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The Power of Little Victories in Driving Change

Updated: Feb 7

In my first full-time job after I graduated from college, I inherited an event planning process that had been in place for many years. The process required five professionals to take turns staffing an office for three hours every afternoon where students who wanted to plan an event would visit and complete a series of paper forms. Staffing the office was a significant time commitment, and the process resulted in a good deal of data entry mistakes when the information was later transcribed into an email by a graduate student.

When I suggested to the department leadership that we move the entire process online, my idea was met with resistance. What I thought to be an obvious improvement appeared to be a radical idea to others.

This experience taught me some valuable lessons about what it takes to move people from the status quo.

  • It can be difficult to persuade others to change their attitudes, opinions, and behaviors.

  • Change from one side of an issue to the other rarely happens.

  • The way to large-scale change is through a series of small movements.

Using the situation from above as an example, I will walk through a few of the lessons I teach students in my communication courses about persuasion.

Know Your Audience First

Instead of running into the conference room like a puppy who just got off its leash, I should have taken some time to think about the issue from the perspective of those I was trying to persuade. When you find yourself in a situation like this, consider where the person you are trying to persuade stands on the issue. Use your observation, question asking, and listening skills to gather information. Try to determine where your audience falls on the spectrum from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

Understanding where your audience rests on the spectrum will help you determine which arguments they will immediately reject and which arguments they might be more open to accept.

Find Something They Can Say “Yes” To

Passive agreement isn’t the goal when it comes to change. People passively agree with ideas they don’t agree with all the time. They may do this as a way out or to be polite. With this reality in mind, you should try to get your audience to agree to some kind of action.

If your analysis leads you to believe your audience will be reluctant to support your idea, try to find something you think they could reasonably say “yes” to. In the case of the antiquated event planning process, I still proposed we move to an online system, but I only asked the decision makers to agree to support turning the paper form into an online form that could be used by the staff in the office. Instead of writing down all the event information on the form, I proposed staff type it into a system so that we could reduce transcription errors and save on some labor costs.

Figuring out what your audience might agree to tends to be really challenging for many people. If this happens to you, imagine that your audience loves your big idea. What would be the first step you would take when you got back to your desk to begin implementing it? That first step usually isn’t that scary for people. If your audience says “yes” to that, it can help you move toward acceptance of your big idea.

Make Yourself Part of the Solution

When possible, try to get decision makers to agree to let you take the next steps. This way you aren’t leaving your big idea in someone else’s hands. Moreover, most of us are more inclined to say “yes” if someone else is doing the work.

Follow Through

Coming up with ideas is easy. Now you have to do the work and inform decision makers of your progress.

After receiving approval, I worked with my web team to turn the paper form into an online form. My goal was to make the online form so easy to use that no one would want to use the paper form ever again. Once the staff started using the online form, the idea of an online system seemed less scary. Their attitude toward modernizing the process slowly changed, and the staff spoke favorably to leadership on the benefits of the new system.

Be Persistent

You’ve provided the recipient of your message with a low risk option and they’ve said “yes.” This is like capturing the pawn of your opponent in chess. You are glad to have it out of the way, but it’s not the reason you are playing the game. You’ve accomplished a little victory, but you have many more moves before your big idea becomes reality.

The online form served as a small pilot. I then proposed that we allow a small group of select event organizers to use the system to register their events on their own. I promised to review each submission to the system and provide leadership regular updates.

After three years of small changes, we had made large scale changes that improved accuracy, saved time for everyone involved, and improved staff, student, and service provider satisfaction.

Take Away

Most large-scale change doesn’t happen quickly. As a result, when planning to move your audience in a particular direction, do as Stephen Covey says and begin with the end in mind. Like a good project manager, it helps if you break your idea into parts and then find something that your audience can agree to. And if you are committed to seeing others change their attitudes, opinions, or behaviors, you’ll need patience to guide them through the journey.

Source: Sherif, C. W., Sherif, M., & Nebergall, R. E. (1965). Attitude and attitude change: The social judgment-involvement approach (pp. 127-167). Philadelphia: Saunders.

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