How do I make sure they’re committed? Launching organizational change

Q: Why did so many dance with Matt?

I learned about gaining commitment the hard way. (The same way I learn just about everything.) Some years ago, I had an inspiring vision for the work some of my colleagues and I were doing. Well, I was inspired. To communicate this vision, I rented an empty space three times the size of our office, for a day. I spent several sweaty hours turning it into what I envisioned we could be three years in the future. I used butcher block paper and fat markers and big cardboard cut-out action figures, then lugged in some of our actual office furniture so we could meet there. Today’s meeting, but in the future.

I was pretty pleased with myself.

They seemed excited, too. They nodded their heads, asked a bunch of questions. At the end of the afternoon, we all pitched in to move the furniture back and when I left, I thought we were on the same page. I thought we were committed to this future I’d imagined – together.

Then a funny thing happened. I share this with a lot of humility.

Working your everything off

I put my head down and started working toward that vision. I helped us get a 6-month goal-setting process in place. I began engaging clients in a different way, and shifting the emphasis of my projects. I got so busy working so hard to move toward the vision that at first, I didn’t notice that I was the only one doing it.

What I did notice was that when we accomplished something toward the vision, they acted… surprised. (I wanted to jump up and down: “What do you mean, look at that, how did it happen?! We’re making progress because I’m working my everything off!”) The really goofy thing was this: the bigger the gap between my vision and our practice, the harder I worked.  This led to some kickass individual performances and a few incremental shifts together, but few true changes. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess what came next: Frustration, resentment, creeping burnout.

The right question (and not asking it)

You might be wondering why on earth I didn’t say anything to my colleagues. You’re asking the right question. The humbling truth is that I just couldn’t see it. We dug into plenty of honest, productive conversations about day to day friction, because we’re really good that way, but I just couldn’t see the meta conversation we weren’t having. And maybe deep down, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to think about the natural consequences if their answer to the question, “What’s in it for you?” was, “Honestly, nothing that hits my shortlist.”

Like everywhere in life, there were multiple dynamics at play. But what I’m trying to tell you right now is this: my own commitment, my desire to contribute value – and even, perhaps, my fear – turned off my ability to see what was actually happening.


Whatever you do, don’t go around the table

I’ve heard many leaders, at the beginning of a change initiative, describe the need to ensure commitment. “How might you do that?” I ask.


“Well, I guess I’ll go around the table and ask each person if they’re committed,” they say, finally. “Every few months, we’ll pull the goals back out and… I guess I’ll ask them if they’re still committed.”

What I hear in that is this: “I’m the boss and I’ll tell them they need to commit. If they say it publicly, they’ll have to follow through.” It’s a desperation move. If you were sitting around that table, would it make you feel “committed”?

That frog parable

For a long time, I thought I was too cool for this one:

Fourteen frogs are sitting on a log.

Three decide to jump into the water.

How many frogs are left on the log?

The answer, of course, is fourteen. (I say “of course,” but I didn’t get it right the first time. I said 11, not noticing that the three who have decided to jump into the water haven’t actually done anything yet.) My colleagues Ian Prinsloo and Karen Dawson brought this up as we were readying a course on leading change at the Banff Centre. Ian is a theater director. “How do I know an actor is committed? When I see action,” he said. “Never until then.”

And I think this is the real commitment to watch for in your team: observable (usually different, new) action in service of the result you’re after. This is what I didn’t realize I wasn’t seeing in my colleagues. If I’d been able to observe that out loud, it would have opened the door to a highly valuable conversation, much sooner.

A counterintuitive move

So how do we get to action? I think of this as “the Ian speech” because I’ve seen him do it with actors; some of the best leaders I’ve worked with do similar versions with their teams. It’s a counterintuitive move: if you want commitment to a result, don’t ask for it.

  1. Describe the result you’re after. (Ideally, you’ve involved your team in defining it.)
  2. Describe that your job together is to uncover the performance that ups the likelihood of achieving those results. None of you know what that looks like yet – not even you as a leader.
  3. Tell them why you think this is worth doing. What’s your our own, personal bigger why?
  4. Create space for them to connect with their bigger whys. If you succeed in achieving this result, what’s in it for them? What excites or inspires them about that?
  5. Tell them your commitment is to lead a process  you believe will help them get to an extraordinary performance. You will be there with them; together, you will adapt as you go. Invite them to take the next step in the process with you, and dive off that log together.

I never ask my actors to commit to the result, or to ‘doing whatever it takes’ to get there. That’s simply not reasonable. None of us know what that will be. I just keep asking them to commit to whatever is reasonable to commit to in that moment – the very next step. And the next. I wonder if we could start by…

There are many different ways to help people connect with their bigger why, of course. You can spread images on the floor and have each person choose one that expresses their answer. You may have already done this, as part of goal-setting. You can send people off for a 10-minute pair walk to talk about it, then share back. Have them journal for 5 minutes, and keep it to themselves. Get stickies up on the wall: What inspires you about this? What terrifies the bejeebus out of you? Have them bring and tell stories about a time when they experienced (something like this result), and the difference it made. You get the idea.

But here’s the tough love: If they just can’t come up with their bigger why, and you can’t help them discover it, that’s important information. You either have the wrong result, or the wrong people. Neither authority (yours) nor acquiescence (theirs) is sustainable, nor fuels the kind of co-creativity you’ll need to be extraordinary.

A few bonus thoughts if you’ve made it this far

This thought also comes from Ian, and the stage – and resonates with any of us who have taken on something unknown and difficult. Anyone can write a great first act. The hard part – the dark night of the soul, the muddle, the doubt and the difficulty – come when it’s time to write the second. Part of your job as a leader is to know this in advance, and keep your team connected to their bigger why. You need to help them keep committing, always to the very next step.

Remember that nothing fuels action more than a visible win. As you begin designing the process, think forward. What short-term wins might you build in? What steps can you build into the process, early and along the way, to help the group see success and visible progress in themselves?

Finally, amazing people, you’ll need to do better than I did. When you see actions that don’t look like commitment, including non-action, ask yourself: what do I need to do, or ask, or say?