How do you kick off a change initiative? What can you do to start the effort off on the right foot? It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression; in the case of organizational change creating a positive first impression is the first critical step in the road to success.

A popular approach (and a sound one in my opinion) is to create a ‘change manifesto’ – a document that articulates your vision and your expectations of the change in a clear and concise manner.

There’s a very good example of such a document – it’s in Washington D.C.

I recently had the good fortune to spend a few days there. One of the benefits of visiting in the dead of winter was the lack of tourists; I was able to walk into attractions that usually have wait times of 60 to 90 minutes. (One of the downsides is that it was absolutely stinking cold!).

One of the places that I made sure I visited was the National Archives. (I was relieved to find that Nicolas Cage was not in attendance). The history of America (and for that matter, the world) has been irreversibly changed by the documents stored there and the ideas that they contain. The documents on display include the Magna Carta, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

In the Declaration of Independence, just after a brief opening paragraph, we read the following:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…”

Putting the political and patriotic overtones aside for a minute and looking at the document objectively it’s pretty clear that the Declaration of Independence is a manifesto for change. It contains a vision, a brief description of the current state, an inventory of their problems and finally a broadly stated action plan (as well as the signatures of everyone who were accountable for ensuring the final outcome).

What I find absolutely extraordinary is the immense distance between the current state and the vision.  The phrases “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ were especially problematic. Equality and freedom were not available to all citizens. The American economy was completely and totally dependent on slavery; the majority of the signees were actually slaveholders. There were no clear answers to very basic questions, such as “Are slaves really men?” and “Does the word ‘men’ include women?”

This was a big problem but there were bigger ones.

If the Founding Fathers had hoped for unanimity around the idea of independence they would be disappointed; a large segment of the population remained loyal to the British Crown. And the British weren’t going to stand by while their most profitable colony seceded; the Revolutionary War had already started and the survival of the fledgling state was the first and foremost priority. The rest could wait.

It was a long wait. From the legislative point of view, transforming itself from a British Colony to the modern independent state that America has become took about 150 years. Slavery wasn’t abolished until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868. African-Americans received the vote in 1870; women in 1920. And let’s not forget that transformation required both a revolutionary war and a devastating civil war (where an estimated three quarters of a million people lost their lives).

I think that you can make a pretty persuasive argument that the transformation continues to be a work in progress; that America is continuing to refine and evolve itself based on the parameters of a document that was authored almost 250 years ago.

Is this not compelling? This transformation was started with publication of a few powerful concepts articulated in a simple document of less than 1500 words. And by the fierce resolution of men and woman that believed in those concepts and were willing to work towards bringing those concepts to life and making them a reality.

Organizations should learn from this.

What lessons?

A change manifesto talks about what, not about how

Successful change needs to rest on a strong foundation, but that foundation doesn’t necessarily need to be defined to the nth degree. The purpose of a manifesto is to publicly state the intentions of the issuers. It’s a vision, it’s a call to action – it’s not a project charter or a project plan. And it should be succinct. It doesn’t have to be 435 PowerPoint slides spread across half a dozen presentations.  Clear. Concise. Brevity is good.

It should generate excitement

The vision should be compelling. It needs to pluck the heartstrings and enflame passions. The realization of the vision will require a lot of people to do a lot of a work; it won’t be achieved unless everyone is engaged. It’s a challenge but it’s also an opportunity and it needs to be presented in a way that stirs the imagination. You are presenting a possible future that is significantly better than your present situation. If your raison d’etre for the change is “We anticipate that this adjustment to our strategic vision will ultimately result in the overall reduction of operational costs by up to 17% over the next five years” I think you have some work to do.  Why would anyone about sign up for that? Make it captivating.

It has an immediate impact

The change manifesto needs to have an immediate impact. You need to demonstrate in the most explicit that you are serious. It can’t be trivial. It needs to be real – something that makes the environment feel fundamentally different than it did the day before. (Just an aside: I don’t like the idea of using an organizational restructure as the initial step. It’s my personal experience as someone who has lived through countless reorganizations that reorganizations have marginal impact on the average employee. The reporting structure changes but the work remains the same.) It needs to be a fundamental change in policy or structure with an impact that is readily apparent to everyone. It can’t be, “We have struck a subcommittee whose mandate will be to investigate and recommend possible avenues for the initial implementations.”

You need to rally the troops

The rank and file must have faith in the judgment of their leadership. Copies of the Declaration of Independence were widely distributed and used to inspire the troops and the entire populace, and the readers knew that the document was written by a group of delegates who had the backing of their respective states and were acting in what they believed was the best interest of the people and of the nation. Business leaders don’t typically have this luxury. You are acting in the best interest of company but not necessarily in the best interest of all of the employees. It is quite likely that the greatest impact of the change will fall on them. You need to make sure that you have a plan to win the hearts and minds of your staff as they are vital to its success. (In my opinion this is the most difficult aspect of change but it is vital to its success.)

The change will take longer than you expect

Be prepared for the change to take time (but hopefully not 150 years). It will absolutely positively take longer than you think it will take.  It’s easy to end up overpromising and underdelivering and it’s the fastest way to lose both your credibility and the credibility of the change initiative. What a good rule of thumb? Take your estimates for cost and duration and double (or triple) them.

I’m pretty sure that the Founding Fathers didn’t get any consulting help before they created the Declaration of Independence. (Cynics amongst us might suggest that’s why they were successful!) But successful they were and we should learn from that. History is full of tremendous successes and abject failures, all of which present us with an opportunity to learn.

Interested in the Declaration of Independence?  See the text here.









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