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In our experience working with leaders, we've found the conversations (and consequently the actions) about change to be of the same quality as those at an obligatory party—small talk. Very few leaders are having Big Talk conversations about change that are transforming lives and impacting results. Very few are engaging in conversations that address questions such as these:

* How effective are we at delivering results?
* What do we need to do to increase our performance capacity?
* What needs to happen that is not happening now?
* What pain are we experiencing now in the business?
* What is it costing the organization to have this problem?
* If we were to start with a clean slate, what would we do differently?
* How effective are we as leaders? How do we know?
* In our organizational culture, what is the level of commitment to change and improve performance?
* How effective are we at having leadership conversations that enable us to creatively solve business challenges?
* What, if anything, might prevent the organization from successfully implementing change?

Instead of grappling with Big Talk questions like those listed, we usually see leaders cautiously creep along the following continuum:

Postpone —> Passively Approach —> Piecemeal

POSTPONE: Leaders who postpone change have multiple reasons. They may be in their role for only a short time, so why start something they can't finish? Or they might rationalize that because the volume of change is so great, it's better to change later—it's almost too much to deal with now. So they go on a change diet where they cut out anything that might upset the status quo.

PASSIVELY APPROACH: Leaders who passively approach change never quite get down to the heart of it. They circle round, stand at the edges, maybe let a little sink in, but they don't embrace it for themselves or champion it for others. These leaders talk the good change talk, but there is no action. Their communication lands in the ears of employees like small talk because no big change ever occurs.

PIECEMEAL: Leaders who use a piecemeal approach to change work on a system here or a process there, but they fail to realize the holistic nature of change. They try out a lot of small improvements, but those changes typically yield small results. They rarely tackle the tough work of transforming the business, improving the customer experience, or aligning priorities.

Instead of these small-change approaches, the only sustainable approach is one that is proactive. Proactive leaders understand that to create long-term, sustainable improvements they must step into wholesale change—approaching it from all angles. The proactive approach is not only a calculated move to improve results, it is also a way to engage in Big Talk conversations with key stakeholders—an important component of generating ideas for better results.

Where are you on the continuum of change? Are you talking big but playing small? Or are you engaging others in the difficult questions about change and then proactively executing the work that needs to be done? General Eric Shinseki (Ret.), US Army Chief of Staff, said, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." Today, anything but the proactive approach will get you swept away by the "whitewater" of change to irrelevance. At cocktail parties, you can afford small talk. At the office, Big Talk is the only real conversation that will keep you relevant. And to remain relevant, you must grow, adapt, and change.

"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."
—Andre Gide, French novelist


If you have led a change initiative and were to do it again, what would you emphasize and what would you avoid? That's the journey that we have been on for the last twenty-five years—figuring out what works and what doesn't in the change process by helping leaders who struggle with the constancy of change in business environments that have grown increasingly complex. Here is what we've found:

1. LACKLUSTER RESULTS: Leaders and employees alike are disappointed and disillusioned by change and less than satisfied with results. If, as studies have shown, only 30% of change efforts are a success, it's no wonder contemplating change breeds frustration and an unwillingness to keep trying. To many, it feels like leaders aren't learning from failures and don't know how to repeat successes in the future.

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