Being a change evangelist

inspiring your organization to play the new game with new rules


Organizational Culture and Change

Organizations frequently embrace process improvement initiatives, trying to adopt best practices and improve themselves. However, several historical observations reveal that a vast majority of these change initiatives fail to accomplish their desired objectives. For example, Garvin (1998) observed, “The topic list [of these improvement initiatives] is long and varied, and sometimes it seems as though a program a month is needed to keep up. Unfortunately, failed programs far outnumber successes, and improvement rates remain distressingly low.”

Muthu, Whitman, and Cheraghi (1999) said that “50 to 70 percent of reengineering efforts fail to deliver the intended dramatic results.” The Standish Group (2003) CHAOS report on overall success in projects said that 66% of all projects have either failed or are challenged. More recently, a Cranfield School of Management (2004) survey said that “two thirds of improvement initiatives are bound to fail.”

Thus, it is widely observed that many of the methodology-based organizational change initiatives have been successful only in a relatively few organizations. In most other organizations, where fundamental cultural changes were required for the success of a change initiative, many of these ideas have simply gone into history as cycles of hype.

A close study of such initiatives brings out the fact that organizational change prescriptions are unique to individual organizational cultures. When an organization develops a process and practices it frequently over time, they are unknowingly developing an organizational practice that gets embedded into the culture of the organization. Over the course of time, when environmental scenarios change, these same practices—which could be called “once-best” practices—suddenly become liabilities and bring down the successes of these organizations. The longer such processes have been part of the fabric of the organization, the more difficult they become to change. Thus, change projects easily succeed where the culture and the environment were conducive to the change initiative, and fail where they collide.

The Desire to Change Exists

Interestingly, at the same time, the desire to initiate or sustain change has never abated among people in most organizations. A recent CIO Insight survey said,

Improving business processes is the top priority for many IT executives, especially at small and midsize companies. Most companies are hoping to boost productivity and cut costs by revamping their business processes with the help of IT; smaller companies are also aiming to increase revenues. (CIO Insight, 2006)

Almost everyone, be it a senior executive or a mail room clerk, has an opinion and desire of how things could change, so the organization can become more effective along varying degrees. These end up becoming topics of discussion at water coolers and elevators, where employees frequently gripe among themselves about problems or how things could be done better.

Some organizations foster an environment where they facilitate the systematic adoption of change ideas with formal procedures, or at least an informal and encouraging culture in place. They have “explicit mechanisms for inviting upward input (e.g., suggestion boxes, regularly-scheduled meetings, surveys)” (Gilbert, 2006) and these eventually become truly learning organizations. In fact, “making personal knowledge available to others is the central activity of a knowledge creating company” (Nonaka, 2007). In places where these contextual factors do not exist, change usually begins only top-down and frequently we see no substantial change happening at the ground level. In such organizations, as Kleiner and Roth (1998) said, “mistakes get repeated, but smart decisions do not. Most important, the old ways of thinking that led to the mistakes are never discussed, which often means that they are still in place to spawn new mishaps again and again.”

Bottom-up Change and Its Problems

In reality, as an internal employee of an organization, one gets to see what nobody else can see—the internal guts and dirty laundry of the company—and in many ways, these are the people who, if they understand and own the organizational mission, are well suited to initiate the change that can make the organization better. Further, in companies where boardroom executives do not interact with mainstream customers or the technologies involved, it is the people at the front-end—who closely interact with the customer or the technology—that notice subtle changes in the market much in advance and develop an insight into the bigger things that are yet to come.

Many of these insightful people in the middle or at the bottom of the organization either do not have the courage to question their senior leaders or do not feel it is incumbent on them to change their organizations. Even if they ever have the required courage and proactivity, they frequently fail at being the catalyst of change, due to the inherent complexities involved in selling upstream change.

