Four Secrets for Leading Successful Change

Add bookmark

John W. Moran

Changing an organization’s entrenched culture is not a simple task, writes contributor John Moran. But if you want to make changes stick you need to get into the culture. Here are the four things you need to think about.

Sometimes when we learn the tools of process improvement, we forget about the importance of something that's alot less tangible: culture. But, as this quote from Edgar Schein, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests, managing culture is actually one of the most important things we need to do as leaders:

"The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening." [1]

In a previous article on the PEX Network on The PDCA Cycle of a Change Leader I focused on the Think, Speak, Act, and Care change process steps that a change leader needs to go through to help start and move an organization through a culture change.

In this article I'd like to take it a little bit further and propose four essential ingredients to making change successful. These are:

#1: Start by building the case for change

The one area that a Change Leader is most effective is in speaking to people in their organization about the need to change. The speaking part of the PDCA Cycle for a Change Leader is to build in the organization the belief for the need to change. If the people in the organization do not believe there is a compelling need to change there will be little movement and a very frustrated change leader.

# 2: Develop a consistent message (and keep it consistent!)

To develop the belief in the need to change the change leader must develop a clear, concise, and consistent message on the need to change, what the desired change is comprised of, what must be done differently, and the timing of the change. This consistent message needs to be delivered and deployed to each organizational level and they need to own it and deliver it to the next level and so on. The message needs to be the same at each level and each level must believe it and own it. If the message is inconsistent at the various levels it will cause confusion. Organizational confusion over the need to change is a major barrier to implementing a culture change.

# 3: Don't underestimate the amount of effort this will take (and don't lose confidence)

Every change leader starts out feeling like they are pushing a large rock uphill in getting others to believe a change is needed. This takes an investment of a lot of time and effort on the part of the change leader. The Change Leader starts with a high belief in themselves for the need for change but usually does not have a consistent message on why change is required/needed. They are in the top left quadrant of the matrix shown in figure one. They own the change, have a high belief change is needed, understand that they need everyone to adapt to the change but lack a clear and consistent message to sell this cultural change. Going through this pushing the large rock of change up a hill process is frustrating for a change leader but it does help them crystallize their message of change.

# 4: View each interaction as an opportunity to engage others in change

Every opportunity they can engage others in the organization to explain why they need to change helps crystalize the message in themselves and in others. Part of this process of crystallizing the message of change is to make it believable to those hearing it. When people believe in the message of change, they adopt the change desired, and develop ownership in this new way of operating as an organization.

As Change leaders get others helping them push the large rock of change up the hill the message spreads, more own it, belief is high, and many start adopting the required change.


Changing an organization’s entrenched culture is not a simple task. The change leader needs to understand that this is a difficult task, takes an investment of a lot of personal time and energy, but has a huge potential payoff.

The change leader must build the belief in the organization for the need for change. This is done by delivering a clear and consistent message on why the change is needed. This consistent message helps build the belief at all levels in the organization for the need to change. This increased belief helps spread the adoption and ownership of the change. The more belief we build, the more adoption we get, and the cultural transformation occurs.

Once the change is in place one of the side benefits is that the change leader has built up trust in their leadership and imbedded the will and skills in the organization for future change.