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Engage People, Minimize Eye Rolls, and Increase Change Success

When change initiatives catch us off guard, our first response often is to resist. We’ve all dug our heels into the industrial grade office carpet and watched colleagues roll their eyes in unison while the boss outlines their newest change initiative.

Communal eye rolls happened several times a year when I worked for a global conglomerate that regularly promoted and moved managers around. The changes the past manager made were still being completed. The new manager would tell us to stop implementing last year’s plan and switch course to their plan. It was frustrating to not be able to achieve the promised benefits of the previous project. It was exhausting to repeat this cycle with each new manager. And thus my colleagues and I would sigh and think, “Here we go again. Why bother – the project will never complete which was equivalent to failure.” Half-heartedly, we would attend the requisite meetings, but we never fully engaged to support the project success. We didn’t believe our efforts really mattered. The proposed initiative failed before it got started.

The challenge, as I see it, is to reframe the conversation from “I am telling you” or “This is my plan” to “How can we”. Disengaged people will notice something awry and do nothing because no one asked their opinion – ergo not their problem. Engaged people who are encouraged to contribute their knowledge and experience will proactively identify potential problems.

A McKinsey survey discovered that change programs which encourage employees to take initiative and contribute to the planning process realize five times greater success than those that relied only on executive-level planning.

I’ve seen firsthand the value of information and ideas that people bring when they are included in the planning process. Their suggestions minimized the number of “gotchas” that can derail a transformation project enabling the project to finish on time and within budget. Additionally, these collaborative conversations allowed me as a change leader to understand the priorities, motivators, and fears of the people who will be impacted by the change.

Another idea that can enhance engagement is to plan a steady, phased approach. Instead of a big push that must be completed within an unrealistic timeframe, shorter project schedules increase the chance of a successful completion of a change initiative. Well-defined project phases enable more people to be involved with different aspects of the project. Other benefits include the ability to better assure a successful outcome because people are able to use knowledge gained during the earlier phases to prevent potential error for future phases.

Sometimes, conflict between groups can cause a change initiative to fail. When the first rounds of “he did/she did” pushback happen, executive leadership’s default response is to tell the people involved to communicate better. No amount of communication will open a closed mindset if they don’t share a similar vision for what success looks like. The question I would ask the leader is if they have shared their vision of the groups’ roles and how their actions align with the strategic plan.

The following real life scenarios illustrate the positive impact people can provide when they are included in planning and solution solving processes.

Inclusion Scenario

An example of a successful inclusion strategy that comes to mind is an automotive parts manufacturer that needed to adjust established accounting procedures based on the findings of a corporate audit. The Chief Financial Officer issued the order that the work needed to be done by x date no matter what it took. No one asked the staff how this change would affect daily operations or what interim procedures were needed to assure a smooth transition.

The people within the accounting department were comfortable with the current procedures. They did not see a need to change them. If they were forced to comply, they were concerned the changes were too complex to be completed by the mandated deadline.

My challenge as a project manager was to reframe the mandate from “just get it done” to “what will it take to assure the success”. My first step was to engage the managers who would be directly impacted by the changes. The managers appreciated that I listened to them and incorporated the information they shared into the preliminary plans. They began to point out potential problems and suggested creative methods to get past hurdles.

The deadline was met because the accounting managers were active participants during the change planning process. They reframed their perspective from being victims of a mandate, to becoming essential members of the transformation team.

Alignment Scenario

It’s been my experience that when the goals for two groups are out of alignment with organization’s goals, a solution surfaces when people take a breath and view the situation from the other’s perspective.

An example that comes to mind is when I was coaching someone who managed an accounting department and was always at odds with the sales manager. It turned out the accounting and sales metrics were misaligned. The profit margins were very small and to be competitive, the sales reps needed to offer 90 or 120 day payment terms. The accounting team only received a bonus if they could collect payment within 60 days and so, had no incentive to authorize longer term payment requests. Once the company aligned the metrics of the two departments, sales increased because everyone was working toward the same goal. A post-script: the accounting manager who led the change effort earned a significant promotion.


Involving people who will be impacted by the change initiative during the initial planning process is the first step toward assuring a change initiative’s success. When people are asked, “What do we need to consider?” or “How will this impact your operations?”, they step forward and become engaged because their opinion matters. You will not hear people who are part of the change process say, “Not my problem” because it is their problem and have a responsibility to help fix it.

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