In Praise of Short-Term Wins (or, Win Early and Win Often)

Bob Sevier

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When you play cards with someone, stacking the deck is a form of cheating. In organizational change, however, stacking the deck with short-term wins is an essential part of your overall success.

John Kotter, in his seminal work Leading Change, outlined an eight-step change process:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.
  2. Form a powerful coalition.
  3. Create a vision.
  4. Communicate the vision.
  5. Empower others to act on the vision.
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins.
  7. Consolidate improvements and produce still more change.
  8. Institutionalize new approaches.

It is the sixth step that is the focus of this blog.

Kotter notes good short-term wins have three characteristics:

  • They’re visible.
  • They’re unambiguous.
  • They’re clearly related to the change effort.

He then goes on to say why short-term wins are important for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Validate the change process.
  • Publically reward and rejuvenate change agents.
  • Fine-tune vision and strategies.
  • Undermine cynics.
  • Compel fence-sitters to get on board.
  • Build momentum.

Look back at the sixth step for a sec. Notice that Kotter didn’t say, “announce early wins.”

Rather, he used a more deliberate phrase, “plan for and create” short-term wins.

In other words, don’t count on chance or luck. Be deliberate.

For example, some change initiatives may, in fact, be built on popular efforts that are already underway so that you can count on an early win.

Focus resources in an area where an early win is most likely to occur.

Create an early win in an area that is popular to the larger campus community.

Sometimes you might delay announcing an early win for a time when interest and enthusiasm for the change initiative is waning and the campus needs a positive jolt.

At the same time, especially when early resistance is met, announcing an early win can help galvanize the reluctant.

Finally, especially in instances of new leadership, announcing an early win will help further establish not only the legitimacy of the leader but also her or his team and the larger change initiatives.

Change is almost always tough, but orchestrating a few short-term wins can help you generate the momentum you need for success.

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