For the last few years my family and I have spent our summer holiday on the Greek island of Kos. It is an idyllic place and we enjoy the friendly and laid-back culture of the people we have met over the years. This includes Alex, a retired executive from the UK who now lives in Kos, who I have got to know quite well. While enjoying a coffee with Alex we stumbled into a conversation about change and the significant role of Short-term Wins in the adoption of Organisational Change. While not the kind of topic of conversation I had anticipated having while on holiday, it was a useful reminder for the culture change projects I am working on right now.

The Recycling Change Project

Last year the daughters of the holiday complex owner set up their own recycling system after covering the topic in school. They completely bought into the idea of recycling and created their own impressive system for residents. They enthusiastically encouraged guests to use their new system and recycle as much as possible. However Andreas, the complex owner, told me that this part of the island did not have the supporting infrastructure to support their efforts. In other words, there were only bins for general waste and all the rubbish ended up in the same place anyway. (He didn’t want to tell his daughters and dampen their enthusiasm of course!).

This year was different. I noticed official recycling bins in numerous locations so the girls’ efforts were no longer in vain. The fruits of their labour were now collected twice weekly.

A few days into our holiday I met up with Alex at a coffee shop near the harbour. He spotted a large truck with compressed cardboard being taken for shipment off the island. “That’s a good sign” said Alex, “It’s first time I have seen recycling being taken off the island. Things are really changing.”

In that conversation we had stumbled upon a key part of culture change. A real short-term win in a process of change.

Short-term Wins

In a business context, we share our vision for the change we want to create and do our best to inspire colleagues to take up the cause (educating people about recycling). The organisation also creates the enabling infrastructure supporting people to change (the various equipment and transport etc).

At an early stage of the change process, people want to know their efforts, actions and sacrifices are worth it, otherwise energy and momentum will quickly diminish.  Communicating a set of short-term wins is a key step to achieve this.

An effective short-term win should achieve all of the following five outcomes:

  1. Provides clear evidence that the change working
  2. Allows people to celebrate achievement
  3. Builds momentum and increases future effort
  4. Influences sceptics or late-adopters to get involved
  5. Genuinely tests key aspects of the change process and fine-tunes the process

Ensuring all five elements are present separates a real short-term win from what we might call a quick win or the low hanging fruit, where something that could be achieved relatively easily without too much effort is highlighted and celebrated. While this can have a positive impact if chosen carefully, there is a danger that people see it as a gesture that lacks credibility, and that can damage the change process.

As change leaders, our role is to define the first signs of success that we want our people to watch out for. For key business projects, this demonstrates your belief in the plan and courage to openly share the criteria for early success.

In his book “Leading Change”, John Kotter describes a good short-term win as having at least these three characteristics:

  • It’s visible; large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype
  • It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call
  • It’s clearly related to the change effort

People should be able to see the change for themselves. The word eureka comes from the ancient Greek word heúrēka, meaning I have found it. A real short-term win allows people to discover the change effort is working for themselves. Just like Alex did over our coffee.

Call to action

  • For your next change project ensure you include real, credible short-term wins that will build momentum
  • Read Leading Change by John P. Kotter
  • Contact me for a conversation about TwentyOne’s approach to cultural change brian@twentyoneleadership.com