The Levers of Change

“Give me a lever long enough and fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world”

– Archimedes

Levers are powerful things. They built the pyramids, strengthen cranes, help us move, help dig holes, open beer or bottles, and have played a vital role in nearly every technological advancement in human history. And they are one of the most fundamental instruments used to lift, shift, or move anything…including perception and behavior.

Let’s start with a quick review of physics and the parts of the lever. There are two main elements to a lever. The fulcrum, or pivot point the lever rests on, and lever itself. The lever is divided into two segments: the effort arm (where effort is being applied) and the resistance arm (where what you intend to move is located.) The position of the fulcrum determines both the distance and required effort to move something: as the fulcrum gets closer to that which you intend to move the required effort decreases as does the distance the object moves; and vice-versa.

Now let’s relate that to organizational change. Change is almost always individual before it is organizational (ie. you do not get organizational change if individuals do not change.) So organizational change is about moving, elevating, or shifting people (or some element of their behavior, skill, or perception.) For all intents and purposes, people, or in this case, organizational employees act as the resistance (both figuratively and literally in many cases.) The effort is the intervention applied by the change team. The fulcrum, is timing in relation to the change. If you schedule your intervention closer to your change it may take less effort and planning, but it is also going to result in very little movement. This is particularly true of training, communication, or employee involvement. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to plan a last-minute training (generally because it results in shortcuts to effective training design) and it certainly doesn’t take much effort to tell people a week before the change is to occur that it is coming. But if employees don’t seem to change much, it’s because you placed the timing way too close to the change.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were the pyramids. The huge blocks that make up the Egyptian monuments weigh on average 2.5 tons (or about 5000 lbs.) They were lifted through the use of ramps and a series of levers. Not just one. They were moved little by little. And so must be the application of change levers when dealing with large-scale change. If you are trying to move the organization a great deal from its current state, you need to start early (placing the fulcrum as far from the change implementation as you can) and apply a lot of force which is typically unrealistic, or you use a lot of smaller levers that incrementally move your employee base. Thinking a large-scale change will only take one lever is often going to result in a small shift or a great outpouring of effort and cost.

So what are the levers you may ask. There are many methodologies that identify specific (and different) levers as crucial. And I agree with all of them, depending on your change. Here are but a few identified levers of change:

  • communication plans
  • sponsorship roadmap
  • coaching plan
  • training plan
  • resistance management
  • unified vision
  • analyzing change readiness
  • creating urgency
  • involving all stakeholders
  • evaluation
  • systems alignment
  • training and development
  • reinforcement
  • measurement
  • simplification
  • compensation and reward
  • WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)
  • enculturation
  • along with many others (do a quick search for “levers of change” and I am certain you will find lots more)

So which ones are most effective? Well, I am sure each developer (Prosci, Unilever, Primeast, and others) will claim theirs is best. But really they are all important to understand at least to some degree. Any good change manager has a handle on all of these to some degree, despite their methodology (unless they are blinded by their beliefs.) But the key to each of them is the multitude of levers needed to move an organization. One lever is never enough to move anything far enough to represent real change. Whether you are attempting an organizational overhaul through a Business Process Engineering effort or trying to solve a smaller organizational performance issue, the coordinated effort of many levers will get you much farther with less effort than relying on a single intervention.

So while Archimedes may be right that a single lever could move the world, it wouldn’t amount to much more than a wiggle. Using a single lever for organizational change has the same frustrating effect – regardless of how much effort you exert, the organization barely changes at all. If you want real movement and real change, understand the combination of levers that will get you where you want to go, time them effectively, and you can put your organization into a new orbit.



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