How to Lead a Change Revolution


Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

This story began life as a presentation I did over fifteen years ago. It has gone through a few iterations over the years and multiple retellings in classes, conferences, and meetings. It reflects my thinking and experience across a variety of contexts. When it first started, it was about my working introducing technology into the higher education classroom, but even then, it was founded in my work in building coalitions for change on both international and local levels. It draws on my research studying social and organizational change. It concorporates my experience in business and marketing. I think it is a delightful mix of business and social issues.

A change revolution can be something that you launch within your organization or in your community. While we can also talk about change as an individual growth process, the focus here is on changes that span more than one person. Changing oneself is hard enough but introducing change when it requires other people is exponentially harder.

My work on this started in 2000, when I was appointed as Director of Instructional Technology at the Baker College system. My mission was to convince classroom faculty to adopt technology to enhance their teaching. The challenge was how to motivate faculty to voluntarily take on the extra work of using technology. This work followed on projects I had led earlier in my career around marketing new Internet-based applications in the mid-1990s, developing a global information sharing network on the human dimensions of global change, and developing a community health information network.

Over the years I have chosen the label “revolution” to capture the drama and impact of leading change. Change that is not revolutionary is not likely to produce real change. Sometimes change programs produce many warm fuzzies and self-congratulatory pats on the back, but the morning after nothing has really changed. A revolution where people go to the barricades and publicly take a stand is what is needed to produce change. All change has opposition, and if that opposition is not revealed, then there is a better than even chance that the change program is superficial and not revolutionary.

The Change Imperative

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.

Winston Churchill

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.

W. Edwards Deming

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence — only in constant improvement and constant change.

Tom Peters

Change is going to happen whether we want it to or not. Really the question is how we engage with change to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. Most people are resistant to change, which is a psychological trait that the change revolution assumes as part of the process.

Many people know that they should change something in their lives, such as to exercise more, eat better, spend time with better friends, and so on. Yet most people are not successful in achieving those goals. When you look to make change that is more than one person, it gets harder. Our relationships help to maintain stability. We feel we know who we are in relation to other people. Change in a family or organization threatens existing understanding about who has power and privilege.

In face of the pressure to not change, the only way to get better is to change. The best we can hope for with the status quo is more of the same, but the universe will change the rules anyway. The last two years of COVID have demonstrated that truth. Not all change is good or desirable, but that does not stop it from coming. Our options are to change to adapt to the world, or become increasingly frustrated with a world that does not meet our expectations.

Responses to Change

When our internal model of reality is in conflict with rapidly changing external realities, there are three fundamental ways to respond…

— — Dee Hock, Birth of the Chaordic Age, p. 238–239

Dee Hock was the founder of what today is VISA. Before he and his colleagues created it, there was not a credit card system that we take for granted today. His book the Birth of the Chaordic Age talks about his experience with creating VISA, but also more generally about how balance chaos and order in the modern world. The traditional goal is to control and manage everything. To eliminate uncertainty and optimize decisions based on outcomes. This is a great approach on paper. The world, especially the world with people in it, tends to resist control. Chaos and unpredictability are also not acceptable. The challenge is how do we balance the forces of order and control with chaos.

Hock observes that our first response to change in our circumstances is to keep doing what we have always done. We attempt to keep doing things the way we have always done them and hope that things change. A great example of this is the Kodak Film company. As digital photography grew and expanded, Kodak hung onto its business model of selling film.

Next, we can engage in denial. We argue that the changes occurring are not real or at least they are only temporary. We can observe this with COVID. Two years in, some still argue that it is a manufactured crisis or at least no worse than the seasonal flu. Denial leads us to blame others for our misfortune.

Finally, we can change. Change begins with how we sell the world. Our beliefs about how the universe works structure both how we see the world and how we respond to it. Only by changing ourselves can we begin to change the world, but that type of change is a lot like death. We have to let go of things that are often core to how we see ourselves and our identity.

In an organization (company, school, community, etc.), the belief model is enmeshed within the relationships of the members of the organization. It is not just what individuals believe, but how they talk to each other and what they talk about. To bring about organizational change, we have to change the conversations within the organization. My mentor in grad school called this “multilogue,” because it was more than just two people having a “dialogue.” It is about everyone communicating with everyone.

“Organizational identities are embedded and emergent in conversation. Project planning discussions, strategic planning meetings, selection interviews, performance reviews and staff meetings are all conversations through which the identities of an organization, its products and services and its members are crafted. The efforts of change agents toward development — personal and organizational — can best be understood as interventions into the conversational processes and relational realities of the organization.”

