Risky Business: Presenting the Case for Change


I was talking to the CFO of a rapidly growing company recently to get his input on how people could be more effective when they present new programs and initiatives to him.  He offered some interesting insights:

Most people try to sell change by focusing primarily on the benefits of making the change.   What they forget is that those benefits are not guaranteed and I’m also thinking about how much risk I am willing to take to get those benefits.  Approving their project may make sense when viewed on its own, but I’m looking at the tradeoffs I’ll need to make to support it.  They need to show me that they understand what it’s going to take to actually implement the change within our organization.

As I thought about this leader’s comments, it struck me that most presentations we deliver are about change: improving a manufacturing process; asking people to change their behavior and collaborate vs. compete; or introducing a new compensation plan to a sales force.  It’s easier to focus on the benefits of change, but ignoring the risks and people’s concerns can slow or even stop efforts to improve.  This is true in any presentation, not just one to executives.

If you find yourself in a position where you are advocating for change, you need to create a compelling picture of the future benefits people will experience and you need to address the risks involved.  The following steps will help you identify risks and present a stronger case for change to your audiences.

Understand Their Risks.  Take time to understand the how people perceive the risks associated with the change.  Possible risks include:

- Financial.  They may worry about missing specific group and company goals, which can impact their compensation.

- Reputation.  People may fear that failing at something new will have a negative impact on their image, credibility and career prospects in the organization.

- Political.   Decision makers may have to ask favors of other stakeholders in the organization in order to support your plan.  A failed effort can cost them power, influence and resources they need to accomplish other goals.

- Business/Technology.  Supporting your effort means people may not be able to pursue other business or technical initiatives.  Be aware of the tradeoffs they are making.  What are the costs to them of supporting your effort?

As much as you can, create a complete picture of the risks people perceive. You can then look for ways to address their concerns and engage them in the change process.

Build Flexibility Into Your Approach.  In addition to perceiving different risks in change, people also react differently to change based on their personality.

- The ‘Driver’ values innovation, quick decision-making and results, so they are comfortable taking risks.  Their sense of urgency means they can be frustrated by over-analysis of potential risks.

- ‘Influencers’ are fueled by passion, creativity and a compelling vision of the future.  They are very energetic and love starting projects, so they place less emphasis on planning and tend to gloss over risks.

- ‘Steady’ personalities are loyal team players who value security and comfort.  They are uncomfortable with conflict and rapid change, which means they can be quite risk-averse.

- The ‘Conscientious’ person values accuracy, detail, logic and a thorough approach to risk assessment.  They can provide a valuable contribution to planning change efforts, but when they place too much emphasis on conscientiousness they can slow down efforts to innovate.

You need to work effectively with all personality types during the change process.  They’ll deal with change and risk in different ways, so adjust your approach to address their needs.

Emphasize the Risks of Not Taking Action.  I recently heard Andy Bryant, Chairman of the Board for Intel, speak at a business breakfast.  He mentioned that one of the keys to leading change efforts is to show people the costs of continuing to go down the path they are on.  This is consistent with research on risk which shows that people take risks to avoid losses as well as to receive future benefits.  You can use stories, examples and data to outline for people the costs (stress, cost overruns, lost customers) of following their current path.  When provided with the right information, people will risk making a change in order to avoid the ‘pain’ or losses they are experiencing.

Outline Your Plan.  Part of getting people to buy into going down a new ‘path’ is to communicate your plan for getting to the final destination.   Highlight the long-term vision behind the change and the benefits to individuals and the organization.  Show them the short-term steps you are taking to assess risks, to ensure that people have the resources they need to succeed and to measure results.

In summary, when you present the case for change it’s important to address risk.  If you follow the above suggestions you’ll engage people in ways that have meaning for them and you’ll find more success in leading change initiatives.