When working with clients on strategy execution I tell them they’re about to embark on a journey of great change. A change in the way they measure and manage performance, a change in the way they report and analyze results, and a change in how they generate alignment from top to bottom throughout the organization. The speech is intended to be inspiring, lifting them to new heights of organizational achievement, but is just as often met by eye rolling that says, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Those non-verbal (and sometimes verbal) cues reflect the undeniable fact that the proposed changes, any changes for that matter, are difficult to bring to life, and most people have been around long enough to see similar efforts come and go. I’ve discussed this phenomenon in a number of posts, including my most recent in which I shared the sobering statistic of change failure rates being as high as sixty percent. To overcome a number like that it’s crucial for organizations implementing change programs to get off to a fast start, generate momentum for the cause, and convert skeptics to advocates. Unfortunately, most miss the mark on this task, and frequently begin their initiatives with long-winded speeches from executives whose delivery and demeanor seem to reflect their own doubt about what’s actually possible.

There’s a place for speeches, posters, and slogan-emblazoned coffee mugs when setting on the path to change, but to really kick start your effort, and win your share of people’s ever dwindling attention, you need to shelve the rhetoric and start with an emotion-inducing, provocative action. It worked for sixteenth century Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes. Facing the increasing possibility of a mutinous crew, he didn’t attempt to hold their loyalty with a fiery speech, instead he took the very provocative step of scuttling his ships, effectively stranding his crew in Mexico. Here are a few somewhat less dramatic, but no less effective, examples of people and organizations that recognized when it comes to igniting a spark of change, actions trump words every time:

A Danish organization, tired of watching customers defect because of frustrating and outdated policies and procedures, vowed to re-engineer the customer experience. Rather than begin the effort with a dry discussion of what was to be done, executives gathered the many volumes of current policies and procedures, stacked them up, and to the delight of assembled employees, threw a torch on the pile. The signal that things were about to change was clear.

The CEO of a midsized company was disappointed because his people weren’t taking advantage of 401(k) matching opportunities, when in fact he knew they could all use the money. He calculated how much they’d left on the table to be close to ten thousand dollars. In a provocative display to jolt them from their inertia, he than stuffed ten thousand dollars in a bag, brought it into a meeting and dumped the cold hard cash on a table. The powerful sight of all the money they’d neglected put his staff on a quick path to action.

A Cedars-Sinai doctor was frustrated that hand-washing levels of other doctors at the hospital remained stuck at eighty percent, despite the fact that everyone knew frequent hand washing was critical in reducing patient infections.  Weary of spouting statistics and exhorting his colleagues to wash up more frequently, he took the creative step of having a sample group press their hands in a mold and then analyzing what they contained. It turns out the doctors’ hands were covered in bacteria. The same doctors who would later be examining a patient were unknowingly harboring an army of germs. Not surprisingly, when this revolting truth was revealed, hygiene rose to nearly one hundred percent, where it remained.

The message here is simple. The next time you’re introducing an important change program put away the memos, speeches, and mouse pads and take a page from the book of the organizations above. All recognized, and benefited from, the wisdom in that old saying: Actions speak louder than words.



Paul Niven, “How Well-intentioned Leaders Can Sabotage a Balanced Scorecard Implementation.” Blog post at www.paulniven.com

Dan Heath and Chip Heath, “Passion Provokes Action,” Fast Company, February 2011, pp. 28 – 30.