— — Diana Whitney, Let’s change the subject and change our organization: an appreciative inquiry approach to organizational change. Career Development International Bradford: 1998. Vol. 3, Iss. 7, p. 314

Why a Revolution

A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.

Fidel Castro

No real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution… revolution is but thought carried into action.

Emma Goldman

I do not identify as either a communist (Castro) or an anarchist (Goldman). While I may not agree with the direction of the revolutions they advocated, their understanding of what revolution is has currency. When we are going to make meaningful change, we have to overthrow the old regime, the old way of doing things.

Why Revolutions Fail

“There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things…”

— Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

70% of organizational change programs fail

Miller, D. (2002). Successful change leaders: what makes them? what do they do that is different?, Journal of Change Management, 2(4), 359–368.

The track record of successful changes is low. Change initiatives can be superficial and not produce results. They can run into opposition and stall. My favorite reason for the failure of a change revolution is the “Field of Dreams” philosophy. In the Kevin Costner movie of that name, the popular quote is, “build it and they will come.” This is a bit of Hollywood nonsense. Often change agents and leaders are in love with their ideas, as they should be. The problem is that their attraction will not be shared by others. This creates a lack of support that stalls the change.

Somewhere in my graduate studies in planning, I learned the phrase the “FUD Factor.” In this context, “FUD” stands for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt.” In order to lead a successful change revolution, you have to overcome these factors.

I operationalize these as fear meaning “I do not want to be the first on my block.” Research shows that conformity is a powerful social mechanism. Most people do not want to be the first one to try something new. They are waiting to see that others are doing it before they join the cause.

Uncertainty reflects the belief that “It won’t do me any good.” Maybe a diet or exercise program worked for someone else, but it won’t work for me. When I was working with faculty to use technology in the classroom, this was a big issue. Faculty had to believe that the technology could benefit their teaching.

Doubt manifests as the ability to be able to put something into practice. Maybe the diet would work for me, but it is too complicated. This is a common issue with technology. I might believe it could be a benefit, if only I could figure out how to use it.

To be successful, a change revolution must address the fears, uncertainties, and doubts of the target audience for the change. If people fail to commit to the change, the revolution will fail, regardless of how great an idea it is or the resources invested in its success.

How to Lead Successful Revolutions

Through multiple successful change efforts across my career, I have found a recipe for change revolutions. It begins with three stages of the revolution:

  • Establishing the vision
  • Recruitment of volunteers
  • Reaching critical mass

These stages draw from the research on the diffusion of innovations. In the traditional model, people can be categorized into four groups based on their openness to change. Geoffrey Moore used this idea to structure marketing at Intel. In the technology marketing space, the challenge is cross the gulf between those who are very open to change to the majority of people who only change when the value is well documented.

Stage One: Establishing the Vision

Change requires two ingredients. First, there needs to be an opportunity such as a problem, need, or benefit. The opportunity describes the good things that the change will provide. The second ingredient is a solution to the opportunity. The solution might be a product, a service, or a new way of doing things. The solution will need to be more than an idea. It must take form in action. There can be multiple solutions for a given opportunity, and part of the process can be to find the right solution or make refinements to improve on the solution.

Identifying a solution can follow one of two paths. One of the most common is incremental innovation on what is current practice. This involves taking small steps at improvement. This often creates less friction than other change approaches. Often incremental innovation employs research on what works is to take an existing approach that is working somewhere else and applying it in a new organization. A common expression for this is to “about best practices.”

The most interesting changes, though, are disruptive. They require a departure from how things are done today. When Apple released its first iPod device, it was a radical departure from anything else that existed. The iPhone and iPad were incremental improvements from this starting point. Certainly, other smart phones and tablets were incremental innovations from the Apple products.

In planning, we often talk about “wicked problems.” These are problems with no easy solution that any solution will create winners and losers. Government responses to COVID fall into this category. Restricting social gatherings and activities to reduce the potential spread of the virus have had a significant impact on hospitality and related industries. The lack of consensus is not because one point of view is correct and another wrong, but because both are somewhat correct and somewhat wrong. The challenge is navigating different options with trade-offs. Too often, points of view become entrenched around a particular solution, which prevents consensus from emerging, blocking change.

