How to Make a Compelling Case for Change
Making a compelling case for change is the most important thing you can do—and it is the most neglected. When organizations ignore or gloss over this stage, they often pay for it with massive resistance, budgets that go out-of-whack and severely missed deadlines.
By the way, making a compelling case is just as important if you are trying to influence just one person. Don’t let the word change make you think that making a case doesn’t apply to you. Any time you need to influence someone else, you will probably need to make a case first.
Did you ever come up with a great idea, but hardly anyone supported you? Then for the next few months you found yourself working night and day trying to push this idea forward. It probably felt like you were dragging people—pleading with them, threatening or just doing the work yourself.
If you’ve ever experienced this (and I suspect most of us have), I think you’ll find this paper helpful.
Making a compelling case for change is the most important thing you can do to build support for any new initiative. Makes no difference if it is merger integration, a reorganization, restructuring, reengineering, implementing new software, Six Sigma, or whatever - making a strong case that something different is needed must come first.
Sadly, most people ignore this critical phase in the life of a change. My research shows that people who ignore or speed through this stage risk failure. Those who give attention to making the case so that people can truly understand why change is needed enjoy a higher success rate—and much lower resistance.
Typically, here's what happens: A small group of leaders sees the need for a change. They look at the numbers and realize that they’ve got to do something now! Whatever it is, it's got to happen today! Driven by a strong sense of urgency, these leaders rush to action. They introduce plans. They make assignments. They do all kinds of things to get started. What they miss is that nobody else seems to see this urgent need to do something differently.
These leaders just made a huge mistake. They introduced “how” before they answered “why”. They moved to action by telling people how the change will be planned and implemented, without ever explaining why it was so important to do something – anything – differently.
Read on to learn how to avoid the trap of moving to how before why is answered.
Address Why Before How
Before rushing to action, slow down and consider your response to the following questions.
- Does your own team feel an urgency to change? If not, this is the place to start. Too often, an executive (or middle manager, for that matter) introduces something without getting his or her own group on board. And the place to begin is with making a case.
- Who else must feel urgency to change?
- What’s the gap between what they see and what you see?
- How can you bridge that gap in order to make the most compelling case for change?
Addressing these questions with all groups of stakeholders makes it pretty likely that you’ll be covering why before how.
Cast a Wide Net
You need to be able to identify everyone who has a stake in this change or this new idea. Often, leaders make a case to a small group of people. When that group gets excited, the leaders believe that they've just earned the support they need. And that's often a mistake.
Take a moment and write down all the stakeholders who must support you on this change or new idea.
Consider the following:
- Who needs to be a champion for this change?
- Who needs to support it?
- Who needs to go along?
You’ll notice that those three items correspond with the positive side of The Energy Bar™.
Asking these questions may cause you to cast a much wider net and find stakeholders who you might have missed otherwise.
I was helping a group of managers in a software engineering firm debrief a project that had stalled. They told me that six months into the project, the mail room balked, and that stopped everything. While they had done a fairly good job of involving stakeholders, they completely forgot about the mail room. These types of missteps are avoidable if you just stop and ask yourself, “Who has a stake in the outcome?”
Mind the Gap
You can’t ride the tube in London without seeing warnings to “mind the gap.” That’s the gap between the train and the platform. Same goes inside organizations. You must pay attention to the gap between what you see and what others see.
List the places where your view of what’s going on differs from other stakeholders.
- Is it a huge gap or something small?
- Does the gap occur because you have access to data that others don’t see? Do you feel urgency, but they don’t? Or are they suspicious of you and any message you bring them?
Your response to these questions creates the foundation for your strategy to bridge this gap and make a case.
Bridging the Gap
Here’s what you can do.
You must make sure that people know that something new is called for and that a change is needed today. It is tempting to make a case by just giving people information. But that's not nearly enough. To truly make a case, you need to address three things.
- People must understand what you're talking about. (Level 1.)
