3 Tips for Leading Successful Change Why understanding human behavior is essential for new initiatives to thrive.

By Nadia Goodman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Many times in your career as an entrepreneur, you'll need to make a bold change in your small business or startup. You'll enter new markets, overhaul product lines, or step up your customer service game. When you succeed, you'll do so against enormous odds.

More than half of business's change initiatives fail, according to research by Greg Shea , an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and co-author of a new book, Leading Successful Change (Wharton Digital, 2013).

He has spent decades helping companies implement effective change. He argues that change initiatives so often fail because most people overlook one essential factor: human behavior.

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Change needs to be designed with human behavior in mind. "People generally behave in a way that makes sense to them," Shea says. "They adapt to the environment they're in." If the environment doesn't change, neither do they.

In order to create effective change, focus on your employees' role in that effort. " What's the behavior that's going to make those changes happen?" Shea says. And beyond that, what is the environment that encourages those behaviors?

To answer those questions and create effective change, try these three tips:

1. Create a scene.
To understand what needs to change, describe a scene in your ideal future, explaining what your employees would be doing after the change takes place. For example, if you want innovative ideas to arise more organically, then describe what a product development phase would look like if that was the case. What skills would people have? How would they communicate information? Who would contribute to which decisions? How would talent be rewarded and measured? "Think about what it would actually look like if you could pull this [change] off," Shea says.

Some organizations create several scenes before they get a clear picture of what real change would look like, especially if it's is complex and involves many different players. Others feel that a single scene is enough. "You're done when you feel that it's grounded and specific enough that you can figure out how to produce [that behavior]," Shea says.

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2. Talk to your team.
Once you've created a scene, gather the people whose behavior will be affected -- the ones who will live the change. For example, if hospital administrators want to reduce the number of readmissions, they need to talk with all of the nurses, doctors, social workers, and caretakers who handle frequently readmitted patients. "Change lives in the details of the workplace," Shea says. "People at the most senior levels don't know much about that."

Give the group an opportunity to review and discuss the scenes that you created. Ask, are they realistic? Are there other barriers preventing these behaviors? What would you add to these scenes? Not only will you get helpful insights to paint a more effective picture, you will also get buy-in from the people responsible for enacting the change.

3. Rethink the work environment.
Guided by your scenes and conversations, think about how the work environment needs to change to promote new behaviors. Set up the workplace so the behaviors you want are easy and incentivized, while the behaviors you don't want meet resistance. For example, you might increase collaboration by switching to an open office plan, creating idea walls where people can ask and answer questions, setting up an internal chat system, and rewarding collaborative projects.

As you start to implement the changes, check back with your scenes to measure progress and make adjustments. "[Your scenes] shouldn't be taken as dogma," Shea says. "Change is an iterative process."

Nadia Goodman is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. She is a former editor at YouBeauty.com, where she wrote about the psychology of health and beauty. She earned a B.A. in English from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University. Visit her website, nadiagoodman.com.

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