How to Implement Change in an Organization

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you successfully implement change in an organization? What is the key to enacting change that sticks?

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath dive into the inner workings of change, offering actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick. They share four ways to implement change in an organization, while also providing keys to change in general.

In this article, we’ll take a look at four practical ways to implement change in an organization: insider advice, emotional appeals, progress acknowledgement, and praise.

Implementing Change in an Organization

Switch includes four practical ways to effect change on an organizational level: leverage “insider” advice, appeal to the right feelings, shorten the distance to your goal, and reinforce good behavior.

Leverage “Insider” Advice

When implementing change in an organization, it’s tempting to focus on underperformers and try to bring them up to speed. Instead, look for team members who are incorporating the change exceptionally well, and use them as an example for their colleagues. Not only does this “insider” demonstration prove that the change is achievable and practical, it also saves you the time and energy you’d otherwise spend trying to explain the importance of the change. 

For example, you want the managers at your company to raise the communication scores on their direct reports’ feedback forms. You check their scores in one month. One of the managers has exceptional scores, four haven’t boosted their low scores, and one has gone down slightly. 

You have the successful manager explain her system:

  • She schedules a short feedback session for each of her employees every week. 
  • She holds open office hours two days a week. 
  • She dedicates the first 20 minutes of every day to walking around the office and checking in with her employees. 

You have each of the underperformers spend a day at the office with the successful manager. With a clear peer example, they see how to fit feedback sessions into their schedules, and have several clear methods to increase communication within their own teams. 

Counterintuitively, success stories are often met with suspicion in many organizations. When someone performs exceptionally well, it’s assumed that they must be gaming the system in some way or fudging their results. Be careful not to fall into this thinking—success stories in your organization are an opportunity to improve, not a trick.

Appeal to the Right Feelings

Another way to implement change in an organization is to appeal to emotions. Some organizations try to motivate their employees to change by creating crises—by announcing layoffs, for example—that foster negative emotions. However, instead of creating organizational change, this method only prompts employees to make small, short-term changes that will keep them out of danger. 

  • Instead of becoming better salespeople, your employees will likely only focus on getting their sales up for a few weeks just to avoid a round of layoffs. 

Organizational goals are usually achieved through ambiguous, long-term, and evolving changes—which depend on an appeal to positive emotions like surprise, empowerment, or excitement. These emotions broaden your vision and increase the number of things people might think about or explore. This grants you the flexible, sustainable, and creative solutions that large, long-term changes require. 

Shorten the Distance to Your Goal

When you’re implementing change in an organization, look for ways to remind people—or yourself—of the progress that’s already been made. You want your team to start meeting with their direct reports at least once a month. You remind them, “Last year, you were only doing meetings twice a year. You’re already on track to do seven meetings this year—getting to one per month is achievable.”

Reinforce Good Behavior

Many managers use “personality type” tests in an attempt to understand, and better manage, their employees. This approach usually isn’t conducive to change, because it makes you more likely to attribute anti-change behaviors to character and not circumstance. This “they’re just not wired to make those changes” quickly kills change potential. 

Shift your focus from character to behavior. The most effective way to implement change in an organization is to regularly praise employees for any sign of progress toward your goal, and expect them to do the same for you and their colleagues. This might look like going out of your way to thank a colleague for getting their report in on time, even if the formatting wasn’t quite right.

Reinforcement is especially hard in work settings because you naturally notice shortcomings more than progress, and it’s more fun to get together with colleagues to complain about, rather than praise, others. Stay focused on your goal and make a conscious effort to praise as much as possible. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of Radical Candor to learn how to give and receive sincere and helpful praise.)

How to Implement Change in an Organization

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
  • Actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick
  • The three essential elements for successful change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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