Inertia is a powerful force. To get almost anyone to do anything differently you need to push them out of their current state with a burning platform for change, pull them to a vision of a brighter future and enroll them as part of the solution with a call to action. It all starts with a burning platform for change that is 1) external so that it’s not immediately rejected as an attack on them, 2) compelling enough to get their attention, and 3) personal enough for them to take the message to heart.

The life boat analogy works here. Internal issues pit those in the life boat against each other. External opportunities and threats band them together. Minor issues become routine. Existential crises have to be dealt with. Bad things happening to other life boats are notable. Bad things happening to their own life boat have to be dealt with.

External platforms for change beat personal attacks

In the classic SWOT analysis, strengths and weaknesses are internal; opportunities and threats are external. While all should continue to build on their strengths and rectify their weaknesses, those changes tend to be evolutionary instead of revolutionary. Generally, organizational strengths and weaknesses are accumulated over time, with multiple people involved along the way.

This means you can’t cite a weakness as the burning platform for change without some thinking you’re blaming them. Their natural instinct will be to feel attacked by you, triggering their fight or flight reflex and pitting people in the life boat against each other.

Conversely, citing a new external opportunity or threat as the impetus for a change in direction gives them a chance to join with you to take advantage of the opportunity or deal with the threat. If that requires fixing some weaknesses along the way, that’s a happy bi-product – just not the impetus.

Platforms for change must be compelling

A gazillion years ago, consumer products company Procter & Gamble realized that 80% of its media test failed. In other words, increasing the amount of their advertising made no difference 80% of the time. They looked at this counter-intuitive result from all sorts of different perspectives until they finally realized that the issue wasn’t the media or advertising weight, it was the advertising itself. Only 20% of their ads made any difference to anyone.

The implication is that if people aren’t listening to you, the answer is probably not to reach out to them more frequently or yell louder or put things in ALL CAPS. A better approach may be to change your message from the 80% that make no difference to the 20% they find compelling. These might involve new news about changes in customers, competitors, collaborators or social, economic, technical or political conditions.

What about me?

Ultimately, the only question that matters is what this means for each individual personally. Things that happen to others are interesting and may or may not have implications for individuals at some point. The closer you can tie the impact of changes to any particular individual, the more that individual will pay attention to you.

Melting ice in Antarctica matters to me less than does the increase in traffic on my road which in turn matters less than the ant crawling across my computer screen – which, by the way, has now been dealt with immediately, clearly, decisively and permanently.

The only way to get people to care about bigger issues is to link those issues directly to individuals’ welfare, tapping into how they feel about doing good for others, doing things they are good at or doing good for themselves.

Implications for executive onboarding

Make it personal. Everyone’s first question for you as new leader is “What does this mean for me?” Job 1 is to build relationships. Job 2 is to understand the gap between the current situation and the aspiration. Job 3 is to counteract the forces of inertia to get people moving from the current to the aspirational state. Do that with:

  1. The push of a burning platform for change that is external, compelling and personal
  2. The pull of a picture of a brighter future in which they can picture themselves
  3. Enrolling them in the journey with a call to the specific actions they can take.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #828) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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