This famous saying – “Rome wasn’t built in a day” – emphasizes the point that you cannot expect to do anything that is significant or great in a short period of time. Unfortunately, most people, especially in our society, don’t like waiting for that final outcome.

This is an important thing to keep in mind when embarking on the challenge of leading an organization that needs to make significant changes. As important as it is to start aggressively changing things, it is also essential to effectively manage expectations about the amount of time it takes to see the results of change. In fact, failure to communicate that it takes time to see the positive impacts of change can doom new initiatives to failure when they have barely started.

People and organizations generally have two competing responses to change. When change is proposed, most people are resistant to the change. They can even be openly unsupportive until it is clearly the only option available. Often an organization must get to the brink of extinction before change is seen as an acceptable and needed alternative.

In contrast, when the actions that will cause needed change are finally agreed to and initiated, many people have the opposite reaction. They expect the results of the change to be manifested almost immediately. When this does not happen, the tendency is to criticize those leading the changes and to become frustrated that change is not happening fast enough.

This brings us to the point of this article which is the Principle of Incremental Improvement. This principle says that change takes time and that improvements are effected on an incremental basis. Positive change is the cumulative action of a series of small actions. Small changes that are implemented create momentum that builds and propels the organization forward.

Making significant changes to any organization is one of the most difficult challenges that exists. That is why leading change is so difficult. No matter how much the leadership and the members of the organization seek change – even if it is to survive – the desired change always requires a series of successive small changes. Building momentum and keeping everyone focused on the agreed upon results is essential to leading the change process.

Here are several key tasks that the leaders of change must do well.

  1. Clearly define the desired changes. Create a picture of the what the organization will look like when the changes are fully implemented. Cement this vision so it can be clearly communicated to the affected parties.
  2. Share this vision with the organization and fine tune the vision until it reflects the desires of the majority of the organization. In this phase, it is critical that as many ideas as possible are considered. However, it is also essential that priorities are set. The fact is that to achieve success in an organization as a whole, it means that the ideas and goals of some people cannot be accommodated. The key is to reach a consensus on the vision of the changed organization.
  3. Clearly communicate the agreed upon vision to the stakeholders. Make sure that the vision is shared over and over again until it becomes real in people’s mind before it is fully implemented.
  4. Be prepared to be confronted by doubters. Seek out those with valid concerns and address their issues face-to-face. Sit down with detractors and listen to their concerns. If their suggestions fit the vision, incorporate their ideas. If not, compassionately explain why their ideas are not a good fit, and ask them to recommit to the vision and the change process.
  5. Be prepared to deal with people who vehemently oppose change and are not willing to be flexible. Many people will join the effort once the change process gains momentum, but it is rare if there is not at least a handful of detractors who become openly resistant. Unfortunately, it is also rare that significant changes can be made without some people deciding that they need to leave the organization.
  6. Communicate progress frequently. Let people know what is going on. Report successes and also explain failures. When mistakes are made, they are a reminder that change is not easy. Learn from the mistakes quickly and try something else. Part of the principle of incremental success is understanding that significant change is the result of a series of small steps.
  7. Involve as many people as possible. People who have a hand in the change process will be far more likely to support the change. Reach out to all stakeholders to get them included in the change effort. If they have not been involved in the initial steps, involve them in subsequent efforts.
  8. Manage expectations for timing. I have led a lot of change efforts over the years, and I have never been involved in one that took less time than what was anticipated. Change is tough and unforeseen obstacles occur. As progress reports are given, make sure that the reports also address mistakes that were made and inform constituents about what is being done differently to implement the desired change.
  9. Celebrate successes. Recognize milestones along the way as progress is made. Set up processes that catch people doing things well and publicly recognize their efforts. Compliment people privately as well as publicly. The more appreciated people feel during the process, the more supportive they will be and the quicker the changes will be successful.
  10. Commit to continuous improvement in the future so that future crises can be avoided. Successful leaders and organizations understand that the ability to constantly change is essential in the current climate. They are consistently looking ahead and planning for the next change that is needed to remain competitive. They revisit their vision regularly and embark on an annual planning process that includes an analysis of their market position, not just an update of financial expectations.

Implementing significant change is difficult. It takes the efforts of a lot of committed people. It requires strong leadership and consistent and effective communication. It requires vision and patience to persist through obstacles and delays. But if you approach change as a step-by-step process, you will experience the power of the principle of incremental improvement. And you will be able to successfully implement the new vision of your organization.