Three patterns from our upcoming new book
Words shown in blue are patterns from our Fearless Change book or our upcoming More Fearless Change book.
Wake-Up CallAlias: “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 or Dedicated Champion who has identified a problem and sees a need for change.
People in your organization seem to be comfortable with the status quo. They don’t see the need to change the current state of things.
When you talk about your idea, you are proposing a solution to a problem. But if people aren’t aware that there is a problem, they are likely to see your idea as merely an interesting possibility rather than something that requires action. As a result, they respond with complacency, pessimism, defiance or they simply ignore you.
People are creatures of habit. When they are in a routine and are satisfied with the way things are, they’re not likely to see an impending threat. We will need to help them understand that the world has changed and, as a result, they must change too. It can be difficult to face this reality. People can feel overwhelmed and hopeless when facing a problem—yet, most have a built-in desire to make things right. Therefore, they are more likely to make a change if they feel a significant amount of tension brought about by such things as a need to eliminate a potential risk, a desire for safety and comfort, or a wish to fulfill a goal. If you can create this tension, individuals are likely to seek a resolution.
An upbeat style of leadership helps to keep people optimistic, but when it becomes excessive, it wards off reality. Individuals can end up believing everything is going well—they will stop asking questions and considering feedback that could lead to improvement. This type of “excessive optimism” or “irrational exuberance” could make an organization ill-equipped to deal with enviable setbacks. As a strategic leader, you need to be fearless enough to bring to light and encourage periodic critical reflection of issues that are not going well.
Well-known author 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.”
Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat reminds us: “Where there is a problem, there is an opportunity.” Your idea is that opportunity.
Create a conscious need for change by calling attention to a problem and the negative consequences it is creating in the organization.
Do your research so you truly understand the problem (the “pain point”) and the situation it is creating. Ask for Help from individuals who are also aware of the problem so that you know how it affects different kinds of people in a variety of environments.
Prepare concrete information. Double check all your facts. Present the problem in a compelling and powerful way. Let the numbers talk but don’t forget to include the human side as well. Establish an Emotional Connection so that you can truly understand the consequences of the problem as well as the potential solutions.
You may want to begin talking about the problem with individuals (Corridor Politics). Then, once you have some supporters who agree that the problem is real and needs to be addressed, they can join you in a Town Hall Meeting to spread the information to others in the organization.
Tell your story of how you recognized the problem but don’t get carried away with details that could keep people consumed with the problem. Focus their attention by explaining Just Enough.
Make sure the problem is something that can actually be solved and people will care about solving. Relate it to the goals of the organization (Tailor Made). Use Personal Touch to help individuals answer the question: What’s in it for me?
You may wish to point out what could happen if the problem is not solved, perhaps with various scenarios (Imagine That!). However, don’t just tell horror stories—you could be accused of exaggerating. Accentuate the Positive. You want to inspire hope so everyone becomes intrigued enough to discuss potential solutions.
Be cautious about outlining a complete strategy for addressing the problem—then it becomes all about you. Even if you think you have a good solution, you will get more buy-in if you present it as a rough idea and then Ask for Help in crafting the details.
Stay in Touch. Once you have helped people recognize the problem, this is not enough. Don’t allow the urgency for solving the problem decline as people get busy with other things.
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But keep in mind that you are not likely to get everyone to care about the problems you raise. Be careful about dwelling on an existing predicament—there can be serious political ramifications. You can come across as a trouble-maker, especially if the old way is owned by those with influence. If too many are not responding to your wake-up call, you may have to Pick Your Battles and move on.
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. When Ellen realized that her proposal was not likely to pass, she politely stopped the discussion and back-peddled with a detailed explanation of the problems in the present system. Senate members reacted with surprise. They had not been aware of the problems and were immediately more willing to support her. Ellen then suggested a Trial Run of her new system and the motion passed in her favor.
Paul Levy was appointed to head the BIDMC hospital system, 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, Levy 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 this bad news might frighten the staff and patients but he believed a strong wake-up call was necessary to get employees to face the need for change.
In response to a question at the Agile 2011 conference, organizational management guru and author, Steve Denning, explained how to influence executives to change: Get the attention of the executive with a negative story (Wake Up Call); then inspire them with a positive story of success. Interesting stories move rapidly through organizations.
As early as possible in your change effort and throughout the initiative, invite people to attend an event that allows you to share updates about the new idea, solicit feedback, build support, uncover new ideas, and bring in newcomers.