My answer to this problem is to use a version of the “Delphi Technique.” The Delphi Technique is a survey tool that asks respondents who else should be responding to the survey. This is what we call “snowball sampling.” The Delphi Technique also iterates multiple times. The surveyors collect responses and then present them back to the respondents to see what items where there is agreement. Because this is anonymous, it tends to lead to a shared understanding versus polarized position taking.

My approach is to mee with people one-on-one for an interview. The interview incudes these questions:

  • What do you think the problem/need is?
  • What do you think the solution should do?
  • What do you think the solution is?
  • How could you use the solution?
  • What are the benefits of the solution?
  • What problem could the solution solve?
  • Who else should I talk to about this?

The last question is key to getting referrals to identify other stakeholders.

In the interviews, I will also share ideas that have come up in other interviews. I will name drop shamelessly in this process to demonstrate that I am serious about using people’s ideas and giving credit. It also allows me extra credibility borrowed from others. Eventually these ideas will be captured in things like white papers, plans, or presentations. Whether I am talking about ideas or writing them down, I practice editing. If I don’t think an idea is good, I will edit it out of the conversation. At the end of the day, as a change agent, part of the role is what to leave out.

At the end of this visioning process, you will have made social networks and norms explicit. These are the relationships that will make or break a change. Too often we rely on the organizational chart, and usually the org chart lets us down. By spending one-on-one time and sharing ideas, buy-in is built from the start. No one has to be sold anything, because they are part of the idea. At the same time, potential barriers are identified early. This helps you plan for what issues will need to be resolved. This process also helps identify who the pioneers will be for a change. Finally, the process helps define the product and the message.

In the late 1990s I was hired to develop a community health information network as part of a larger program. I used this approach with great success. I inherited a small task force, but as I expanded the conversation beyond this group, I was able to bring more people into the conversation. I tripled the size of the task force, and I kicked off the new group with a meeting where I presented the things we agreed on and a shared vision and the areas where we needed to resolve issues. Within a few months, I had those resolved and a plan including funding to proceed. The issue I neglected was my boss. Where my approach is abut creating networks and sharing power, she was about hierarchy and patronage. She did not want something she could not control, so she killed the project. It was a painful lesson to learn, but one of the connections I made led to my career in higher education. It all worked out in the end.

Stage Two: Recruitment of Volunteers

The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.

Che Guevara

During the process of conducting interviews, you should be identifying your pioneers. These are the first people to deploy the change. You can think of them as beta testers. They will test the effectiveness of the solution, offer feedback on how to make it better, and provide a foundation for expansion.

This second stage focuses on marketing. It is important to be aware of the three stages of communication:

  • Awareness: If I do not know that something exists, I cannot do it.
  • Motivation: I need to know why I should use it.
  • Ability: I need to know how to use it.

Individuals need to first be aware, then motivated, and finally empowered to make a change.

Awareness building can use a variety of communication channels:

  • Print Media
  • Brochures, Flyers, and Letters
  • Articles and Newsletters
  • Websites
  • Events
  • Meetings
  • Training Sessions
  • Word of Mouth

The key is to have a communication plan for how you will make people aware of what is going on.

Motivation draws on psychology and sociology of change. As I discussed earlier, I group people into two categories: pioneers and settlers. (This is a simplification of the four categories used in the diffusion of innovation research.) Pioneers have a high potential for change. Roughly the represent about 2.5% of the population. They are engaged and interested in change, often for the sake of change. It is easy to get them motivated early, though later their interests may shift to the next next thing. Pioneers are often self-reliant and do without modern conveniences.

Many change programs fail because they get the initial boost from pioneers, but fail to move to the settlers, which require a different set of triggers to be motivated. Settlers have increasing amounts of FUD. They need to see that other people are using the solution and how it is working. Settlers want to see the value. They also need more support than Pioneers. Since settlers count for 97.5% of any population, success without them is difficult to achieve.

I began revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and plan of action.

Fidel Castro

During the early phases of a change effort, it is critical to do evaluation and improvement. Often this is done through pilot projects or other limited scale experiments with Pioneers. It is important to collect both formal and informal data. You want to identify what is not working so you can fix it and what is working. When you find something working, you want to get a testimonial for the people using the change. This is important for messaging to Settlers that need to see social proof that something is working before committing.

Stage Three: Reaching Critical Mass

It can seem intimidating to go from 2.75% to critical mass. The good news is that critical mass is not 100% or even 50% adoption. Once you reach 20% adoption, you will reach the tipping point. Remember that Pioneers do not build towns, Settlers do. To institutionalize change you need to build towns. What starts as a small town will grow over time.

