Leading Change and the Trouble with 'Quick' Wins

By Scott Whitbread

It has now been 20 years since John Kotter first published his trendsetting article on leading change entitled: “Why Transformation Efforts Fail”. Since then it has served as the prevailing roadmap to help organizations devise and execute big changes to improve their performance. Among Kotter’s 8 steps we have found that the need to “Plan For and Create Short-Term Wins”, tucked away at number 6, is frequently being neglected and at great peril to these change efforts.

Too often this step is treated with lip service where the plan for some ‘quick’ wins is an afterthought, to be determined at a later date, once an elaborate strategic plan has been perfected. In some cases an organization will take a previously planned improvement, that is entirely conventional and well within the existing capabilities of the organization, and ‘use’ it as a short term win. The front line of the organization sees right through this, sizes up the entire change effort as little more than a PR campaign for the status quo, and promptly disengages. These slapdash improvements, intended to bolster the change effort, actually wind up doing damage to it, requiring additional investment in communication and empowerment (steps 4 and 5) to recover. If the damage proves too great it can be the undoing of the entire initiative.

So what sort of improvements constitute a good short-term win?

There are three key characteristics that we have found in all success examples:

  1. They are big: Delivering a meaningful financial value to the business ensures that the improvement is unambiguous and gets attention, both internally and within the investment community. Even better is an improvement that can plausibly be expanded to, or repeated in, other parts of the organization.
  2. They reside firmly outside the organization’s comfort zone: While putting dollars to the bottom line is great, to really capture the hearts and minds of the organization you need to demonstrate something audacious. By delivering an improvement that some would have previously thought to be impossible, you hook people and generate pull to do more.
  3. They embody the spirit of the vision: Kotter describes the vision as “[saying] something that clarifies the direction in which the organization needs to move”. As such, each short-term win created should be a clear step in this direction.

These initial improvement victories, prescribed by step 6, represent the first physical verification of what the change effort is to be. While earlier steps in the process, such as establishing a sense of urgency and creating and communicating the vision, prime the organization for what is intended to come, these short-term wins are the proverbial pudding in which the proof of real change is to be found. With this in mind, we wish you all the best in your efforts to lead change.


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