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The 3 Pillars Of The Changemaker Mindset

2024 June 23
by Greg Satell

It is a simple truth that change initiatives usually fail. Study after study finds that roughly three quarters of change initiatives don’t succeed. That’s a failure rate that we wouldn’t accept in any other aspect of our professional lives, but has become routine with transformational initiatives. It doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the reasons change fails so consistently is that change leaders apply a manager’s mindset rather than a changemaker mindset. Executives become successful by leading everyday operations, which requires building consensus, creating an environment of predictability and focusing on execution.

Yet applying that manager mindset to a transformational initiative is a sure way to fail. To succeed, you need a coalition, not consensus; you are operating in an environment of uncertainty, not predictability; and you need to focus on exploration more than execution. That’s quite a shift, yet it can be done. The best way to start is tackling these three elements.

1. Where Do You Start?

Managers launching a new initiative often seek to start with a bang. They work to gain approval for a sizable budget as a sign of institutional commitment. They recruit high-profile executives, arrange a big “kick-off” meeting and look to move fast, gain scale and generate some quick wins. All of this is designed to create a sense of urgency and inevitability.

Yet this approach can often backfire. Any time you ask people to change what they think or how they act, there will be some who won’t like it and they will work to undermine you in ways that are often dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. Starting a transformation initiative with a big kickoff just gives them an early warning that they’d better get started sabotaging you quickly or change might actually happen.

One thing we know from decades of research is that change follows an s-curve, meaning that it starts slowly and, if it gains traction, grows toward a tipping point around 10%-20% participation that unlocks a cascade, which triggers exponential acceleration. You don’t have to bring in everybody at once, but whether you ever reach that tipping point will determine whether you succeed or fail.

That’s why in my book Cascades, I advised to start with a Keystone Change, which represents a clear and tangible objective, involves multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change. To do that, we start small, shrinking the challenge down to a single team, product or process. We need to show that the change can work, somewhere, before moving forward.

2. Who Do You Start With?

In 1998 five friends met in a cafe in Belgrade and formed a revolutionary movement. Two years later the brutal Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević, was overthrown. In 2007, a lean manufacturing initiative at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals began with a single team in one plant. In 18 months it spread to more than 17,000 employees across 25 sites worldwide and resulted in a more than 25% reduction in costs across the company.

More recently, in 2017, three mid-level employees at Procter & Gamble decided to take it upon themselves, with no budget or executive sponsorship, to transform a single process. It took them months, but they were able to streamline it from a matter of weeks to mere hours. Today, their PxG initiative for process improvement has become a movement for reinvention that encompasses more than 60,000 of their colleagues worldwide.

Each of these examples are vastly different from each other, but they have one thing in common: They didn’t try to create and maintain the energy themselves, but went and found people who were already enthusiastic. The five kids in the Belgrade cafe were experienced and passionate advocates. The initial team at Wyeth was chosen because of the enthusiasm and energy of their leader. The team at P&G went looking for fellow travelers.

When we’re passionate about an idea, human nature makes us want to go out and convince the skeptics. Don’t do that. It never leads to anything good. Go out and find people who want your project to succeed, who you can empower to bring in others that can bring in others still. That’s how you create a cascade that can drive transformational change.

3. How Do You Sustain?

Traditional change management practices focus on communication and training, but that is largely a remnant of an earlier age. In 1975, more than 80% of US corporate assets were tangible assets, things like factories, equipment and real estate. So when the modern practice of change management arose in the 1980s, that’s what it was designed to address.

But now that situation has flipped and more than 80% of corporate assets are intangible. When we talk about change today we are usually talking about changes in people themselves, in how they think and how they act. Clearly, that’s a very different type of thing and we need to approach it differently.

We can ask people, to a certain extent, to change what they think and do, but we can’t ask them to stop being who they think are. It is a simple truth that humans form attachments to ideas, people, and other things and, when those ideas are threatened they tend to lash out and go on the attack. The idea that we can overcome those attachments with some fancy wordsmithing or skills training is hopelessly naive.

What we can do, however, is empower those who are enthusiastic. That starts with a Keystone Change that has a clear and tangible goal, involves multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change. That’s how you get out of the business of selling an idea and into the business of selling a success.

Once you begin to gain traction, you can further promote adoption and scaling by designing co-optable resources, which allow people to take ownership of the change initiative by helping them achieve their own goals.

Mastering The Changemaker Mindset

Most of the time, we operate with a manager mindset and that works fine. We build consensus and execute with predictable outcomes. Our colleagues are motivated, customers are satisfied and everybody is happy. However, in an era of disruption it’s only a matter of time until we need to adapt and drive transformation. That’s never easy.

Top performers learn to switch between mindsets. Athletes need to be able to switch between training mindsets and competition mindsets. Navy SEALs have a “command and control mindset,” when executing a mission in the field and then a “take off your stripes, everyone is equal” mindset for debriefs when working to innovate and improve.

The three elements of the Changemaker mindset are: Where do you start? Who do you start with? And how do you sustain? Those are the questions you need to ask before you start any transformational initiative and the answers are rarely obvious. It takes work to analyze the situation and identify viable answers.

But if we want to put an end to the track record of failure that’s what we need to do. We need to start small, with a single Keystone Change; to start with people who are already enthusiastic and not try to create and maintain the energy ourselves and to sustain our efforts through empowering allies, with co-optable resources and other platforms.

Perhaps most of all, and often most difficult, we need to accept that when we shift to a changemaker mindset not everyone will be coming with us. Some will have to take a different path; choose another journey and we will have to leave them behind. That doesn’t mean betrayal, but it does mean you’ve arrived at a fork in the road and choices need to be made.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an 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,, follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto, his YouTube Channel and connect on LinkedIn.

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