How to Really Shake Things Up

Transforming a company requires total commitment and serious stamina

Sometimes companies need to change even when there isn't a crisis. In such cases, how do you keep your people excited about a change initiative after its newness wears off? — Trevor Smith, Singapore

You have to stay excited yourself. And not just excited—obsessed. Talk about the initiative at every meeting, celebrate its smallest milestones, and champion everyone who supports it. Because if there is one reason that even the most meaningful initiatives too often die an ignoble death, it's boredom. Peopleeven the leaders who started the whole thing—get distracted by seemingly more pressing concerns when they don't see immediate results. And before you know it, pffft—the initiative that was supposed to change everything vanishes. At which point, everyone sighs with relief. Or worse, they chuckle at the demise of yet another lame change program.

Such entirely human reactions would be fine if change weren't a matter of life and death. That may sound overdramatic, but in today's marketplace, if you don't keep reinventing your business, you'll be trampled by competitors passing you by. Which is why you have to continuously cheerlead your change initiative—and tread carefully as well. Indeed, you have to avoid three traps that have a way of speeding changes into oblivion.

The first is launching another big, important initiative while your first big, important initiative is still a work in progress. Now, we're not putting the kibosh on new tactics or projects while an initiative is under way. But tactics, like a focus on purchasing, or projects, like a sales contest, are not initiatives. Initiatives are transformative, like globalization. The best start as the seed of an idea and grow to encompass almost every activity across the company, even bringing customers and suppliers into the fold. And that is why a company must wait until the first program is ingrained in the culture, which can take two or three years, if not longer.

The second trap is not putting the best people on a change initiative. Sure, we know it's hard to take Ellen and Mario out of jobs they're so good at to put them onto something new and risky. But that's the kind of talent shake-up that makes an organization believe, not to mention the kind that makes an initiative thrive and succeed.

The third trap is related: It's not publicly promoting and rewarding those who embrace the initiative. Even as the initiative's results emerge, these people have to be held up and treated as heroes. Do that, and people will enlist in your cause faster than you can count them.

And that's what you want. Even with strong management support, initiatives fall flat without widespread engagement. You're right. The early days are easy; the hard part comes when the newness gets old. The trick is to never let that happen.

What are some of the best approaches to improving marketing? — Linda Schanz, Edison, N.J.

Not long ago, we were helping our son get ready for college and noticed a hefty section in his course catalog entitled "Topics in Sales and Marketing." With that in mind, we humbly note that your question is bigger than the both of us. Marketing is an increasingly complex science of data-mining, number-slicing, and niche-segmenting.

But since you asked…we would only add that marketing always contains an element of art. Consider two great campaigns that ran in connection with the World Series. In the first, a Boston retailer, Jordan's, promised to give away all the furniture it sold last April if the Red Sox won in October. The team did win—hallelujah!—and the company's leaders have been on TV ever since, congratulating the 30,000 customers now getting refunds of $20 million. In the second, Taco Bell promised to give a taco to everyone in America if a base was stolen in the series. Young star Jacoby Ellsbury did the honors, and Taco Bell reaped millions in publicity from the happy stampede.

We'll leave the sales and marketing advice to the experts, simply noting that, when all is said and done, a clever idea can still score big.

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