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Harvard Business Review: To Implement Change, You Don’t Need to Convince Everyone at Once

From Harvard Business Review: Many say that people fear change, but everywhere I go in the world speaking, advising executives and conducting workshops, I find most are excited about it. Senior leaders tell me about their inspired visions for their enterprise, but complain that they can’t get employees to buy in. Middle managers gripe that they have transformational ideas, but can’t get the bosses to go along. The problem is that while people are passionate about their own ideas, they tend to resist other people’s initiatives, especially when they feel change is being imposed upon them. That’s a key reason why the vast majority of transformations fail, because in their desire to create a “sense of urgency” and make change seem inevitable, leaders try to convince everybody at once. Even for relatively small- and mid-sized enterprises, that’s a mistake. Starting with a big kickoff campaign is more likely to activate resistance than it is to win over a majority. It’s also unnecessary. Decades of research shows that you don’t need to convince everybody for an idea to take hold. That one simple principle can help bring about impactful and far-reaching change.

The Burning Platform Myth

Traditionally, many managers launching a new initiative have aimed to start big. They work to gain approval for a substantial budget, recruit high-profile executives, arrange a big “kick-off” meeting, then look to move fast, gain scale, and generate some quick wins. All of this is designed to create a sense of urgency and inevitability, but can often be seen as heavy-handed. Consider a 2014 report by PwC that revealed that 65% of respondents in corporations cited change fatigue, 44% of employees complained they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% say they don’t agree with it. A more recent study by Gartner in 2020 suggests that propensity for change fatigue doubled during the pandemic and a 2022 survey by Capterra found similar results. The good news is that you don’t have to convince a majority for change to take hold. In fact, we have decades of evidence that a significant minority is completely sufficient:
  • Sociologist Everett Rogers’ “S-curve” research showed that it takes only 10%-20% of a system to adopt an innovation for rapid acceptance by the majority to follow.
  • Professor Erica Chenoweth’s analysis of over 300 political revolutions in the past century finds that it only takes 3.5% of the population in a society actively participating to succeed, and many campaigns have prevailed with less.
  • Recent research by sociologist Damon Centola at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the tipping point for change is getting 25% of people in an organization on board.
So rather than trying to convince the skeptics from the outset, a much more effective strategy is to identify people who are already enthusiastic about the idea and want transformation to succeed. Read more at Harvard Business Review.

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