- People must feel that this change is critical. For example, “If we don’t do something, we could be out of business?” (Level 2)
- People must trust the source. If people don’t trust you, they’ll be suspicious of what you tell them. If this is the case, then you may need to bring in someone in whom people do trust. (Level 3)
One company lost a major contract to provide service to a state government, a loss which constituted a significant portion of their earnings. If they couldn’t find a way to make up for the lost earnings, they could have been in serious trouble. So instead of parading the executives in front of the employees, as I am certain they had done many times before, they did something completely different. They invited an official from the state’s contracting office to explain why their company lost out. That person had credibility, and people took that message seriously.
Her message gave people information (Level 1). Her position gave her credibility (Level 3). The evidence itself led most people to feel the potential risk (Level 2).
You should try to include all three levels any time you want to influence others. If people get, like it and trust you, your ability to make a case for change is quite high. However, if one or more of these is missing, you'll get indifference, inertia and resistance. Not a good way to start a major change.
Here is a common way leaders introduce people to change: Some well-meaning leader gets up in front of the team and gives a PowerPoint presentation. This slide show is a mind-numbing display of data. As the audience looks at slide after slide after slide, crammed with tons of bullet points and numbers, their eyes glaze over. Then their brains glaze over. They’re not listening anymore. Mark Twain once wrote, “No sinner was ever converted after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” Same goes for PowerPoint presentations, but Twain was being generous with 20 minutes. He never saw a dreary slide show. I’d stick with ten minutes max.
Making a compelling case for change is all about engaging people. The best way to do that is to build your strategy around the three levels. Make sure people get it, like it, and trust where the information is coming from.
At Level 1, make sure people have the capacity to understand what you’re talking about. If they don’t have MBAs in finance, and your presentations include massive financial analyses and projections, you’ll probably lose your audience before you ever get started.
Speak their language.
At Level 2, offer an emotional wallop. Urgency is an emotional thing. It springs from fear or excitement. Make sure your case taps into our natural, deep-seated emotional well.
At Level 3, make sure people trust the ones who deliver the message.
And if you can’t find anyone who they trust (and that can happen), consider the following:
- Open the books so people can look at the same data that you see. (By the way, opening the books is a good strategy, no matter what the level of trust.)
- Give them opportunities to talk with people like them in other organizations who have faced similar challenges.
- Give people time to mull over what you tell them.
- Keep communicating in various ways, but make sure that you are communicating WHY something new is needed until you see that they get the urgency of this idea and are willing to support you. Communicating can be simple: Management by Wandering Around, taking a few minutes to address the need for a change during conference calls and meeting, focus groups, and the list goes on.
How Can You Tell That You've Made a Case?
It's not enough to simply think you've made a case; you've got to know that you got your point across at all three levels so that people got it, liked it and trusted what you told them. Without that assurance, you will spend way too much time and money trying to drag people along with you.
Here are some tips that let you know that you've made a case. You see people…
- asking questions that show they are interested in what you are saying
- challenging what you are saying out of a real concern for what it might mean
- suggesting ways to deal with the challenge
- volunteering to help
- taking leadership roles
- using first person pronouns—I and we—versus saying you and they. For example, "We've got to do something about this,” versus "So what are you going to do about this?"
And as the late Kathie Dannemiller once suggested, look for "a shift"—something that tells you that the group is ready to move, that they see the challenge.
Ways to Check
Let’s say you work in a large organization, and it’s hard to get a good read on where people stand with regard to the change. Here’s what you can do.
Send out a very short survey.
- Ask three or four questions. You’ll get a much higher response rate, and people will usually take time to give you thoughtful answers.
- Be sure to ask open-ended questions. Multiple choice or 1-to-5 scales will not give you the data you need.
- You might ask, “Over the past few weeks, we have been attempting to show you that our company must make some major changes, or else we risk going out of business. Do you share this concern? Please explain.”
- Convene a few focus groups and ask people if they see a need for change. The purpose of a focus group is to learn—not to preach. So go there to listen and learn.
- Ask people informally.
- Pay attention in meetings. Let’s say you thought people were on board, but you notice that planning teams are struggling to find members or to get moving. These could be signs that others don’t feel the same sense of urgency that you do.
And finally, use The Energy Bar™ to track people’s interest and willingness to work with you on your idea.
© Rick Maurer (adapted from Change without Migraines e-book. 2007) www.energybartools.com