These issues are prevalent in almost all businesses. For example, according to Amy Edmondson (in Gilbert, 2006), “…most of us depend on hierarchical organizations and their agents (i.e., bosses) to meet many of our basic needs for economic support and human relationships. Thus, fear of offending those above us is both natural and widespread.” Avoiding these confrontations only leads to productivity wastes and stunted organizational growth. Macomber and Howell (2004) suggested that the two great wastes of an organization are “not listening enough (by senior managers) and not speaking up (by subordinates),”

According to Godin (2003), “The people closest to the problem aren't given a chance to offer solutions because the boss is too arrogant to ask them, ‘If you were in charge, what's the first way you'd make this place work better for our customers?”

So, in a world of institutionalized not-listening, how can one cultivate the behavior of speaking up and being heard? How can we learn the qualities of motivating and practice them to perfection? How can one become the change agent irrespective of where one is in the organization?

An Eight-Step Approach

To ensure success as change agents, irrespective of where one is, and inspire fundamental changes within an organization, here is an eight-step strategy that has proven to work in several environments. In essence, the strategy involves the following steps:

  1. Have ownership and courage
  2. Know your relationship with the changed outcome
  3. Change yourself, earn your trust
  4. Engage and build relationships
  5. Start small, educate, tell stories
  6. Appreciate stakeholders’ perspectives, address their needs
  7. Be ready for crucial confrontations
  8. Be ferociously persistent

1. Have Ownership and Courage

The ability to lead through change starts with a sense of self-awareness and ownership—an awareness of what one is and the causes one should own. As Murthy (2007) said,

Indeed, the highest form of knowledge, it is said, is self-knowledge. I believe this greater awareness and knowledge of oneself is what ultimately helps develop a more grounded belief in oneself, courage, determination, and, above all, humility, all qualities which enable one to wear one's success with dignity and grace (Murthy, 2007).

It is the idea of engaging your ideas and qualifying them for further action, and this action could involve going beyond the known spectrum of options. You need to own the idea of change with a sense of deep conviction that is supported by a broader knowledge of why a new system or structure is necessary. You must understand and be able to articulate the current state of affairs, or the level of maturity of a particular process that you are trying to improve. Persuasive articulation comes naturally if the idea is connected to one's convictions. And this comes naturally if you have the ownership, the pro-activity, the deep desire from within to overcome any fear to evangelize your ideas.

In A Whack on the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech said, “To fight a bull when you are not scared is nothing. And not to fight a bull when you are scared is nothing. But to fight a bull when you are scared – that is something.” (von Oech, 1998). What will you do when you are not shackled by fear? How can you get the strength? Ask yourself as von Oech asked, “What puts a lion in your heart?”

Unless you have the courage to speak up and you do, your passion will remain only as an idea, not a practiced policy. Winston Churchill said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees all others” (Maxwell, 1999). You have to believe “it is safer to search in a maze than remain in a cheeseless situation” (Johnson, 1998). Have the courage and everything else will come.

2. Know Your Relationship with the Changed Outcome

The first and the foremost criteria for one to be able to sell an upstream or even a peer-level change is to embrace a cause whose outcome has no undue benefit to oneself. You will have to repeatedly demonstrate how the modified outcome is disconnected with your individual or self-fulfilling desires and future aspirations.

Toward this, your self-awareness and long-term vision helps. You must know yourself, the ideas you stand for, your aspirations, your passion for change, its boundaries, and the relationship or disconnection between your self-fulfilling desires and the changed outcome. To be a change activist, one will have to articulate how the modified scenario will directly benefit organizational objectives without having the need to justify any personal gains.

3. Change Yourself, Earn Your Trust

“Trust is the highest form of human motivation” (Covey, 2004). In order to build a greater buy-in and to establish effective relationships, one must first of all earn his/her trust. Trust is never endowed, it is always earned. Yes, trust is an earned right and is rarely awarded without experiential observation. There are three key elements in earning trust – being competent, demonstrating character, and showing commitment to the cause.