“The part of the diffusion curve from about 10 percent adoption to 20% adoption is the heart of the diffusion process. After that point, it is often impossible to stop further diffusion of a new idea, even if one wished to do so.”

— Everrett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, p. 259

The key is to recognize that Settlers need to see benefits of change. If the perceived benefits do not outweigh the perceived costs, change will stall. Sometimes even when the benefits are clear, you will encounter resistance to change. This is normal.

To overcome resistance, my best tactic is to ask the empowerment question: “What can be done to address your concern?” Most of the time, resistance to change is emotional. By putting the burden on the resistor to articulate what can be done to mitigate their concerns, resistance will soften. If they can articulate concrete concerns, you have something to work with. The key at this stage is to take baby steps. It has been reported that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog will hop out. However, if you slowly raise the water to a boil, the frog will stay in and become frog soup. In a similar fashion, information overload creates paralysis. Keep it simple. Finally, actions are more persuasive than words. Argue less and do more. Columbus did not prove the world was round with arguments but action.

Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.

Saul Alinsky

Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist.

Richard M. Nixon

A critical tool in change programs is peer pressure. In the end, not everyone will agree with you (right away). Some people will support the cause, and some won’t. So what? If you wait for consensus, change will stall. Start with the coalition of the willing, demonstrate the value of the change and expand. People do not want to be the first on the block. They need social proof. There is a minimum number of people who must act before a specific person will. Overtime, resistors will become supporters under peer pressure.

To leverage peer pressure, it is valuable to spread an Idea Virus. An idea virus is a concept, such as a product or service, that spreads from person to person by word of mouth and example, creating an environment where customers market to each other.

An Idea Virus requires:

  • The name of the change
  • A message that explains why someone should support change
  • Be repeatable by satisfied customers and others

In creating our message, we want to create word pictures using metaphors, analogies, similes, and stories. Repetition should be used repeatedly. I don’t know why people think that if you tell someone something once it will stick. We know that this is not true with our families. Why would we expect co-workers and others to be any different? Simplicity helps to make the message more repeatable and also easier to recall.

Stories are propaganda, virii that slide past your critical immune system and insert themselves directly into your emotions.

— Cory Doctrow, Eastern Standard Tribe

“…to make [an idea] contagious … alter it in such a way that extraneous details are dropped and others are exaggerated so that the message itself comes to acquire a deeper meaning.”

— Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, p. 203

“In communication, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison the ambiguities, simplify the message, and then simplify it some more if you want to make a long-lasting impression.”

— Al Ries and Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, p. 8

One of the often overlooked and absolutely critical aspects of a change revolution is the invitation. The invitation is a call to action that tells me people how to get involved. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. The ask should be appropriate for the audience. Do you want support? Do you want them to do something? Be clear about what you expect to happen next and when. I like to offer options and flexibility. Maybe now is not a good time for someone to try something new, but maybe they can in the future. You want to make it easy for people to opt in. For example, sign-up sheets at an event are more effective then asking people to go to a web site to sign-up.

As your revolution expands, it is important to manage expectations. You do not want to make promises that you cannot keep. Instead, under promise and over deliver. People need to have faith in the cause. When expectations are not met, they will become disinterested.

Training and capacity building are essential to build a movement. Training must attack the FUD factors. Training needs to build the case for use, increase ability to use the product, and increase the ability to apply the product to create value. Unless all three objectives are met, your converts will have a hard time successfully participating.

I recommend guerilla style training. Training should be quick and easy by focusing on the essentials. Rather than trying to teach everything at once, create multiple levels of training. Borrow from the martial arts. No one starts out as a black belt. They start learning a few things, earning a belt, and expanding their skills I also favor what I call “Memento” tools. This is a reference to the movie Memento where the main character does not create new memories, so he has to use notes and photographs to help him recall things. When people leave training, they need resources to put what they have learned later when they will have forgotten the details of the training.

Resistance is Futile

If your revolution is successful, it will appear in hindsight to be inevitable.

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

— Victor Hugo

“The best way to predict the future…is to create it.”

— Allan Kay

It is important to show gratitude to the people who support your cause.

“Your parents were right. Say ‘Thank You.’ Often.”

— Harry Beckwith, Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing

It is also important to have fun and celebrate.

“If I can’t dance — I don’t want to be part of your revolution”

— Emma Goldman

If you are trying to change the world on a big scale or small, and you want to talk to someone about how to start, sustain, and deliver your revolution, let me know how I can help.