Fast Company

7 Lessons for Getting Change Right

Between 1995 and 1997 I participated in two distinctly different change initiatives at the World Bank, both called Knowledge Management. The first one never took off. The second one changed the organization, and the world, in two short years, demonstrating how a bureaucratic, geographically distributed, multi-national, public sector organization can reinvent itself faster than anyone could have planned.

What made the difference in these two initiatives? I identified seven important lessons from my observations, which I use in my work leading world-class organizations through major change.

The first Knowledge Management team I joined was comprised of a few select, world-class thought leaders who drew on a dedicated budget to design and implement a powerful new tool they hoped would revolutionize the way business was done. We met in closed meetings, witnessed remarkable demonstrations, and marveled at the power of the Internet to spread knowledge.

After a year, I found that the enthusiasm around this initiative was still confined to the original small group and a few others who had recently joined. It seemed to me we were going nowhere, and I made up my mind to end my brief tenure with this group.

I was staying late one evening, writing my letter of resignation, when Steve Denning stopped by and asked what I was doing. I told him and he asked me to give him an hour before I turned in my resignation.

Later that same evening I had a new job, on loan to a new team at the World Bank led by Steve Denning. His team, in contrast to the former, had no funding and no resources, except for a half-time assistant.I joined another staff member, Lesley Schneier who was also on loan to Steve.

Two years later, our little team had grown to six people, and spawned over 120 communities to champion our program. Thousands of people were deeply involved not only inside but also outside the World Bank, pushing the knowledge management agenda forward on multiple fronts in a giant social network.

Steve worked with bits and pieces. He cobbled together resources here and there. We did much more with bits and pieces than the first team accomplished with a dedicated budget. Whether we knew it or not, we understood what engagement was how to use it.

Our working style was the polar opposite of the first, secretive team. We told everybody what we were up to. In fact, we spent a good deal of time in the beginning figuring out how to tell as many people as we could, as fast as possible. We even met regularly with our detractors, as their input was sometimes needed the most.

The dialogue flowed like a river, and often penetrated parts of the organization our team had not formally reached.

Within two years, we achieved international prominence, receiving recognition from independent evaluation organizations and regular visits from business gurus. Our program obtained $60,000,000 in annual allocations.  

More than that, we influenced hundreds of lending projects, impacting perhaps millions of lives. These changes happened so fast, it was often disorienting.

The Seven Lessons
In retrospect the second team did a lot right, even if by intuition and accident as well as by design. We also made a lot of mistakes. Daily, perhaps. But what we got right trumped all. Here are those seven lessons.

1. Communicate so people get it and spread it.
The "it" is not a pre-cooked, hard-boiled message. Instead, it is a conversation that spreads, a dialog that arouses the social network. We learned to spark cascades of conversations.

2. Identify and energize your most valuable players.
People are at the heart of change. We always took the time to engage. We went after people and gave them exciting ways to be part of the action.

3. Understand the territory of change.
Every organization has a different culture, different ways of figuring out how to go forward. I systematically listened to others for five important indicators:
i - Red flags - showstoppers
ii - Yellow flags - potential obstacles
iii - Educational deficits - information gaps
iv - Themes - common concerns
v - High-value opportunities - options that provide dvaluable returns

4. Accelerate evolution through communities.
We built "Thematic Groups" that advanced our cause, creating systemic pull.

5. Blow through bottlenecks and logjams.
Obstacles, hurdles, challenges are all part of a change initiative. We had a SWAT Team mentality.

6. Create dramatic surges in progress.
Special face-to-face events accelerated our program. We created gatherings that brought players together in high-value, high-leverage experiences designed to push things forward in leaps and bounds.

7. Keep your focus when change comes fast.
Things happened so fast it was sometimes disorienting. Our small team used each other and people in other organizations engaged in similar initiatives to keep our focus.

- Seth Kahan, VisionaryLeadership.com

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • Seth Kahan

    Thanks for your thoughtful questions.

    There is indeed a tightrope, as you point out, between propagating mis- and disinformation and enabling conversations to spread. The role of the change office is not to police information, but to act like the conductor of an orchestra. Instead of music you are coordinating interaction. You influence the timing, create emphasis, highlight virtuosos, make room for rising stars, provide critical feedback for both individuals and sections, and create a balanced effort that is cohesive, compelling and powerful. When mis- and disinformation arises, you must both step in and address it, and coordinate the actions of others to do the same. In fact, this is a regular and expected phenomenon, and so your presence serves an ongoing need.

    The convincing of senior management on the value of open dialog comes in the act itself. First of all, you must demonstrate the worth by exposing them to dialogs that are providing real returns. Second, engage senior management as you wold any other stakeholder. They are not elite, only unique. Consider their most important contribution (eg, freeing up resources, legitimizing the effort, integration with strategy, etc), and arouse them in dialog on those subjects.

  • Brijesh Patel

    These are great lessons, particularly point 2. Getting the right people on the bus (per Jim Collins) is especially critical given the economic climate.

    I'm especially interested in understanding more about lesson 1. How does one balance sensitivity of information (in order to prevent the propagation of misinformation or disinformation) with cascades of conversation? How can someone in middle management convince senior management of the importance of arousing dialog?