Being Competent

One must become an expert in one's field to earn the reputation as a competent performer. This requires an obsession with learning, a never-ending desire to reach higher levels of competencies, day in and day out. Learning is not just the process of mastering new information through books or classrooms. It involves developing a perennial thirst to seek knowledge and applying them into behavioral patterns as a way of life. It involves making a passionate effort to break new ground everyday in getting outside the box we have around ourselves. As famous basketball coach Rick Pitino said, “We must identify our weaknesses and allow a certain amount of time in our daily routine to turn those weaknesses into future strengths” (Pitino & Reynolds, 1997)

Demonstrating Character

Demonstrating a high-quality character plays a very important role in inspiring change among others. The principles you adhere to reflect in the quality of your work to your stakeholders. It's not just what you do that counts, it is the attitude and the intention while doing it that demonstrates character. Character limitations can easily become stumbling blocks when inspiring change within others. As Maxwell (1999) said, “Leaders cannot rise above the limitations of their character.” So ask yourself daily, can you trust the person in the mirror?

Showing Commitment to the Cause

An unyielding commitment, a subscription to the cause that is valued beyond one's own personal goals, quickly earns trust and inspires support from people. Such commitment originates from deep-rooted convictions and withstands all trials and tribulations. The path to your achievements could have many failures, unfairness, and stumbling blocks; however, they should be conquered with positive faith and unflinchingly following fair principles and professional ethics.

4. Engage and Build Relationships

In order to inspire change, one must engage others, building a network of relationships by exhibiting empathy at all times. Empathy is a state of mind. It is a conscious attempt to connect to the state of being of somebody else. It is an opportunity to gain insight from the perspective of someone else, unhindered by personal filters and prejudices. As Susan Daniel Goleman wrote in Social Intelligence, “Our experience of oneness—a sense of merging or sharing identities—increases whenever we take someone else's perspective, and it strengthens the more we see things from their point of view” (in Cramm, 2007). Persuasive people instinctively know that the ability to influence naturally comes from caring and empathizing with others.

This process of discovering individual personalities does not need to happen in any specific environments; in fact, I believes that water coolers, copier rooms, walking aisles, and break areas are spiritual temples of engagement. They are free kiosks where you can engage, entertain, and energize people. Here, one can pay keen attention to stakeholder's interests and desires, and learn about what motivates and excites them. Using insights from these, one has to build several informal relationships across the organization and leverage those networks effectively to effect the desired change.

5. Start Small, Educate, Tell Stories

Helen Keller said, “Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” (Calzada, 2007). For many, leaders are the primary source of hope and support when dealing with change. Leaders evangelizing change should create comfort, start small, and educate their team members. This may include one's own bosses and their bosses. Educate those bosses without threatening their perceived sense of power, for authority isn't our quest, organizational excellence is. Express the “Conceptual Umbrella” by making stories, metaphors, and jokes around your ideas and subtly influence the subconscious thinking of the people around you. “As in the old practice of community story-telling, people re-experience an event together and learn its meaning collectively” (Kleiner & Roth, 1998). “Learning histories have proved successful in transferring knowledge from one part of the organization to another” (Ibid). Hence, use metaphors, stories, and simple analogies to make people see the reason to change.

Once, a group of directors did not appreciate my idea for the need to have a concrete, measurable strategic plan in place before we begin. Some people who resisted my ideas even asked me to prove how our current work is not in alignment with the spirit of our fuzzy goal. I tried every possible idea that came to my mind to explain my philosophical position and its importance to our organization at that time. Finally, I told this story in an elaborate manner:

Once there was a king who wanted to marry his princess off to the most suitable man in the kingdom. So he sends notices all over his kingdom and asks all interested men to join a competition. On a special day he organizes a massive contest for the prospective grooms and eliminates most of the contestants. In the end four men survive all tests and enter the final round. The king asks all four to go to a distant city and deliver a package at a particular address. All men set forth toward their journey in a horse-driven carriage each. Over time, three men separate from the fourth and take the lead. They arrive at an intersection where the road forks into three. There is a road sign nearby pointing to four different cities, including the one they came from, but unfortunately someone had chopped off the wooden post pointing in the four directions.

