Summer is always filled with highly anticipated superhero movie releases, with towering men and women possessing superhuman capabilities to save the world. These superhero epics offer much in their approach that we as social sector warriors can leverage for our own change management efforts. Whether we are trying to pivot to a new strategic plan or move to a more collaborative model within a community (see Collaboration Commandments), change is hard. While it sometimes feels like we need superhero strength to weather change, we mortals are resilient and can thrive by channeling our inner superheroes into a step-by-step process to change.
We are big fans of John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, which breaks the seemingly colossal goal of change into actionable steps that, with effort and planning, can be implemented in social sector organizations. His roadmap to change, as outlined in the graphic below, incorporates many of the best practices we share (and have evolved) with our clients. The truth is everything has some element of change involved, and these steps can be helpful reminders.
Phase 1: Prepare for Change
True for superheroes and social sector warriors alike, we need to gear up for changes in our organizations. In preparing our teams for stretch goals and new ways of working, we need to create a sense of urgency around why change is needed. Whether you are Iron Man demonstrating the threat of weapons in enemy hands or a nonprofit CEO considering a new social enterprise or facing regularly declining financials, you need to show your team that change is important to the future and shed light on the real consequences of inaction. After a credible threat (or amazing opportunity) has been acknowledged, leaders should build a team of like-minded champions to lead the charge and develop a well-defined vision and strategy for a thriving future. The biggest mistake that social sector leaders make in this phase is underestimating complacency as an enemy of social change. They make assumptions that because they understand that change needs to happen, that all others understand it in the same way. But every person has a different response to change – some move quickly while others may want more data before switching courses. Moreover, leaders seldom prepare for an inevitable backslide once change begins to take hold or when barriers to change emerge. To mitigate this, we encourage clients to be a “broken record” – repeat and repeat until a new way of working is heard multiple times in multiple ways. By preparing for change, you are much more likely to build an army of support and have a shared vision and action plan that will help you weather inevitable barriers.
Phase 2: Manage & Monitor the Change
For any change effort to succeed, social sector leaders need to be fearless in spreading their vision of the future, building coalitions and empowering employees to act and build momentum for success through quick wins. In the steps in this phase, you encourage employees to help lead the charge. My favorite example of this is the YouTube video called First Follower, which shows that the most important person to lead change is not the initial leader, but the first to follow them. It will change the way you think about leadership and will be the best three minutes of your day today. To change an organization, your employees need to have a clear picture of the steps they need to take and systems in place to assist their actions, including budget support, so they are on board with the change and know how to move forward.
And as Malcolm Gladwell has said, “If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior … you need to create a community around them where those new beliefs can be practiced, expressed and nurtured.” Or, as I like to say – “transformation only happens in community.” For example, if silos or bureaucracy need to be broken in order to facilitate quick communication and decision-making, leaders need to change those systems to equip their staff. The biggest mistake that social sector leaders make in this phase is losing momentum due to communication issues and inevitable confusion. To mitigate this, consider regular check-ins with your team and benchmark progress along the way in preparation for inevitable course corrections. Celebrate quick wins early and often and ensure that employees do not become disillusioned when all the hard work and sacrifice seem to be going nowhere. We are big believers in setting up success through quick wins – research shows that a series of short-term wins leads to a higher rate of sustained success. By communicating how the new changes create these wins and recognizing those who help in the effort, leadership builds momentum for even more change.
Phase 3: Reinforce Change
The last phase of the change effort is to infiltrate your organization by anchoring key values and behaviors into the culture. Superheroes like Wonder Woman do this by keeping the company of those who share the vision of peace and expelling those who don’t. For social sector leaders, infiltration means bringing on staff who share the vision for the future, taking on new projects that further support the change effort and increasing participation to more staff. By engaging employees in the process and creating a cohesive culture, leaders can further their change effort. In this phase, the biggest mistake that social sector leaders make is not integrating this change into the organization’s culture nor using it as a litmus test for future hiring and promotions. To mitigate this, consider updating your values to include the change or setting an annual goal to reinforce the change as a long-term goal. By building in expectations about employees’ behavior into the fabric of the organization, change begins to perpetuate and sustain itself.
Change is tough for the social sector, but when leaders take heroic steps to call everyone to action it is manageable and achievable. And, when you hear employees and community stakeholders talking about the change to outsiders as the new norm, or even better, as their idea, you will know you have won the battle. We invite you to share your experiences with change and any successful battle plans for making it happen.