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Change Has A lifecycle. You Need To Learn It.

2022 August 21
by Greg Satell

When a transformational initiative fails, it’s often said that it was because people don’t like change. That’s not really true. Everywhere I go in the world, no matter what type of group I’m speaking to, people are enthusiastic about some kind of change. It’s other people’s ideas for change that they aren’t so crazy about.

Senior leaders love to tell me about their inspired visions for their enterprise, but complain that they can’t get the rank-and-file to go along. Middle managers complain that they are bursting with ideas, but can’t get the bosses to go along. As failed initiatives pile up, people talk past each other and change fatigue sets in.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are natural laws that govern change and these laws can be learned and applied by anyone. The problem is that managers don’t study change the same way they study finance, or marketing, or strategy. Business schools don’t teach it as a discipline. But change has a lifecycle that we can learn to manage and exploit.

Identifying A Problem That Needs Solving

As a young man, Mohandas Gandhi wasn’t the type of person anyone would notice. Impulsive and undisciplined, he was also so shy as a young lawyer that he could hardly bring himself to speak in open court. With his law career failing, he accepted an offer to represent the cousin of a wealthy muslim merchant in South Africa.

Upon his arrival, Gandhi was subjected to humiliation on a train and it changed him. His sense of dignity offended, he decided to fight back. He found his voice, built the almost superhuman discipline he became famous for and successfully campaigned for the rights of Indians in South Africa. He returned to India 21 years later as the “Mahatma,” or “holy man.”

Revolutions don’t begin with a slogan, they begin with a cause. Martin Luther King Jr., as eloquent as he was, didn’t start with words. It was his personal experiences with racism that helped him find his words. His devotion to the cause that gave those words meaning, not the other way around.

Steve Jobs didn’t look for ideas, but for products that sucked. Computers sucked. Music players sucked. Mobile phones sucked. His passion was to make them “insanely great.” Every breakthrough product or invention, a laser printer, a quantum computer or even a life-saving cure like cancer immunotherapy, always starts out with a problem that needs to be solved.

Painful Failure

In 1998, five friends met in a cafe in Belgrade. Although still in their 20s, they were already experienced activists. In 1992, they had taken part in student protests to protest the war in Bosnia. In 1996, they took to the streets to support Zajedno, a coalition of opposition parties aligned against Slobodan Milošević. Both efforts, for very different reasons, failed.

This isn’t unusual. Gandhi had his Himalayan miscalculation. The first march on Washington, for women’s suffrage in 1913, was a disaster. Martin Luther King’s Albany campaign proved to be a big waste of time. Many modern movements, such as #Occupy, Turkey’s Gezi Park protests and the Arab Spring, achieved little, if anything at all.

It’s not just political movements either. Good ideas fail all the time. Even important, revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, such as cancer immunotherapy and sanitary practices in hospitals were rejected outright at first. Legendary entrepreneurs, such as IBM’s Thomas Watson at IBM and Apple’s Steve Jobs had miserable, heart wrenching failures.

The problem is that every idea has flaws. No plan survives first contact with the enemy because every plan, no matter how carefully considered or how righteous the cause, is wrong. Sometimes it’s off by just a little and sometimes it’s off by a lot, but it’s always wrong. You need to be prepared to take a few hits along the way, pick yourself up and apply what you’ve learned from the experience to do better next time.

Finding Focus

Successful change efforts are not, as many assume, all-out efforts. Rather, they learn to focus their own relative strengths against an opponent’s relative weaknesses. They focus resources at a particular opportunity at a time and place of their choosing. Military strategists call this principle Schwerpunkt, the delivery of overwhelming force at a specific point of attack.

In that cafe in Belgrade in 1998, the young activists took a hard look at what had worked and what didn’t. They knew that they could get people to the polls and they knew that if people went to the polls they could win the Presidential election coming up in 2000. They also knew, from bitter experience, that if Milošević lost the election he would try to steal it.

That, they decided, would be their focal point. They created a movement called Otpor that was steeped in patriotic imagery from the World War II resistance. It grew slowly at first, amounting to only a few hundred members after a year. But by the time the elections came around in 2000, Otpor’s ranks swelled to 70,000 and had grown into a potent political force.

When Milošević tried to falsify the election results massive protests, now known as the Bulldozer Revolution broke out. This time Otpor was able to enforce unity among the opposition parties and the Serbian strongman was forced to give in. He would later be extradited to The Hague and die in his prison cell.

Surviving Victory

One of the most surprising things that I’ve learned about change is that the victory phase is often the most dangerous. When you think you’ve won, that’s when you take your eye off the ball. But the people who oppose your idea don’t just melt away and go home because you won an early battle. In fact, now that they see change is possible, they’ll likely redouble their efforts to undermine what you’re trying to achieve.

The Otpor activists knew this from experience. When the Zajedno coalition won an electoral victory in 1996, it was pulled apart from the inside as a result of some deft political maneuvers by the regime. After the overthrow of Milošević, they quickly moved to head off any such efforts. The day the new government took power, billboards went up all over Belgrade that read, “Now We’re Watching You!”

The billboards, however, were merely a tactic. The real work started months before. The activists had learned from the earlier failures and anticipated officials straying from the cause. So they made a plan to survive victory and forced each opposition politician to sign a “contract with the people,” so they couldn’t backtrack after victory was won.

We do a similar exercise with our transformation clients. We ask questions like, “How would someone  possessed by an an evil demon undermine the change you seek? Where are you most vulnerable to an attack? How can you leverage shared values to mitigate those efforts? You can’t prevent bad things from happening, but a little preparation goes a long way.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that transformation is a journey, not a destination. Change has a lifecycle. Whatever impact you seek to make is far more likely to be a marathon than a sprint. No defeat or victory is final. The road is long and, to travel it effectively, you need to learn to recognize and anticipate the various twists and turns.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Need to overcome resistance to change? Sign up for the Adopting A Changemaker Mindset Course today!

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash


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