Two things that will ruin your organizational change from the start


Without these two things, your organizational change is set up to fail before it even begins. First, the initiative needs clear and compelling business reasons. Second, the results of the initiative need to be articulated in a clear and compelling vision. When executive sponsors have defined, agreed upon, and bought into the business reasons and vision for a change, you can then begin to build awareness, buy-in, and change capabilities among stakeholders. With compelling business reasons and a clear vision for the change, you are ready to start your change initiative on the right path towards success. Without them, however, you can ruin your change right from the beginning.

Unfortunately, too many change initiatives do NOT begin with a clearly defined business case and vision. Instead, they begin with vague statements that don’t adequately capture or convey what the change is all about. Unclear initiatives don’t necessarily happen because the executive sponsor doesn’t know what he (or she) wants, but because he has not yet defined or articulated what he wants with enough clarity that it can be understood by others. Consider, for example, if I asked you to plant a tree in my yard. What will you plant? Immediately, you have an image of a tree in your mind—perhaps a pine tree, a walnut tree, or a maple tree. In my mind, however, I was thinking of a palm tree. If we had settled on “plant a tree in my yard” as the goal for the project, I may have ended up with some other tree that I didn’t want or need. Without clarity in the beginning, “plant a tree in my yard” change initiatives can end up costing a lot in the end. Tim Creasey calls these costs the REs of poorly managed change:Redesign, Rethink, Rework, Revise, et cetera.

Change experts agree that successful change initiatives begin with a clear and compelling reason for the change, coupled with a clear and inspiring vision of the future. For example, Kotter advocates creating a sense of urgency as a reason to change (Step 1) and forming a strategic vision and initiatives (Step 3). Prosci advocates building Awareness (the first A in its ADKAR model) of the business reasons for the change. And, in its Standard for Change Management, the Association of Change Management Professionals says that practitioners should define the change (5.1.1), determine why the change is required (5.1.2), and develop a clear vision of the future state (5.1.3). In short, change managers need to ensure that the initiative is built on the strong foundation of a clear case and vision, right from the beginning.

So, how do you actually do this?


Below are some recommendations to help you define business reasons and vision statements that are useful and effective when implementing an organizational change. These recommendations will help you set your change initiative on the right course, right from the beginning.

1.      Limit your change reasons and vision statements to 2 to 3. Franklin Coveycaptures the importance of simplicity in its concept of Wildly Important Goals (WIGs). Stated simply, you can achieve more by focusing on less. The more goals you have, the less likely you are to achieve any of them; conversely, the fewer goals you have, the more likely you are to achieve all of them.

Limiting the reasons and vision statements to 2 to 3 creates a few benefits. First, limits focus the conversation on the most important reasons for the change and what leaders specifically expect because of the change. Often, leaders have identified the change as directionally-good in general terms, but have not had an opportunity to discuss, define, and prioritize the specifics with other leaders. Second, a limited number of reasons and statements will be easier for others to understand, remember, and support. Finally, clear limits for the scope of the change give project stakeholders clear guidelines for activities and goals that contribute meaningfully to the project, and those that do not. Activities that don’t belong can more easily be kept out of the project.

What I say: “What are the two or three most important business reasons for making this change?”

(Note that there are generally two types of reasons: (1) a business problem that needs to be fixed or (2) a business opportunity that needs to be leveraged).

2.      When possible, identify the data that supports the business reasons. When an executive makes a general statement about the business reasons for a change, try to discover the observations that are driving the statement. Look for observable evidences or proof. In other words, “show me the numbers.” Observable, measurable criteria from the beginning of a change initiative makes sure the change is justified and supported by data (which can contribute to a leader’s gut-feeling decision), and simplifies how you monitor and evaluate the success of the change later.

What I say: “What have you seen in the organization that led you to decide we need to make this change? What data can we look at to support your observations?”

3.      Use clear, unambiguous, specific language. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’ t understand it yourself.” Stacey Barr, a performance measurement expert, recommends that organizations start their performance improvement journey by being very clear and specific. According to Barr, statements should (1) not use “weasel words,” or fluffy, corporate, buzzwords that lack clarity or substance (e.g., “empower, optimize, and capitalize on innovative disruptions where the internet of things converges with human dynamics”) and (2) not mix multiple ideas into one sentence (e.g., “unbundling the multi-barreled items”); instead, break the ideas out into their own statements. These guidelines apply equally well to business case reasons and project vision statements.

As a guiding principle, continually ask yourself, “Can we make this statement any simpler or easier to understand?” I have noticed that, many times, I try to say things in a fancy way, but end up struggling to say them at all. However, if I ask myself or others, “What are you trying to say?”, and then just say it, I end up with a statement that is much clearer to understand.

What I say: “I’ve got a very bright 10-year-old son. How would you explain the reasons and goals of this change to him?”

4.      Write the business reasons and vision with the understanding that they will guide the talking points for all subsequent communications. Take time to get the business reasons and vision right. These ideas and words should become the foundation of messages that are consistently and constantly repeated throughout and after the change. Every slide deck, every email, every speech, and every handout should tie back to, reinforce, and promote some aspect of the business reasons and vision.

What I say: “These reasons and vision statements will be the foundation of all our communications. Do they adequately capture the most important messages we want to consistently share?”

(Note that not all messages need to be emphasized with all audiences. Strategy often comes into play when determining which messages need to be emphasized with which audiences).

5.      Don’t underestimate the time this can take! According to Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” I have found that simple, effective business reasons and visions take time. Don’t rush it! Generally, I spend at least 2 to 3 meetings with executive leaders creating, discussing, refining, and approving the reasons and vision for the change. Guiding these conversations requires a specialized skill set of listening, summarizing, questioning, resolving conflicts, and building consensus. In these matters, simplicity is hard work. But, again, given that these statements will guide the rest of the project, every minute spent up front with these statements will save hours, days, and months of confusion and frustration on the back-end.

(Note that, although I try to get it as right as possible the first time around, I often let project sponsors know that they can always raise an additional item when they see the need).


Below are a few questions to consider about the business reasons and vision of the change initiatives you are working on.

1.      How clear are the reasons for the change? Would a 10-year-old understand them?

2.      Are leaders consistent in how they explain the reasons for the change to others? What about when they explain the vision for the change?

3.      What data or observations support the business reasons for the change?

4.      How well do you incorporate the business reasons and vision in your communications and collateral?