These three men think about their situation and agree to set forth in three different directions, so at least one of them would succeed and would share some wealth with the other two. In the end, one of the three prospective grooms and the delayed fourth one made it to the destination. The king is impressed with these two and asked them how they came to the right destination. While the winner from the three-member group confessed to his blind luck, the fourth one said he aligned the chopped-off pole such that it pointed the name of the city he came from toward the path he had just come along. Then he knew which path to take to reach the destination.

Thus, he consciously endeavored to choose his destination and arrived there. The king was impressed and married his daughter to him.

In this story, I asked my directors if they wanted to be a member of the three member group or the winning fourth one? I asked them if they want to take a chance with their strategic destination or know where they are going before they begin. The story delivered the message and got the point across.

Thus, one can use numerous anecdotes, historical stories with lessons, creative analogies, and fables to educate people in simple but effective ways, so they would become receptive to change.

6. Appreciate Stakeholders’ Perspectives, Address Their Needs

Kouzes and Pozner (2003) said, “Collaboration is a social imperative. Without it we can't get extraordinary things done in organizations.” Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without gaining the collaboration of the people around you. And you do that by appealing to your shared desires. In order to leverage this rule, one has to be intuitively aware of what excites and bothers other people. To achieve this, one can keep a log of what excites and discourages people around you and use it to effectively empathize with their day to day problems, appreciate their goals and aspirations and understand their dreams and visions for themselves.

Change easily happens when stakeholders feel equitably rewarded by the change. Hence, you have to package your change prescription in a way that addresses the individual needs of your stakeholders, their motivational values, and their driving philosophies. True leaders motivate, they never manipulate. The difference between motivating others and manipulating them is the intent. In order to be a true leader, your locus of the intent or the underlying inspiration of the evangelizing effort has to be on the stakeholder's interest rather than your own.

7. Be Ready for Crucial Confrontations

The influence of power is always secondary to the power of influence. When people around you make infractions against acceptable baseline behavior, you have to engage them and make them accountable for their actions, even if they are in power. This requires tact, communication, and above all, confidence and courage. It does not require authority. “Never grow a wishbone…where your backbone ought to be” (in Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2005).

When people violate expected behavior, plan to confront them when you are calm by briefly and factually describing what went wrong. And when you confront the violators, give them a chance to redeem themselves. Provide the space for them to salvage their reputation. When patterns develop, establish a follow-up plan and follow through.

8. Be Ferociously Persistent

“Once you master persuasion, you have to learn persistence, if you really want to get your way” (Gitomer, 2007). Almost all of us have been through situations where we absolutely hated doing what we were doing; say for example, when we knew that somebody else was going to get recognized for our work. For most of us it was a painful situation and at those times, it became difficult to strive for excellence. But it is exactly in these situations that we get the biggest opportunity of our lives, a chance to demonstrate what a leader we really are. It is an opportunity to show to ourselves why we really seek to excel—is it for an external stimulus or does the initiative and drive come from within?

The drive to excel flows from within for a true leader. Maslow's hierarchy of human needs says the highest level of human motivation is self-actualization, “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow, 1943). When you are disengaged from your mission, imagine a hundred thousand of your imaginary clones watching you. And you, the athlete, are in the center, under the spotlight and about to jump the leadership vault. Let your inspiration come from within; let your internal desire to grow propel you, instead of external stimuli. When powered by such a spirited mind, your persistence will be ferocious and nothing can stop you from your goal.

