Implementing a change? Make sure you can answer these three questions.

When implementing organizational change we are by definition helping the organization to “become different” in some way. Regardless of what we are implementing — a new strategy, practice, software — the change is hopefully novel (i.e., “new or unusual in an interesting way”), but is most certainly unfamiliar (i.e., “not known or not recognized”). Given that change territory is inherently “uncharted” (i.e., “not recorded or plotted on a map, chart, or plan”) we may interpret the challenge of change as being one of action. As a result, we often spend an incredible amount time planning and sharing “what we and others will do” to support the change.  

I believe, however, that change is as much a challenge of understanding as it is of action. When we assume understanding or mistake sharp messaging statements, clever branding or an action plan for understanding, we risk building our change implementation on an unstable foundation. 

To overcome this challenge of understanding, we must first ensure that those leading the change, and then all those involved in it, actually understand it (i.e., comprehend the “significance, explanation, and cause” of the change). That's what I refer to as the why (significance), what (explanation), and how (cause) of the change. 

In this post, I discuss why developing unambiguous responses to questions about the "why, what and how" of your change is essential for effective implementation and provide tips on how to go about doing so. But first, an exercise. 

How well do people (including you) understand the change you are implementing? 

In my high school, everyone dreaded open essay exam questions. Essay questions provide no hints. They provide nowhere to hide. Memorization rarely helps get you through essay questions.  What you need is understanding. 

Similarly, when gauging understanding of a change in your organization, it can be helpful to provide yourself and colleagues with "no place to hide."  Intrigued?  Then, try this. 

Take a blank sheet of paper, and with no memory aids answer the questions below.  (That means, no, you can't just peek at that Powerpoint from last week's meeting.)

A. Why are we implementing this change?  What are we trying to achieve and how will we know we’ve achieved it?

B. What, exactly, is the change we are implementing? What are the key components or non-negotiables of the intervention or innovation we are implementing? 

C. How does it work? How does this thing we are implementing (B) produce what we want to achieve (A)?   

Now, gather a group of people who “should” know a lot about the change — maybe your core team, the governance body overseeing the effort, or middle managers involved in guiding the implementation.  Have them complete the exercise. Then compare answers and discuss. Keep in mind that you aren’t looking for elegant or punchy responses; you are looking for shared understanding. 


I can predict with a pretty high degree of certainty, that if you conduct this exercise,  alone or with a group, it will be a humbling experience. Most likely you’ll find that even those deeply engaged in your implementation — maybe even you as a change leader — can’t answer all of the questions. Or maybe everyone provides answers, but they are quite different, not just in terms of words used but also in terms of meaning.  (If everyone answers the questions consistently and “correctly,” good for you!  Now, try it again, only this time with a group that has one additional degree of separation from the core team.)

My prediction is not all that surprising.  As humans, we tend to underestimate how hard things are to do and how long they take (planning fallacy) and to overestimate how much we know, particularly when it comes to how things work (illusion of explanatory knowledge).  It's not until we are asked to explain something that our overconfidence and lack of understanding becomes apparent.  But, too often, we fail to pause to ask these fundamental questions.    

Why are these questions fundamental? 

Many factors affect the success of change implementation efforts.  (For a run-down of various factors that impact change, see my post here.)  But, I argue it's impossible to be successful without straightforward answers to these three questions.  Here’s why. 

Why are we implementing this? 

The first question, "Why are we implementing this?",  is a variant of the notion that you should start with the problem you are trying to solve, to avoid identifying a solution in search of a problem.

But it goes further. It’s not enough to describe the problem. You must also be able to articulate with some degree of specificity what will exist when the problem is solved. This needs to be more detailed than “cost cutting” or “better performance.” How will you and others know you’ve arrived? What will people see or experience differently? What will exist? What will no longer exist? 

