3 Keys to Driving People-Powered Change

March 16, 2016


The strategy was brilliant, and then…nothing happened.  Organizations are in the midst of sweeping change all the time.  Our futures depend on strategic agility and convincing our organizations to rally around the changes needed and bring them to life. Despite the urgency and our best intentions, 70% of changes fail.  So how can we increase the odds of sparking change in our organizations from the inside out?

Successful strategic changes harness the organization’s most valuable asset – the power of its people.  Here are three ways to enroll people to become change agents and, in the process, create thriving organizations that stay ahead of the competition and deliver on their missions.

First, develop and share the compelling why or purpose for change.  Often, the people who are expected to execute the changes are given little information about the reasons change is needed and what the benefits are to the customer or organization.  Change is hard, so people need to understand why things are changing and what the broader impact will be before they commit.

For example, a major shipping port, which we’ll call Global Port, was in crisis.  Its survival depended on creating a hassle free experience for its shipping and cruise customers to differentiate it from rival ports.  To meet this challenge, the company launched the internal “Smooth Sailing” mantra, which captured the spirit of what they were trying to do.  They reinforced the mantra with stories about how “smooth sailing” would attract more cargo and cruise ships.  The stories painted a picture of what an ideal delightful customer experience might look like and how that could be created by changing the way things currently were done. They held face-to-face town hall meetings with each department, so everyone could learn about the vision, why change was needed, and how they could input and be leaders of change.

Second, understand what is not working and, as importantly, what IS working that you can build from.  Be sure to get granular and understand both the strengths that enable the goal, as well as the pain points that get in the way of translating the strategy into action.  For example, at Global Port, customers complained about all the paperwork required.  The port found that the logistics department had begun to assign a key point person to each major shipping line.  They built on this effort and improved it by having this point person manage and streamline the paperwork required for each ship.

Third, distribute ownership, so everyone has a role to play.  Instead of trying to dictate change from the top down, create sub-teams to manage key pieces of work.  For example, at Global Port, one team tackled the ship paperwork challenge and another looked at ways to decrease turn-around time for the cargo ships.  Leadership invited people at all levels to offer input into the changes and to identify opportunities within their scope of work.  For example, one parking lot attendant realized her warm greeting set the tone for the family’s cruise vacation.  She also suggested that they offer luggage carts to make loading and unloading easier and include a children’s play area in the lobby.

As a result of this overall approach, Global Port secured several new cruise lines and cargo customers and has steadily increased revenue based on these changes. As the port learned, harnessing people power is key.  People need to understand why the changes are necessary.  They need to see that the changes are addressing what’s not working and building on what is.  They need to feel they are part of something they believe in and be given room to run, so that they can fully engage their talents to make the vision happen.

By harnessing people power in our own organizations, we can turn the rough waters of change into smooth sailing.


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About The Author

Ellen R. Auster and Lisa Hillenbrand are the authors of STRAGILITY: Excelling at Strategic Changes. Auster is Professor of Strategic Management and the Founding Director of the Schulich Centre for Teaching Excellence at the Schulich School of Business, York University. Hillenbrand is the founder of Lisa Hillenbrand & Associates, and previously served as Global Marketing Director at Procter & Gamble.

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