Making a Case for Change

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010
Gives lots of specific tips for applying Open Book Management. Also explores the critical difference between “why” and “how.”____________________________________________

by Rick Maurer


Failure to make a sound case for change is a major reason why changes fail. If staff, board, members, clients, or the field doesn’t see the importance of a change, they simply won’t give it the commitment needed to make it a success. As one of my clients once told me, his pet project died due to “malicious compliance.”

As a consultant, you may succeed in getting the technical part of things up and running only to see the project fail.

Imagine that your client is trying to install a new software system that will link all parts of the operation. In addition to good software and a solid technical plan, they will need all parts of the organization to support implementation and to use it when it goes live. If people don’t see a need for this system, they will find ways to work around it. On the surface it may look like things are working, but you and your client may find that people are not using the system in ways that provide real benefit.

Why Versus What and How

There are three major questions with regard to change: Why are you asking me to change? What is the change? How can we make it work?

Far too often, executives and project managers jump to the what and how questions without ever addressing the why questions. People will not get interested in what your plan is or in finding ways to make it a success until they can see why it is important.

It is pretty common to see someone address a group using a PowerPoint presentation (the influence tool of choice these days). The first three slides deal with why this change is critical. The next 150 mind-numbing slides deal with what and how. When this happens, the executive loses his or her audience by the tenth slide.

There is a better way.

Open Book Management

Open Book Management does just that; leaders open the book and manage the energy that generates. Many companies share financial information, industry trends, quality reports, customer service ratings, and so forth.

Too often the data that drives a business is accessible to only a few in the organization. So when leaders announce a change, no one else sees why it is necessary. Open Book Management changes that.

People should be worried about the same things that keep you awake at night. Here are some of the elements that can make Open Book Management work.

  • Provide access to critical business information.
  • What are the challenges facing your non-profit?
  • What are the opportunities?
  • How are you doing financially?
  • What do members or customers say?
  • What other measures do you use to make strategic decisions? Consider opening these up to everyone.
  • All of this information must be timely. Weekly financial data is not uncommon.
    Make sure people can interpret these data. It will do no good to give people financial information if they can’t read a balance sheet.
  • Provide whatever training is necessary to help people interpret key business data.
  • Time to digest the information. Open Book Management trusts people with information well before a particular change is called for. With Open Book Management, the employees are wrestling with what to do with this information just like you are. You learn to make meaningful decisions together.
  • Give them a stake in the outcome. Linking pay and bonuses to financial and other critical outcomes can be a significant incentive. It’ s not just the money that motivates. It’s having a clear target that everyone agrees is important. This focuses everyone’s attention on the same goal. For example, we are all working on finding ways to cut costs or increase customer retention.
  • Give them the authority to act on this information. When you give people information, they need to be able to do something with it. If you show people depressing sales statistics and refuse to provide a way for them to have an impact on this trend, you are just asking for trouble. You would have been better off to keep the books closed. Open Book Management requires that you trust people. Trust them first with information and then with the power to do something differently.
  • Make sure people get the data in a way that they can believe. They must trust the source of the data. If they don’t trust you, they won’t trust the data.

To learn more about Open Book Management, I highly recommend John Case’ s the Open-Book Experience: Lessons From Over 100 Companies Who Successfully Transformed Themselves, Open Book Management, and Jack Stack’ s The Great Game of Business. Stack’ s book is a particularly valuable resource to use with clients. He tells the story of how he and two colleagues built a company by putting down $100 thousand and borrowing close to $9 million at about 18 percent interest! They needed everyone to understand the challenge of operating with such a heavy debt load and opened the books so all employees could understand the extreme challenge they faced.

Other Things You Can Do

There is more to it than just the numbers. People need to feel the sense of urgency. They need to understand the business – the trends, the impact government regulations can have on the work, shifting demographics of members, and so forth.

And the secret ingredient is the relationship your clients have with stakeholders. If people trust them, people are far more likely to listen intently and give them the benefit of the doubt when they disagree. And when they do disagree, trust allows everyone to engage in civil discourse instead of vein popping and finger pointing.

Encourage your clients to do any (or all) of the following.

The Tried and True Approaches

Organizations, generally, do a decent job preparing newsletters and presentations. If these are working for your client, encourage them to keep it up. But if these tools cause people’ s eyes to glaze over or the newsletters are tossed without having been read, then it is time to do something different.

Management by Wandering Around

Peters and Waterman coined this phrase in their book, In Search of Excellence. It is a deceptively simple technique. Encourage your clients to get out of the office, walk the halls, visit people. In short, make themselves available for people to pull them aside. “Hey, Mary, got a minute?” They shouldn’t walk the halls with a pre-set agenda. Warn them that the first time they do this, people may be suspicious. They’ll think they just talked to their consultant and got another one of those ideas. Urge them to do it. It’s worth the time.

Time Before and After Meetings

Allow some breathing time in their schedule, so they’ ll have a few minutes before and after meetings, just to talk with people. (This can even work on teleconferences as well.) This allows people to get to know them. Clients (and consultants alike) resist doing this one. It seems like a waste of time. It isn’t. If people don’t know you, how can they possibly trust you?

Coffee and Lunch

You and your clients should go to lunch or have coffee with people who give you indigestion. In other words, find places where you can talk informally. Remember that the goal is to build stronger relationships. You need to find informal ways to engage those people where relationships are strained. This may give you and your client valuable insights from these people. If they believe you are really interested in their concerns, they are oftentimes more receptive to hear what’s important to you.

Three Minute Drills

The CEO of a hospital typically took the last three minutes of meetings to tell people what was keeping him awake at night. He had no agenda he was promoting; he simply believed that people ought to be thinking about the things that influence the success of their institution.

Places to Win Together

Find areas where your client and another person or group agree. Pick one of those places to begin working together. Don’t tackle the issues that keep them apart. Find something that both can say, “That’ s important, we’ve got to do something.” And, yes, it is possible to do this. In some cities, pro-life and pro-choice advocates have started working together on common ground issues such as searching for ways to reduce teenage pregnancy, and reduce drug use among young people. If pro-life and pro-choice folks can do it, certainly this type of cooperation is possible inside organizations.

Making a case for change is the most important part of change management and the most neglected. We can serve our clients well by helping them address this critical phase of the process.


© 2009 Rick Maurer – Rick uses his Change without Migraines™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations.