When it comes to leading change, what really matters?

Coaching Leading Change

Written by Stephen Manley -
This article first appeared in the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Insights.

One of the biggest challenges when implementing change is bringing people along with your vision for what could be. But it could be simpler than you think.

There's an icebreaker exercise that I run with teams of between 15 and 20 people. The task is for the team to throw three tennis balls to each team member in a predetermined sequence, and to make a series of isolated improvements with the aim of performing this task in the fastest possible time. Recently, while running this exercise something occurred to me that got me thinking about change and mind-set needed to make it more likely to happen.


On this specific occasion, I gave the team the brief for this task - with very little guidance. After they had done their first attempt, I informed them of how long it took them. After this first round, I asked them:

Do you think you can improve upon this?

The team answered in the affirmative, so I invited them to demonstrate this improvement. The team went about agreeing some changes and we ran the exercise again. I then revealed their new result - which confirmed that they had indeed made an improvement.


Again, I asked if they could improve further and so we repeated this process. Around the third iteration, this team was in the habit. They no longer required the 'can you improve' stimulus from me - and they proceeded trying to improve anyway as they become accustomed to the requirements of the exercise.


Unsurprisingly, most teams reach a point of achievement where their improvement efforts grind to a halt. On this occasion, this was around the fifth or sixth iteration of the exercise. Usually I would take the opportunity to conclude the exercise, praise the efforts of the team and reflect on what we experienced in the activity. Not this time.


As the team were 'high-fiving' each other having improved over five rounds from a time of 52 seconds down to five seconds, I personally felt that the team could go even further.

With this, I asked:

"What would you do if I told you that that I've seen a team do it in less than three seconds?"

The team quickly scrambled back into their positions and started to come up with more radical improvement ideas with even more gusto than had been observed previously. Lo and behold, after the next timed run the team finished in less than two seconds. It was a fantastic achievement.

In the discussion after this exercise we reviewed the team recalled that I had said: "another team had done it and therefore we knew it could be done. You motivated us."

It was a light bulb moment. The simple act of asking a question clearly embedded a suggestion in the minds of the team that day - and quite a powerful one too. Something that was previously believed as being impossible was now believed to be possible.


Facts and evidence are important when motivating us to change. However, in the ice-breaker task, I, the facilitator, did not motivate the team.

The team chose to motivate themselves once their thinking moved from a mind-set of 'impossibility' to 'possibility'.

This will-to-win was clearly important: beliefs are fuelled by something much more powerful than 'evidence' and 'facts'. They're fuelled by what's important to us. Our values.

To change behaviour we need emotional importance (the shared value of winning) and a belief of possibility (logical achievement).

Sometimes our ability to lead others successfully through change cannot be guaranteed by our previous experience but in our ability to be confident and assured in the absence of facts and logic.

Incidentally, long after this exercise I found myself learning different questions to ask of teams to encourage a change in thinking to drive a change in behaviour. Some examples:

What would you change if you knew you could make a real difference?

What haven't you tried yet that could really solve this problem?

What can you improve to help you to be the person you really want to be? And finally, one question for you…

What questions haven't you asked yet that could really make a difference for you and those whom you lead?


About the author - Stephen Manley is the Coaching Director at Spitfire, a consulting firm with a global reach across Europe, North America, Middle East & Africa. Stephen works with individuals, teams and organisations worldwide to achieve transformational change in thinking, behaviours and ultimately results. Get in touch to learn more LinkedIn

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