Francisco Nunez, scientist for the Nature Conservancy, gathers the local communities in virtually every step of the conservation process. He explains, "We don't present solutions. We put scenarios on the table and let them decide." If you want to protect biodiversity, you need to give local residents a stake in preserving it. But finding "win-win" solutions is not always easy. For every success story, many more projects fail, often because "solutions" are conceived without consulting all stakeholders. Or because the projects rely solely on one economic activity, such as ecotourism, that depends on factors often beyond local communities' control. "This is a process," says another scientist for the Nature Conservancy. "There aren't easy solutions."
You are an Evangelist or Dedicated Champion who wants to explore the issues in a change initiative. You may be at the beginning of your effort, interested in identifying problems and possible solutions. You may have experimented with some of your ideas in your own work by deciding to Just Do It, or you may have completed a Trial Run and you are willing to discuss the progress report and thoughts about the Next Steps to take. You have something to report about the change initiative and you are willing to listen to what others have to say about it.
It is difficult to Stay in Touch and Involve Everyone during the long period of time that is often necessary for a change initiative. You don’t have time to Personal Touch everyone in the organization.
Feedback is essential—you don’t want to work in a vacuum. It may seem easier to trust your own judgment and do whatever you think is best, but you risk taking actions that do not provide real help for the organization. You might even be removed enough from the day-to-day operations that you have lost touch with the real needs of the people in your organization. You don’t want to miss important information or run the risk that people will feel ignored.
Personal Touch and Bridge Builder will help you understand the ways individuals can use a new idea and how they are feeling about the change. But a personal conversation with everyone in the organization at periodic times throughout the change initiative is likely to take more time than you have; this will be especially difficult, or even impossible, in large organizations. An e-Forum is useful for communicating information, but it has limitations for creating a dialogue where emotions can be uncovered.
Hold a meeting to solicit feedback, build support, get new ideas, intrigue newcomers, and report progress. Invite as many people as possible.
Advertise the event with In Your Space and e-Forum. Use Personal Touch to individually invite as many people as you can. Involve Everyone-- encourage participants with diverse backgrounds and ideas. Make sure you give particular attention to those who are most affected by the change.
Before the meeting, talk to skeptics (Fear Less) so you are not caught off guard. Use Corridor Politics to influence the lay of the land before you open the discussion to a large group.
Have a clear agenda. Begin by focusing on the purpose of the meeting. Give a brief history and status report of the change initiative (Just Enough). Solicit feedback and brainstorm new ideas. Check your ego at the door and explain that you are there to increase everyone’s understanding, including your own.
Remember that you are running the meeting. Demonstrate leadership—otherwise people with an agenda of their own could create chaos. Be clear about the rules for conducting the meeting (for example, how will people take their turn to speak, etc.). Watch out for ineffective discussions and endless debate. Be willing to politely put these matters in a “parking lot” for later or for offline discussions.
End the meeting by summarizing some Next Steps and welcome willing volunteers to help. Be sincere when you Ask for Help. Sometimes groups expect a leader to provide all the answers. It’s a fine line between appearing incompetent or weak and bringing others into the conversation.
After the session, Stay in Touch. You can continue the conversation on an e-Forum and post progress updates for everyone to follow.
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Town Hall Meeting will build visibility for the new idea and provide you with a “pulse check” of the community. You can solicit feedback and collect other ideas. It also allows a chance to gather support and build the Group Identity. Most importantly, it gives everyone the opportunity to get an update and become involved. People are less likely to complain later and more likely to take ownership if they are kept informed and have been given a say in the changes that could be made.
However, attendees may want the meeting to reach a consensus and/or they may expect their individual suggestions to be followed. If they are disappointed, they could get angry and work against you. Be sure to set clear expectations at the beginning of the meeting and gently remind everyone at periodic times. Be honest about your ability to please everyone; make sure they understand you can’t do everything. If individuals are passionate about any of their suggestions, you may wish to encourage them to become Evangelists and make their ideas happen—this is good opportunity to bring in more volunteers.
Allen was hired as the new president of a university. It was a time for change. Allen saw problems and issues that needed to be addressed, so his staff scheduled a series of planning meetings to gather input for a strategic plan. Everyone on the campus was personally invited over email or phone to attend one of the sessions. Each meeting began by setting the expectations for the session and the suggestions that would be gathered. During the meetings Allen presented a list of specific questions. The responses were recorded, and a summary of the results was sent to each participant. The participants were kept current on how the summaries were being used in the strategic planning process.
