Use Small Wins to Attract Allies To Your Strategic Initiative (and Overcome Shabby Thinking)

Find allies to support your strategic initiative

Find allies to support your strategic initiative

Organizations often use strategic initiatives as a tool for improving operations. The deployed solution typically includes new toolsets and processes that change the flow of work, decisions, and information.

The success rate for these process-improvement initiatives is about 1 in 3. In prior articles, I have described examples of success in product development, healthcare quality, and hospitality. Often the failures are done clumsily, as described in the first change effort in this article describing a tale of two initiatives at Intel.

I find it best to think of tool and process deployment as a social process of adopting an innovation. How do you get employees to adopt the a new toolset or culture? One approach is to invoke top management authority. However, this requires them to apply sustained effort of sponsoring and leading. Because they are busy and easily distracted by urgent business problems, this approach typically leads to floundering.

The bottoms-up  approach of small wins is a useful alternative. A small win, defined by Karl Weick, is a “series of concrete, complete outcomes of moderate importance that build a pattern that attracts allies and deters opponents.” (See Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems). This article will help you learn how to attract allies to create small wins, and how to characterize your “opponent” so you can effectively apply deterrence.

Example of Small Wins: Deploying a Risk Management Toolset

I saw a product development organization effectively use a small wins strategy recently.  The organization wanted its product developers to identify and analyze risk better, and it developed tools and training to make this happen. However, many of the engineers and managers were skeptical. They opined that the tools and process were bureaucratic and added little value. Regardless of their opinion, they were willing to attend an awareness-level presentation (one must always show the willingness to try new ideas, right?)

People who liked the tools and ideas had the opportunity to continue learning and practice them.  Those who didn’t have their opinion change were allowed to go their own way. The small win was each individual who returned to deepen their skill and try out the tools. Slowly, the tools and culture adopted the tools, incrementally reaped the benefits of the tools and got the economic outcomes required by its strategy.

The skeptics freely ignored the change, but gradually adopted most of the ideas simply because everyone else was using the language.

How the Strategic Initiative Leader Attracted Allies

The leader attracted allies to gently build a community of risk-management practitioners:

  • He defined the benefits offered to the individuals as well as to the organization. He created simple messages that explained the benefits in both organizational and personal terms.
  • He was authentic in his approach, and that helped him generate trust. Small wins often come from high-quality relationships between individuals. Authenticity and trust are “attractors” of high-quality relationships that create their own positive energy!
  • He encouraged experimentation, so that the tools could be adapted to the organization’s culture.

How the Strategic Initiative Leader Deterred Opponents

His response to the skeptics was simple: don’t force them to do anything, answer questions, and be patient.  An interesting learning is this:

The opponent is not a person, it is a ill-defined ideology.

The word “opponent” is a bit of an overstatement for most internal change efforts.

I spoke with many of the managers who were the late adopters of the tools and process. In this case (and others like it), their resistance was ideological and ill-defined. Usually, people are ambivalent if the change affects others and only oppose those things that they think will affect them personally. These two statements summarize their mental model:

  • “I don’t like the idea of bureaucracy.”
  • “As an individual, I like the idea following my own muse and doing things idiosyncratically.”

This next example reinforces the argument that the opponent is an ill-defined ideology.

F.E.A.R. is False Evidence Appearing Real

Here is another example of how you need to work with opponents on internal-process strategic initiatives…

During an early-state planning meeting, one of the team members declared that fear was a major obstacle.  None of his colleagues challenged or asked for clarification, so I let the statement pass.  A few minutes later he repeated the statement, so I jumped in with a request, “You’ve said twice now that fear is a big issue.  Can you clarify or provide an example of how that affects this strategic initiative?”

He explained that the many of the top executive equated “process” with bureaucracy. Although he didn’t explicitly state that bureaucracy equated to “adds no value and creates burdens,” that was clearly the implication.

I interrupted him with the statement, “F.E.A.R. means  false expectations appearing real.”  That drew a big tension-releasing laugh and one of the other team members said, “That’s good. I’m going to write that down.”

In this example, “fear” really represents a conclusion that the good intentions of the strategic initiative team would result in non-value added activities and unwelcomed self discipline. Here are a few lessons:

  • Fear is a strong word and probably overstates the legitimate anxiety found around any organizational change effort. Base your conclusions on good evidence, not gut feelings!
  • The idea that bureaucracy is non-value added is a half truth.  Don’t let half-truths go unchallenged; over time they become accepted truth!

How have you attracted allies and deterred opponents? Do you agree that the opponent more often an ill-defined ideology, not a person?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
This entry was posted in Strategy, Ambiguity, and Strong-Minded Thinking, Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives, Transforming the Organization, Useful Practices & Management Tools and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Use Small Wins to Attract Allies To Your Strategic Initiative (and Overcome Shabby Thinking)

  1. Dan Forbeses says:

    Hi Greg, Thanks for this post. One statement really resonates, “Authenticity and trust are “attractors” of high-quality relationships that create their own positive energy!” Too little is said about authenticity these days.

  2. Greg Githens says:

    You’re right; Dan; more needs to be said about authenticity. I view authenticity in much the same way as I define integrity: Integrity is when your thoughts, and words, and actions are aligned. People can sense this, and are drawn to it.

    In the case described here, the leader cared about the initiative and wasn’t overly concerned about being popular with others. Criticisms bounced off his thick skin. That created a sense of safety for others to join into his alliance.

  3. Pingback: Action Without Thought is Impulsiveness, Thought Without Action is Procrastination | Yes! You can become a strategic and strong-minded thinker!

  4. Pingback: Design Thinking: Five Landmarks for Strategic Initiatives  | Leading Strategic Initiatives

  5. KareAnderson says:

    Adopt a mutuality mindset: ask follow-up questions + seek sweet spots of mutual interest in conversations to attract diverse allies, then collectively able to see more sides of a situation & make smarter decisions faster+ be specific to boost credibility & memorability

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