, there has to be a sense of urgency, and so they often use tactics to create that urgency. Kotter talks about executives who have cleaned up their balance sheets to take a loss for the quarter. Panic! Or, those who have told their business units that they have a set time limit to become market leaders, or else they’ll be divested or closed. Or, who have told their top leaders that 50% of pay is based on product-quality targets across the business.

Burning platforms are authentic, raw, tangible and visible catalysts for urgency. Importantly, they aren’t just “boy who cried wolf” alarm-ringing. They’re something that can be felt, with real-world consequences if they aren’t fixed.

In activism, think about the video of George Floyd’s horrific murder – it exposed a burning platform for race relations in our country. Indeed, this is a life or death issue. The protests that have followed have only heightened the sense that something must be done. It’s why boycotting or strikes are often a powerful vehicle for change.

Lesson for Change-Makers:  If you want to create change, you have to create urgency. You need to constantly confront people with a hard, visceral sense of why change is needed – and that urgency must be sustained throughout your change efforts. If you haven’t created urgency, or you feel urgency waning, find a way to sustain the “burning platform” effect in your change efforts.

Rule 2: Change Requires Specificity

In Switch, the Heath Brothers discuss the efforts of two health researchers who wanted to convince people to eat healthier. The problem? Eating healthier can be accomplished in about a thousand different ways.

The health researchers didn’t offer up a 100-point plan for eating healthier. Instead, they went with a clear and incisive strategy: Attack milk, which happened to be the single largest source of saturated fat in an American diet. They created a campaign around a very specific ask: Stop drinking whole milk, and switch to 1% milk instead.

In the markets where the researchers’ “drink 1% milk” campaign was unveiled, market share of low-fat milk skyrocketed from 18% to 41%, eventually stabilizing at 35%. The reason? The change the two researchers were effectively communicating was specific. People could wrap their heads around it.

When we seek change, we need to be specific in exactly what we want to change. Studies have shown that something as commonplace (and failure-prone) as New Year’s Resolutions can be improved by setting goals that are specific, measurable and achievable.

Lesson for Change-Makers: Be specific in the change you’re demanding. Don’t just ask for behavior to be better, explain what behavior you want to be better, and reiterate it over, and over and over.

Rule 3: Peer Pressure Matters

Did you know that obesity is contagious? It’s scary, but true. A study from Harvard found that if a person is obese, then a close mutual friend is three-times as likely to become obese, too. The reason? Because what other people do normalizes that behavior. And something that’s normalized is … normal.

The Heath Brothers cite a Wharton School Professor who was the editor of a niche operations journal and wanted to speed its peer review process, which was far too slow. In order to do so, the editor did a number of things – but most pertinently, he created a public spreadsheet, visible to all, that showed which editors had reviewed their assignments on time, and which had not. When peer reviewers saw that others were getting the job done – and they were not – suddenly that pressure from their peers spurred them into action.

A liberal Twitter handle called “Sleeping Giants” leveraged this same phenomenon. It collected screenshots of ads placed on Breitbart, and then began questioning brands about their support of some less-than-savory headlines. Suddenly, hundreds of brands had to intentionally consider which news media they were appearing on, not to mention the broader impact of companies being forced to consider where they stand in our politically-charged world. Regardless of your politics, Sleeping Giants is an example of leveraging the power of making behavior visible and prominent in order to alter widespread norms (not to mention the burning platform of brand perception hits if that behavior doesn’t change).

Lesson for Change-Makers: First off, behavior matters. How you behave at an individual level has an impact on those around you. So, if you want to drive change, be the change in all that you do. Second, make that behavior visible. The more people see you and others behaving “the right way,” the more you normalize the behavior you want to encourage.

Rule 4: Change Takes Time

We live in an instant gratification culture. We want to see change, and we want to see it now! The problem? Change takes time. According to John Kotter, change efforts don’t take months – they take years. He cites one of the most successful change efforts he’s seen peaking in year five, with more change coming in year six and year seven as well.

Even something as small as changing a habit takes time. Science shows that on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. Now try multiplying that kind of change out across an entire company – across an entire society!

This is hugely important for all of us who want to create change. First, we can set expectations with ourselves that change happens over the long haul – we won’t necessarily see results immediately. Second, we need to remain focused, consistent and patient.

Finally, even if we see small changes occur, we need to keep fighting for deeper, more structural evolution. Kotter references a number of organizations that see some change, and call it a day – only to see behaviors revert back to the status quo soon after. Systems thinking has shown that any disrupted system naturally returns to stable “equilibrium” over time, meaning that the goal isn’t to just disrupt the system, but to fight hard enough and long enough that the entire definition of “equilibrium” changes.

Lessons for Change-Makers: We’ll keep this one simple: If you have something you believe in, keep fighting for it. With effort, focus, consistency and – most importantly – time, change is possible. Keep going, no matter how hard it gets, or how long it takes.

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