It Starts with One – Changing Individuals Changes Organisations

by J. Stewart Black and Hal B Gregersen



As futurists it is easy to get carried away and involved in exciting and far reaching questions about the future – will computers get smarter than humans, will we live to a thousand, will climate change fundamentally change how we live? In the end none of these questions really matter unless our pondering them achieves some sort of outcome for an individual, an organisation, or the world as a whole. In order for that to happen we have to bring all the excitement and uncertainty back to a concrete concept of strategy and we have to influence people to change what they do on a day to day basis.

This book is about the second part of that equation and it provides a simple and elegant framework of how to think about the issues of how people change their behaviour and how they resist changes to their behaviour even when it seems obvious to us that they must change.

There seems to be a general consensus that the failure rate of most change programs is high, although there is some debate about the actual levels of failure. If this is the case then we should look more closely at models of change and the principles that underlie them.

The basic model in this book is based on the theory that successful individuals or organisations move from doing the right thing(s) well to doing the wrong thing(s) well as the environment changes around them (p16). That is, they are doing the same things well but the requirements of the world they exist in have changed so much that what was successful is no longer so. The model then says that if people change then they tend to move to doing the (new) right thing poorly in the first instance which is very uncomfortable for them. One of the reasons for resistance to change is that commonly people would prefer to do the wrong thing well rather than the right thing poorly. If you doubt this then think of the football team that has not been succeeding. Commonly they employ a new coach and a new game plan but under pressure players will default back to the old game plan because they are comfortable with it. Coaches will say that it often takes a full season to change a fundamental game plan to the level that players maintain it under pressure.

Beyond this basic model the authors believe that there are three basic barriers to change:

1. Failure to see
Many of the issues here  relate to the common held realm of futurists – helping people see how things might be different. The authors state that the solutions here are for leaders to provide both contrast and confrontation (Chapter 3). They provide both a good theoretical underpinning for our failure to see and some practical solutions to those problems.

2. Failure to move
In many situations people recognise that change is necessary but fail to execute that change. The authors believe that this can be solved by three combined approaches:

• Providing a clear and simple vision of the destination.
• Providing the skills and resources to reach the destination so they can move from doing the right thing poorly to doing the right thing well in a short space of time.
• Delivering valuable rewards along the journey.

3. Failure to finish
Many change projects peter out part way through. The authors supply some simple tools to maintain enthusiasm and momentum.

On reviewing this book and reading what I have written above it all seems like common sense and stuff we should automatically be doing anyway. Commonly this seems to be the case but when we look at what we have actually done it does not match up. I really liked this book because:

• It avoids one major trap of many of these types of books because it is only 154 pages long. I think that many of these management books are padded out to 250-300 pages when only 120-150 is necessary. This seems to be because people are less inclined to buy a thin volume.
• It provides a simple model that can be easily followed and understood.
• It provides practical tools to implement the theory and get past the barriers as well as some simple and compelling stories to engage the reader.

I would strongly recommend the book to anyone involved in leading or participating in change, which today seems to be most of us.