Creating change

All meaningful change is an act of creation.

In fact, when setting out to make substantial change happen, I believe that most people overlook one key element that must be woven through all successful, durable change: understanding.

Today, let’s build a new framework for change that puts understanding at its core.

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Chesterton’s Fence

As English writer, philosopher, and critic G.K. Chesterton wrote in the 1929 book “The Thing,” (paraphrased):

Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.

Without a doubt, you have some idea of the change you want to make. Before you dive in and start advocating for it, go and build an understanding of why things are the way they are.

You can do this in any way that works for you, whether it’s casual conversations and taking notes, or generating a doc and passing it around. What you should end up with is:

  1. A clear notion of how people generally feel about the way things are today.

  2. A more complete sense of the requirements of the system or process you want to change.

Knowing people’s preferences, considerations, goals, and learning about any undocumented or non-obvious requirements will equip you to create a more compelling proposal for change.

Experimental escape hatch

Depending on the scope of the change you are contemplating and the culture of the organization, involved teams, etc., you may have an “easy out” at this stage.

Consider whether this change could be implemented as an experiment. In my experience, the following would need to be true:

  1. The change can be readily rolled back.

  2. You can come up with a clear, objective measure of whether the experiment worked.

  3. All involved and affected parties are on board with running an experiment.

If you can pull this off, you can skip all the following hard work and just run the experiment. Success!

That said, when the change you are contemplating is more substantial, an experiment may not be feasible. Either the effort to design and measure it would be greater than that of the change itself, or the change could not be easily rolled back so the decision to change has more gravity.

If that’s the case, it’s time to…

Align the vectors

It’s time to write a proposal. A truly successful proposal, however, is not just a brilliant idea with an elegant implementation. The key to successful change implementation is understanding incentives.

I assume that if you could simply implement the change unilaterally, you wouldn’t be reading this. That means there are people you need to convince; either simply to approve, or to pitch in.

While you may meet a few people now and then who are willing to help you just to be nice or because they like you, the majority of people in a work setting who will actually do work to achieve a goal that you’ve invented have one thing in common:

Your goal is also their goal.

Whether you like it or not, most people are out for themselves. The most foolproof way to create allies toward whatever goal you have in mind is to link your goal to their goals.

This serves two purposes:

  1. It helps you define, concretely, why this change is actually good for everyone it affects. If it isn’t, why are you proposing it?

  2. Speaking directly to someone’s personal goals is the fastest way to create steadfast support. After all, who wouldn’t want help accelerating their goals?

Again, think of this as building an understanding of what each involved or affected person or team cares about. What are they trying to achieve? What holds them back?

This is the real pressure test for your change. If you can’t find ways for your proposed change to directly help the people it affects, the likelihood that the change will be successful are low. This counts double for process changes; nobody likes process in the first place, so unhelpful process is the first to be ignored.

Build the text of your proposal directly upon the benefits for its stakeholders. Your proposal will be more compelling if it first describes the good it does for those most impacted and only secondarily the implementation details.

Champion the change!

Now that you have built a proposal anchored to the benefits it provides to each of your stakeholders, all that remains is to get it done. Change management is outside the scope of this article, but here are some tips to help you champion this change effectively:

  1. Frequently, without fail, ask for feedback. How are the changes progressing? Where are the speedbumps? What support is needed? Who can provide that? What could you do better as the champion of this change?

    Not only will this help keep the train on the tracks, but when people can be helpful in this way (by offering their opinions and observations), they will like you more.

  2. Be your own biggest advocate. Proactively share the benefits emerging from the changes as they occur, and what benefits are around the corner. Change happens mainly because people want it; remind them why they want it.

  3. Offer gratitude generously. No big change happens as a single, discrete act of will. It has taken real thought, compromise, and effort to make this change happen. Publicly thank everyone who pitches in, and do so frequently and generously. It’s free to give thanks, and it greases the wheels of every social machine.

What other tips do you have for creating and executing change? I’d love to hear them! Comment, email, DM me, go wild.

Questions for you

  1. How does a greater understanding of “why things are this way” support you in improving them?

  2. What is one small thing you want to change that you could design an experiment for this week?

  3. Who deserves some public thanks right now?

Lead image by Midjourney AI