Let Us Build Learning Organizations

Katsuki Watanabe, the president of Toyota, said,

Fifteen years ago I would have said that as long as we have enough people, Toyota could achieve its goals through kaizen [continuous improvement]. In today's world, however, change can be produced by kaizen, but it may also be brought about by kakushin [radical innovation]. When the rate of change is too slow, we have no choice but to resort to drastic change or reform: kaikaku. (Harvard Business Review, 2007, p. 81).

It is imperative that we leave our organizations better than we found them. And for this, we have to build the culture of learning and change all around us. Change is essential for growth, and without growth we will let our organizations rot.

We know about the analogous nature of magnetism and leadership. Every piece of iron is a potential magnet. In it are millions of molecules that are individual magnets with a north and a south pole. But in a normal piece of iron these molecules are randomly arranged. That is, they are oriented in all directions, so they effectively cancel each other. When the piece of iron is magnetized, effectively these molecules align with each other, pointing in the same direction. When this happens, a normal piece iron becomes a magnet, capable of magnetizing others.

Similarly, all individuals are potential leaders. When they align all their actions and thoughts toward a grander vision, they transform themselves into natural leaders, attracting others and convincing them to believe in their mission.

Let us all believe in grander visions! Let us all work to become change agents! Let us build learning organizations!! Learning organizations are not built in a day; it involves constantly acquiring newer ideas, adapting them to the needs of the organization, continuously adopting them into our philosophies, and applying them in our behavior. Let us do that!

Business process improvement survey: Creating smarter, faster, cheaper processes is IT's main mission [Electronic version]. CIO Insight, October 2006. Retrieved July 6, 2007 from,1540,2047180,00.asp

Calzada, L. (2007). 180 ways to deal with change. Flower Mound, TX: The Walk The Talk Company.

Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Free Press.

Cramm, S. (2007, June 14) The power of persuasion [Electronic version]. CIO. Retrieved July 6, 2007 from

Cranfield School of Management. (2004). Survey shows two-thirds of improvement initiatives are bound to fail. Retrieved July 6, 2007 from the Library of Better Management Web site:

Gilbert, S. (2006, March). Do I dare say something? Q&A with Amy C. Edmondson. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from

Garvin, D. A. (1998). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing

Gitomer, J. (2007). Little Green Book of Getting Your Way. New Jersey: FT Press.

Godin, S. (2003, October) If it's broke, fix it. Fast Company, Issue 75, 131–132.

Johnson, S. (1998). Who moved my cheese? New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Kleiner, A., & Roth, G. (1998). How to make experience your company's best teacher. Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Kouzes, J., & Pozner, B. (2003). The leadership challenge, 3rd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Macomber, H., & Howell, G. (2004, August). Two great wastes in organizations. 12th Annual conference on LEAN Construction. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review 50(4) 370-396.

Maxwell, J. C. (1999). The 21 indispensible qualities of a leader. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Murthy, N. R. N. (2007). Life lessons from Narayana Murthy. Rediff India Abroad Special. Retrieved Jul 1, 2007 from

Muthu, S., Whitman, L., & Cheraghi, S. H. (1999). Business process reengineering: A consolidated methodology. Proceedings of the 4th Annual International Conference on Industrial Engineering Theory, Applications and Practice. San Antonio, TX.

Nonaka, I. (2007, July–August). The knowledge-creating company. Harvard Business Review 85(7-8) 162–170.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan R., & Switzler, A. (2005). Crucial confrontations. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pitino, R., & Reynolds, B. (1997). Success is a choice. New York: Broadway Books.

The Standish Group. (2003). Latest Standish Group CHAOS Report shows project success rates have improved by 50%. Retrieved July 6, 2007 from

von Oech, R. (1998) A whack on the side of the head. New York: Warner Books.

Watanabe, K. (2007, July–August). Lessons from Toyota's long drive. Harvard Business Review 85(7-8). 74–83.

© 2007, Karthikeyan Kumaraguru
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA



Related Content


Publishing or acceptance of an advertisement is neither a guarantee nor endorsement of the advertiser's product or service. View advertising policy.