Ralph, the head of the library, was retiring after 30 years of service. The administration decided that it was a good time to examine the organization’s structure and procedures to determine what changes could be made. One representative from each department was invited to a series of meetings where these issues were studied. Their rough ideas and recommendations were then presented in a meeting with everyone in the library. The results of these meetings formed the basis for the new leadership as Ralph’s retirement drew closer—changes in the org chart, decisions regarding Ralph’s replacement, and modifications to some processes and library facilities.
When Congressman Chip Cravaack held an invitation-only, $10-a-plate luncheon, protesters were there. Cravaack asked the crowd if they wanted a town hall and they responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” “OK,” he replied, “…we can hear each other and have a good dialogue between each other, so I can get what you need me to hear.” During the meeting, a college student challenged Cravaack's assertion that programs must be cut to spare future taxpayers, while another asked why he wasn’t raising taxes on people who can afford it. The questioners and the congressman didn't come to an agreement, but in the hour-long meeting, nobody threatened anyone, which was later referred to as “progress on the civility front.”
 “The Poverty/Conservation Equation," Nature Conservancy Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 2006, 20-30.
 Tabaka, Jean. Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders, Addison-Wesley, 2006.
 In Summer Of Angry Voters, Whither The Town Hall? NPR All Things Considered, 8/25/11
Prepare a couple of sentences that you always have on hand to introduce others to your new idea.
I remember when I came back from my first Agile software development conference. I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to talk to my team and tell them about all the new ideas that were buzzing around in my head. The first person I saw when I came back on Monday morning asked, “Hey! How was the conference?” Words started tumbling out and thoughts began competing for air time. I saw myself overwhelming the poor guy but I couldn’t stop. Half of what I said didn’t make sense and I hummed and erred a lot. “OK! OK! I guess you had a good time! Maybe we can talk later!” It was a dose of reality for me. I needed a better way to answer the question he asked—and fast!
You’re an Evangelist or Dedicated Champion working on your new idea. You are encountering others who ask about your initiative. These people are busy and time is limited. You know a lot about your topic and could talk about it for days, but you have to transmit the core ideas quickly.
When you find the opportunity to introduce someone to your idea, you never want to stubble around for the right words to say.
We face this challenge all the time. People we want to influence ask, "What’s that new idea you’ve been talking about?" You've got a small window of opportunity to get your message across in a way that makes them want to know more. Similarly, when someone asks, “What do you do?” most people struggle with a concise reply. We know so much about our complicated lives that we feel the listener needs a lot of background to understand us. Without a prepared short introduction we either overload our listeners or we stumble around and provide little worthwhile information.
Today, we are accustomed to sound bites. According to a study by sociologist Kiku Adato, in the 1968 presidential election the average time each candidate spoke without interruption on the network news was 42.3 sec. By the 2000 campaign, the average time had shrunk to 7.8 sec.  The people you want to reach have grown accustomed to the sound-bite culture. They’re used to professional politicians, ad makers, and entertainers getting to the point in a matter of seconds. You need to do the same.
Newspaper writers understand this too. It was time constraint that prompted the inverted pyramid style of most newspaper stories—where the essentials, the basic facts, the conclusion, the lead, come first and the details come later. This began in the days of the telegraph when the whole story took a long time to transmit—the essentials were sent first since they were more important than the details for getting to press immediately. Today, this presentation style still works well for getting a glimpse into the information overload that surrounds us all.
Peggy Noonan, who helped write some of Ronald Reagan's greatest speeches, and is considered one of the modern masters of the art form, has this to say about the quest for the perfect quotable nugget: "Great speeches have always had great sound bites. The problem now is that the young technicians who put together speeches are paying attention only to the sound bite, not to the text as a whole, not realizing that all great sound bites happen by accident, which is to say, all great sound bites are yielded up inevitably, as part of the natural expression of the text. They are part of the tapestry, they aren't a little flower somebody sewed on."
When you have a vision for your idea, you need to be able to communicate it clearly and succinctly. In his book The Heart of Change, John Kotter provides advice about creating visions that can be easily shared with others: “What works?… Visions that are so clear that they can be articulated in one minute or written up on one page.”  David Belasco encourages you to think with even more brevity: “If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea.”
