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Straight Talk about Change

Ed Whitacre, author of American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA, introduces an uncommonly clear passage on managing change from Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, by Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Change has been the only constant in my more than 45 years in business. Companies that are willing to embrace change can reap tremendous rewards. Just look at my old company, AT&T: We went from being the smallest of the seven regional Bells to being the largest telecommunications company in the world.

Many experts will tell you how hard it is to make organizational change happen, but the excerpt you are about to read explains that it is actually fairly simple: Focus on the behaviors you want, and make sure the work system supports those behaviors. I agree, and I’d add that managers have an essential role to play in this effort. That’s why I’ve always made them 100 percent responsible for the performance of the businesses they oversee. They need to constantly review their goals and make the necessary adjustments to achieve them. And they need to make sure that employees are engaged, inspired, and focused.

You can have the smartest strategy in the world, but if employees aren’t with you, or don’t know or don’t care about what you’re trying to achieve, you’ll never be able to implement it. If they are with you, you can bring almost any business—even one as broken down as General Motors was in 2009—to life.

—Ed Whitacre

An excerpt from chapter 1 of Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, by Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon 

How do you optimize the possibility of successfully implementing change? By defining exactly what you wish to create and by doing so using as much behavioral specificity as possible—and as little jargon as possible, too. Phrases such as “increased interunit communication” or “enhanced field and staff collaboration” have a comforting blandness to them, but they almost always serve to blur, not sharpen, the picture.

The market may have presented an opportunity or posed a threat. Your organization’s evolution may have enabled or hamstrung a noteworthy move. No matter the cause or the reason, organizational change entails changing human behavior. It entails making certain key behaviors a reliable and regular part of organizational operation—that is, of “how the place works.” The question for the change leader comes down to this: What behaviors must occur, how must people act, in order to make the change succeed? What’s the story you want told about the way you and your people will operate in the future? What’s different? And what in the work environment still stands in the way?

Changing organizations comes down to changing human behavior. Design of the work environment or system design, in turn, drives human behavior in complex entities such as organizations. One might well argue that human organizations are systems of systems. To change them requires less magical imagery and Herculean effort and more careful consideration of just what a leader seeks to create with change and how to align the corporate or business unit or department work environment to produce that desired, even longed-for change. To increase the odds of successful change, increase the discipline of thought, planning, and execution, beginning with clarity of what behavior the leader wants and the system changes necessary to produce it.

Therefore, to create successful change, always remember these two tenets:

  1. Focus on the behaviors you want from people.
  2. Design the work environment to foster those behaviors.

Focusing on behaviors and the work environments that support them does not mean that ideals, values, principles, motivations, and other more high-minded issues do not count. Of course they do, but a leader who focuses on behaviors is recognizing and taking advantage of the fact that behavior constitutes the most important currency of exchange within human systems: You do something or you do not do something. I forward sales leads or I do not. I look for customer input or I do not. I actively collaborate with my peers on product redesign or I do not. My behavior and that of other organizational members determines whether a given change initiative lives or dies. Behavior is the connective tissue between strategy and action, between intent and implementation. Behavior comprises culture.

Hence, successful change comes down to identifying the key behaviors that, if they occur reliably and regularly, indicate that a desired change has taken hold. A detailed, even granular, vision of the future can dramatically increase the odds of getting there. Abstract or ephemeral visions wrapped in corporate speak do not. A specific vision can provide local meaning. It can clarify communication, motivate and direct action, aid planning, facilitate debriefing, guide revising, and revitalize by occasioning celebration of progress. Above all, a specific behavioral vision helps change leaders redesign the work environment to foster the behaviors and the change. 

Reprinted by permission of Wharton Digital Press. Copyright © 2013 by Shea and Associates Inc. For more information, visit

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