Knowing WHAT and WHY is not the same as Knowing HOW

I have recently been talking with people apparently keen, eager and authorised to lead significant change in their organisations but with the process stalled. In each case the person has a clear explanation of the problem (usually a performance issue such as too little income and too much cost or a failure to achieve the desired customer outcome), a clear grasp of the things that must be done and the necessary achievements and awareness of the growing urgency of action. What then is getting in the way?

Simply, the answer seems to be that while they know ‘what’ change to bring about and ‘why’ it needs to be done they don’t know ‘how’.

That shortfall is not often about a theory of change or the absence of a plan or a methodology, those abound!

They can describe a skunk-works approach, start-up thinking, lean methodologies, scrums, sprints, agility, innovation based on “fail fast-fail often” and any and every combination of the above. Perhaps what gets in the way is that they are intimidated by the challenge, the recognition – private, personal, not to be shared with others – that leading change makes us feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, exposed.

About 500 years ago Machiavelli in The Prince suggested:

“…..there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes. The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm … partly because men are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience.”

The necessary rate of change has accelerated substantially since the 1500s, the complexity, substance and implications of changes have increased and look likely to continue. The difficulty and doubtfulness of success remain – and we, as agents of change, continue to be challenged and feel unsupported in equal measure; we continue to feel vulnerable!

Nobody can make the vulnerability go away – whether real or perceived (if there is a difference!), what we can do is be prepared! As Brene Brown says: ‘when you don’t choose vulnerability, vulnerability is done too you.’

We can adopt the interpersonal behaviours, skills and attributes required for delivering the change – even if, for most of us, they do not come naturally. These often amount to 5Cs, the ability to Confront, Consult, Commit and Communicate underpinned by Courage.


acknowledge the fears, accept that the ‘how’ is difficult and demands drawing on some rarely practised skills, know that it is OK to be concerned.


reduce risk and ameliorate concerns by engaging advocates and supporters of the proposed change, build a positive atmosphere.


not to a plan, plans never survive the first encounter with real life, commit to the outcome and be prepared to change the plan. What is achieved will ultimately be more important than adherence to a particular way of getting there.


establish what messages will be required for which audiences and when. Determine how those messages will be delivered, who by and when. If you are unsure, concerned or even frightened by the prospect of a particular presentation or conversation then write it down – word for word if necessary, practise it and, most importantly, think about how it will be received, what questions will be asked, what answers you must give. Rehearse the opening lines until you can recite them in your sleep.


underpinning all of the above is courage. No amount of blog reading will make you braver – but all of the preparation suggested will mitigate risk, make you feel prepared and supported, make you aware of potential points of failure. What gets in the way of progress is perhaps more about the courage to take the first step than it is about any other aspect, to recognise and embrace the vulnerability rather than hide from it.

If we really believe that the benefits of the change outweigh the costs and risks then authenticity, truly being ourselves, means we must pursue it! Think not about ‘what happens if I do’ but ‘what happens if I don’t’, take a deep breath, hold your nose, jump!