If you don’t have a crisp and concise message ready to share, your knowledge and excitement could cause you to rattle on and on. This could give the impression that you really don’t know what you are doing or what your goal is. You need to understand your key message as much as you need to have the ability to explain it to others.
● What is your idea? Be succinct—try to explain this in one sentence.
● What problem does it solve? Make a connection between your idea and the situation it addresses.
● What is your vision for the end state? Briefly explain where this initiative will take the organization.
Keep it simple. Just Enough is always the watchword. What Mark Twain wrote in 1880 applies today: "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in..." Beware of jargon, buzzwords, and long convoluted sentences. You'll be more effective the clearer and simpler you are.
Choose some information to highlight. If the list of things you want to say is too long, no one will remember them, much less have a desire to be part of the change effort. If you ask yourself why you are enthusiastic about your new idea, you’ll probably think of a whole host of good reasons. Everything you could say may be true, but it might not all add up to be a clear story.
Practice your elevator pitch out loud until it flows smoothly and conversationally. You want to be convincing. Don’t stumble around for the right words. But, try not to sound too rehearsed. Make sure your personality and enthusiasm come through.
Despite your enthusiasm for the new idea, stay humble and unpretentious. Be careful not to sound too glib or too self-confident. Don’t come across as a salesperson just trying to make a sale. You will turn off people.
Once you deliver your elevator pitch, allow some time to let the listener ask for more information. Don’t crowd the listener by pushing them to agree with you and join the initiative. A short pitch is not likely to be persuasive—it is merely informative. You may wish to end with a question or an invitation for further inquiry.
Post your elevator pitch on your web site, outside your office and in other places (In Your Space). Most people are busy, so they are likely to need more than one exposure to your pitch before they become intrigued enough to ask for more information and get involved in the initiative.
Update your pitch as you continue your work. Since you will always have opportunities to talk to new people and learn more, you will likely have an Evolving Vision. Make sure you update your pitch too.
Keep in mind that your pitch is only the first step. The purpose is merely to share some information and open the possibility to more. In order to truly persuade people, you will need to continue the conversation.  Be sure to Stay in Touch to address any issues that might arise as a result of your brief introduction.
Here are some examples of elevator pitches:
“Our company is getting so large that we are having problems giving our clients the personal attention we once could and attracting clients who are interested in this kind of attention. Therefore, I would like to encourage our company to purchase Customer Relationship Management software. This will allow us to find and attract new clients, nurture and retain them, entice former clients back to our organization and reduce the costs of our marketing and customer service.”
“I keep your company out of the Dilbert comic strip! I'm a management consultant specializing in change. If your company is experiencing rapid growth or change I can offer experience and wisdom to keep your employees happy and your profits in the black.”
Initially, your short speech will be the same for each person you encounter because you want to get everyone on the same page. When someone wants to know more, continue your conversation with a Personal Touch customized message that meets the specific interests and needs of a particular domain: managers, administrative assistants, engineers, marketing and human resource folks, etc. This is your chance to begin to develop an Emotional Connection.
To help you create your elevator pitch, you may want to look at the Elevator Pitch Game in the book, Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers.
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Elevator Pitch will allow you to start a dialogue that will help your cause. You'll increase your credibility with your audience because you'll make it easy for them to understand your key message. You will get everyone on the same page and begin to think about tailoring meaningful responses to any follow-on questions.
However, your short pitch may cause people to make snap judgments about the idea. Be sure to Stay in Touch and use a variety of other methods to communicate additional information about the initiative In Your Space.
I was on a panel at a conference recently. To open, we were each asked to give a 30-second definition of the Agile software process. Preston Smith was so good—he started with a problem statement: If you're delivering late and not meeting customer expectations, blah, blah, blah, then having shorter iterations and working with the customer, blah, blah, blah. I thought it was a very good elevator pitch. It was short. It was convincing. It told me that he had thought about it and had his answer at the ready. The rest of us were good, but we stumbled around and lost the audience. Preston grabbed their attention and kept it—for a brief, convincing moment.
 Carville and Begala, Buck Up, Suck Up…and come back when you foul up.
 Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution, 1990
 Kotter, John P. (2002). The Heart of Change.
 Peter J Denning and Nicholas Dew, The Myth of the Elevator Pitch, Communications of the ACM, June 2012, 55:6.
 Harrison, Craig, Build new relationships you’re your 16-second success, http://www.expressionsofexcellence.com/ARTICLES/elevate_ISOs.htm
 Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo (2010), published by O’Reilly Media, Inc.