The answer to this question helps to define the meaning of the change for the organization and the people in it.  In her landmark study of the “science” of implementation, Trisha Greenhalgh notes that the chances of successful adoption are increased when everyone — end-users, top management, stakeholders — assigns the same meaning to the effort.  Meaning, (i.e., "implied or explicit significance")  can evolve through engagement with end-users and other stakeholders, getting richer and more nuanced through discussion. However, the organization and team leading the change are responsible for ensuring that the primary purpose and significance of the effort remains unambiguous. 

What is the change we are implementing, exactly?

The second question, "What is the change we are implementing?", seems like it would be simple enough to answer. However, this is an aspect of change implementation that can be quite tricky. Because, even if you say, "We are doing X", that may not be what people actually do. 

People love to make things their own. So, it's no surprise that when adopting change most people don’t want to be told exactly what to do. They want to use their skills and creativity to make the change better (or better for them).  That's where the trickiness comes into play.  

To get the results you are seeking, you often need to do specific things in a specific way — that’s what implementation researchers refer to as “fidelity” or “integrity.” For example, if you are implementing a new practice that involves having group discussions on a regular basis, it probably matters how long these discussions are and how often they happen. If you think the results you desire require 60-minute group discussions monthly, but some end-users decide they only have time for 30-minute discussions every other month, that can have real implications on the outcomes you achieve (or don’t). 

When leading change in your organization, you must specify the non-negotiable aspects of the change so that you can clearly signal what is, and is not, open to tinkering. Implementation researchers sometimes refer to these non-negotiable aspects as “effectiveness factors” or “core components.” They are the parts or features of the change directly linked to results you want to achieve (or are hypothesized to be related in a significant way). To be fair, for many types of change the core components are not immediately evident. The team leading the change needs to devise them based on available evidence and experience. Doing so often requires that you concurrently develop a clear answer to the last question in the series:  "How does it work?" 

How does the change work? 

The answer to the last question, "How does the change work?", clarifies the relationship between what you are implementing (second question) and the results you want to achieve (first question). I would argue that of the three questions, this last one is most often left unanswered. It’s both hard to answer and fairly easy to skip over.  

For example, consider this statement:  “We are implementing a new performance management system that includes year-end ratings and biannual performance discussions (what) to help our staff and organization continuously improve their efforts (why).”  Embedded in the statement is an assumption that the link between desired performance improvements and year-end ratings is evident to all involved.  But, is it?  It's powerful when you have a sense of how something works; when you don’t you are operating in the dark and asking others to do so as well.  Probably not the best way to build trust!

People are not passive recipients of change and, if you are leading change, you don’t want them to be. You want them to be enthusiastic participants, which often involves thinking, not just doing as they are told. Especially if you are asking people to perform tasks in a prescribed way, it can be useful to articulate the causal links between the actions you ask them to take and the outcomes you seek. In doing so, you acknowledge that you get it, it's annoying to be told what to do, but you have a good reason for doing so!

Identifying the links between your goals and actions can be a bit easier said than done.  Strategy Mapping and Theory of Change processes offer two fairly similar ways of doing it.  Although these methods are focused on strategy development and implementation, they can be easily adapted for other types of change.

Where to go from here. 

Once you can unambiguously answer why you are implementing the change, what it is and how it works, you need to engage and connect people with these answers to build their understanding and support. 

If you conduct the exercise discussed at the start of this post, you’ll have a wealth of information to help you do that.  Perhaps you have great answers to these questions, but your team and other stakeholders just don’t know or understand them. If that’s the case, you may be suffering from the curse of knowledge, or have some other communications gap to fill.  Learn how to tackle such challenges in my post here.     

However, if you learn from the exercise that you lack clear and precise answers to any of the three questions, sprucing up your communications won’t help. Take a step back, engage with others, review the ground covered to date, and take a look at the relevant research.  Often the answers are there; you just haven’t grasped them in a way you can clearly articulate yet.  But if the answers are not there, as disappointing as that might be, it’s nowhere near as damaging as moving forward without them. If you find there are no useful or agreeable answers to these questions, it may be wise to consider if this is a change your organization should do without.