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How to Make Fearless Change in Your Organization

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Change. It's brutally tough to initiate, even harder to sustain. It takes too long. People resist it. But without it, organizations lose their competitive edge. Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising offer additional patterns for implementing change in organizations, building on the patterns presented in their book, Fearless Change.
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The pattern drafts in this collection are an addition to those that appeared in our book Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas. [1] Our passion for this topic didn't end when the book was published. Rather, we continued to read, observe, take extensive notes, and—most important of all—listen to comments and suggestions from our readers. We haven't stopped learning about leading change!

As people exchange ideas about the environment, and exchange patterns, the overall inventory of patterns in the pattern pool keeps changing. […]Of course, this evolution will never end. [2]

A pattern language and the patterns in it are living things; the work is never finished. We're grateful for the opportunity to share as we're learning. This article contains the following new patterns:

  • Wake-Up Call
  • Town Meeting
  • Emotional Connection
  • Elevator Pitch
  • Pick Your Battles

References to existing patterns in Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas or in this article appear in brackets; for example, [Do Food]. Summaries for the existing patterns are included in the section "Existing Patterns."

The patterns follow a variation of Alexander's format. Each pattern includes the following information:

  • Name (boldface)
  • Alias (if applicable)
  • Abstract (boldface)
  • Opening Story (italics) that conveys the essence of the pattern
  • Context
  • Problem statement (boldface)
  • Description of the Problem and Forces
  • "Therefore" (italics)
  • Essence of the Solution (boldface)
  • Elaboration of the Solution
  • Resulting Context
  • Known Uses (italics)

Wake-Up Call

Alias: "Houston, we have a problem."

To encourage people to pay attention to your idea, point out the problem that you believe has created a pressing need for change.

"Hey, we've got a problem here." The message from the Apollo 13 spacecraft to Houston ground controllers at 10:08 p.m. EDT on April 13, 1970 initiated an investigation to determine the cause of an oxygen tank failure that aborted the Apollo 13 mission.

You are an [Evangelist] who sees a need for change, trying to spread the word about your idea. Some people are listening. [Innovators] may be excited, but [Early Adopters] are simply responding with noncommittal, polite comments. Skeptics are becoming challenging because they don't see the need for change. The critical mass doesn't see any reason for the organization to take action.

People in your organization are comfortable with the status quo. They don't see the need to change the current state of things. As a result, your suggestions are falling on deaf ears.

We are creatures of habit. When we are in a routine and are satisfied with the way things are, we're not likely to see an impending threat. We need help to understand that the world has changed. [3]

Most of us have a built-in desire to make things right. Therefore, we are more likely to consider changing if we feel a significant amount of tension brought about by such things as a potential risk, a need for safety and comfort, a desire to feel good about ourselves, or to fulfill a value-based goal. If you create this tension, people will seek resolution. [4]

John Kotter makes the argument that the first step in real change is to "get the urgency up." He explains that showing people a compelling need for change will energize them to make something happen—it will get them "off the couch, out of the bunker, and ready to move." [5]

It's also important to recognize that facing reality is difficult. People can feel overwhelmed and hopeless about their ability to face their problems.

When you talk about your idea, you're proposing a solution to a problem. But if people aren't aware that there is a problem, they're likely to see your idea as merely an interesting option, rather than something that requires action. As a result, they respond with complacency, pessimism, or even defiance.

In the beginning your story may not match the current reality, either. You should always question your own understanding of what people face in the current environment.

Thomas Friedman reminds us, "Where there is a problem, there is an opportunity." [6] Your idea is that opportunity.


Create a conscious need for change by calling attention to a problem in the organization and the resulting negative consequences.

Do your research and [Ask for Help] so you truly understand the problem and the situation it's creating. Present concrete information. Let the numbers talk, but don't forget to include the human side as well, and try to establish an [Emotional Connection]. Present the problem in a compelling and powerful way. Make sure it's something that people care about. Relate it to the goals of the organization with [Tailor Made], and use [Personal Touch] to help individuals answer the question "What's in it for me?"

Point out what could happen if the problem isn't solved. Describe various scenarios. Apply [Fear Less] and encourage a [Champion Skeptic] to help you uncover the worst-case scenarios. However, don't just tell horror stories, or you'll be accused of exaggerating.

Keep it simple and explain [Just Enough]. Be careful not to overanalyze; you want to inspire hope and encouragement so people will have the courage to face the situation. Focus their attention with a concise, credible description of the problem. Get them intrigued enough to engage in discussion. Then, as you address their questions, you can bring out more detail about the solution you're proposing.

Tell your story—how you recognized the problem and developed your idea for a solution. However, be cautious about outlining a complete strategy, because then it becomes all about you. It's more convincing if you involve others and [Ask for Help]. Encourage them to craft as much of the solution as possible. Think about holding a [Town Meeting] to solicit feedback, build support, get new ideas, and bring in participation.

Take it [Step by Step]. Deal with the easier problems first to gain some [Small Successes]. Keep a [Sustained Momentum]. If the urgency seems to diminish, you may need to bring new problems to light.

Keep in mind that you're unlikely to get everyone to care about the problems you raise. If too many people are not responding to your wake-up call, you may have to [Pick Your Battles] and move on.

As a result, you'll create awareness of the current reality in the organization and the problem(s) that created it. Listeners will stop and think, "Wow, I didn't know that!" You will likely uncover issues that many people didn't see or may have been denying. Some people are likely to open their minds to the possibility of a new reality and recognize the need to take action. This allows you to propose your idea(s) for change.

But be careful about talking about an existing predicament; there can be serious political ramifications. You can come across as a naysayer, especially if the old way is owned by those with influence. You may want to keep this pattern in reserve until you need it.

The system for assigning faculty to committees at one university was tedious and outdated. Ellen drafted a new system that needed to go to the faculty senate for approval. Unfortunately, she didn't use [Corridor Politics], so there were many questions and concerns from senate members following the presentation of her proposal. When Ellen realized that her proposal was not likely to pass, she politely stopped the discussion and backpedaled with a detailed explanation of the problems in the present system. Senate members reacted with surprise. They had been unaware of the problems, and were immediately more willing to support her proposal. Ellen then suggested a [Trial Run] of her new system, and the motion passed in her favor.

Mary was trying to start a community support system for those who have experienced a relationship breakup. She wanted this system to include a variety of resources, so she talked with many different people, including psychologists, biofeedback experts, breathing coaches, and medical personnel. Throughout her efforts, she discovered that most of these individuals did not see grief after a breakup as a serious problem—their advice was to just "get over it" and "move on" in a short period of time. Mary knew that this practice usually isn't possible or even healthy. She made her case by describing the serious emotional problems and physical symptoms often experienced after a relationship loss. She used [Emotional Connection] and included stories of the struggles faced by people she was attempting to help. Once her listeners had a change of heart about the significance of the problem, she could give the [Elevator Pitch] about her idea. This would usually prompt a discussion about the support system and the role the listener might be willing to play.

Paul Levy was appointed to head the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center hospital system(BIDMC),, a product of a difficult merger between two hospitals that was now in need of fresh ideas. To signal the need for a new order, Paul developed a bold message explaining that this was BIDMC's last chance to make improvements. Pointing to his private discussions with the state attorney general, he publicized the real possibility that the hospital would be sold. He knew that this bad news might frighten the staff and patients, but he believed that a strong wake-up call was necessary to get employees to face the need for change. [7]

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