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Meet the silent killer of your next change initiative

It's a cool October day as I stand watching a magnificent, shiny, block machine smoothly churn out 12 perfect concrete block. Followed by another 12, and then another 12. Every 15 seconds, I watch 12 perfectly molded, concrete blocks slide effortlessly past me on the conveyor. I shake my head. For 40 years we’d only ever known equipment that was 30 years old…noisy, clunky, dirty and 30 years tired. I’m in awe, as I stand and dream about the future. So many possibilities…

This is what change does for us, isn't it? It brings promise. Hope. Change is ripe with opportunity.

Change is great. But changing? Now that's a different thing altogether. Changing, is hard.

12 months after that awe-inspiring moment, I’m pouring over financial statements wondering how on earth we ruined another batch of concrete. We have built-in moisture sensors. We have automated mixing times and batching times. There’s no good reason why a batch should ever be made too wet, or too dry.

Until I walk out onto the plant floor. And what I see there, floors me.

Three machine operators are standing around a batch of wet concrete, grabbing it in their hands and squeezing. They squeeze the concrete like playdough, watching how well it sticks together and forms into a clump. They rub it across the metal railings that surround the mixer.

They do all the things they’d always done, when they ran machinery that was 30 years old. But yesterday’s solution was never going to work on today’s problem. Like most changes in most organizations, our business was primed. We were ready. From CEO to frontlines, people were excited. Our plant people were probably the most excited.

So why didn’t they change? Were they resistant? Untrained? Just plain lazy?

None of the above.

When it came to our transformative change initiative, we expected resistance, so we had a plan for that. We also expected people would need new skills, so we planned for that too. And with a corporate culture that averaged 2 sick days per employee, our team had an enviable work ethic. They were not lazy.

We’d been caught by the silent killer of most change initiatives.


Our people weren’t being resistant or unskilled…they were simply being human. They were defaulting to habit. When it comes to change initiatives, the most common lie I hear is that people don’t like change. It’s not true. We generally like change – it’s invigorating. The problem is that we are victims of habit, and being a victim of habit is not the same as being resistant, lazy or unskilled. It’s a different problem, that needs a different solution.

If we want sustained behaviour change, three things need to be true:

1) The new habit needs to be Specific

Specificity leads to action; generalities do not. People need to be able to understand exactly what needs to be different. Are they doing the same thing, but at a different time of day? Or are they doing a different thing entirely?

2) The new habit needs to be Essential

When people can see how the changes they will make are necessary for the organization to get the benefits it needs from the change initiative, they become more committed (i.e. let’s prove to them this isn’t just a make-work project)

3) The new habit needs to be Expected

Most people want to rise to expectations you have for them. When people know what is expected of them, they typically make their best effort to meet those expectations (especially if they are also specific, and essential to the organization’s future).

When these three criteria are met, we help people SEE their way through change – they can literally start to visualize themselves doing things in the new way.

Today, I’ve got one tool to help with this – one tool I wish I’d known about and taken the time to use with my entire leadership team:

Download PDF • 292KB

(you can also download this tool from Prosci's website here).

Yesterday-Tomorrow is a tool developed by Prosci to help pinpoint what’s really going to change. I love this tool for it’s simplicity. All it takes is a little creativity, and a little time (ideally time spent in conversation). It forces leaders and workers alike, to be SPECIFIC about the changes in habit that will be ESSENTIAL. It sets the stage for being very clear around what is EXPECTED.

Like most change initiatives, ours would only be successful if new behaviours showed up consistently. But I spent 10x the money and effort on the things, compared to the people and their new habits. I mistakenly believed the equipment was the hard part.

Before spending a single dollar on a change, ask yourself if you and your top team fully understand:

What new behaviours will this require, and by whom?

Answering this question is an exercise in collaboration that starts with your top team, and extends all the way to the frontlines, ensuring every single person can SEE their way to the other side of change.


I'm Laura Vaughan. I'm a CPA, a former CEO and I elevate top teams so they can do three things in your business: 1) Deliver Consistent Results, 2) Nurture Key Relationships and 3) Drive Strategic Growth. I work with 3 top teams at a time, and I have one spot opening up in about 90 days. If your top team is ready to elevate, lets talk.


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