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Change: A Play in 4 Acts

How to lead your company through the four phases that inevitably accompany any major change.
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Creating change in any organization is a slow, rocky process requiring support from many people. It’s very rare to see one person suddenly become the Lone Ranger, inspiring an entire business to change gears without any resistance, or foot-dragging.

In order to make sure their new ideas become reality, leaders must understand the four acts of every change agenda.

The action begins in Act I as the protagonist (that’s you) prepares energetically for change. In Act II, the protagonist initiates change in the face of mounting resistance. As Act III starts, the protagonist is hard at work putting change in place, but privately frets as to whether it will succeed. Finally, in Act IV, the protagonist attempts to stabilize his or her change agenda and ensure its survival.

I argue that the change leader is doomed to fail in every stage unless he or she has a coalition on his or her side. Let me explain:

Act I: Preparing for change

No matter what change you’re proposing, there’s always some risk. As a leader you need to accept this fact, and hedge your risk. The best way to do this is to share the risk with others. Get the key players involved right at the beginning, and to make them part of the planning process.

By building a coalition around your fledging proposal for change, you not only gather support for your new idea, but you create a­­ group that will share the risk that inevitably comes with it.

Act II: Initiating change

There is power in numbers. Once you’ve got a coalition behind your change initiative, it’ll be much easier to overcome pockets of resistance.

More importantly, a coalition will confer legitimacy on the changes you want to make. With more people on your side, you’ll have more people to defend and explain the logic of your change agenda.

Act III: Putting change in place

Many leaders can get their change initiatives all the way to Act III without a coalition. But they often become players in a tragedy if they attempt to put their agenda into place without help from anyone else.

Coalitions help you avoid sabotage. No matter what you do, some people will resist your change agenda--either overtly or covertly--and will try to derail your project. It’s impossible to look for, spot, and fight resistance alone. You need coalition members to keep a watchful eye.

A coalition will also weaken the resolve of resistors and potential resistors. Confronted with a large coalition, they’ll be more tempted to throw in the towel.

Act IV: Stabilizing change

Even as your change initiative becomes part of your business culture, it will still be vulnerable to resistors and criticisms. Coalitions help deflect long-term attacks and perennial reproaches.

Leaders need to remain vigilant and make sure their coalitions remain intact through periodic checkups and meetings.  Not only will shoring up your coalition strengthen your your change initiative, but it will make it easier to propose more adventurous changes in the future.

Epilogue

All change efforts follow these four acts without fail. Sometimes the drama will unfold in a matter of months; sometimes it’ll take years. It’s your job as a leader to keep your coalition engaged, active, and supportive through the ups and downs of your change agenda-;no matter how long it takes.

 

Last updated: Mar 4, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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