When a transformation initiative fails, it’s often said that it’s because people don’t like change. This is actually not true. Wherever I go in the world, no matter what type of group I speak to, people are enthusiastic about some kind of change. They’re not that crazy about other people’s ideas for change.

Senior executives love to tell me about their inspired visions for their enterprise, but complain that they can’t get the rank-and-file to buy into them. Middle managers complain that they are buzzing with ideas but can’t get their bosses to agree. As failed initiatives pile up, people talk about each other and fatigue sets in.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are natural laws that govern change and these laws can be learned and applied by anyone. The problem is that managers don’t study change the same way they study finance, marketing, or strategy. Business schools don’t teach it as a discipline. But change has a life cycle that we can learn to manage and use.

Identifying a problem that needs a solution

as a young man Mohandas Gandhi wasn’t the kind of person anyone would notice. Impulsive and undisciplined, he was also so shy as a young lawyer that he could barely bring himself to speak in open court. As his legal career falters, he accepts an offer to represent the cousin of a wealthy Muslim merchant in South Africa.

On his arrival, Gandhi is humiliated on a train and it changes him. His sense of dignity offended, he decided to strike back. He found his voice, built the almost superhuman discipline for which he became famous, and successfully fought for the rights of Indians in South Africa. He returned to India 21 years later as a ‘Mahatma’ or ‘holy man’.

Revolutions don’t start with a slogan, they start with a cause. Martin Luther King Jr., eloquent as he was, did not begin with words. His personal experience with racism helped him find his words. It was his devotion to the cause that gave meaning to those words, not the other way around.

Steve Jobs wasn’t looking for ideas, he was looking for products that suck. Computers suck. Music players suck. Cell phones suck. His passion was to make them “insanely awesome.” Every innovative product or invention, a laser printer, a quantum computer, or even a life-saving drug like cancer immunotherapy, always starts with a problem to be solved.

A painful failure

In 1998, five friends met in a cafe in Belgrade. Although still only about 20 years old, they were already experienced activists. In 1992, they participated in student protests protested the war in Bosnia. In 1996 they took to the streets to support Zajedno, a coalition of opposition parties united against Slobodan Milosevic. Both efforts, for very different reasons, failed.

This is not unusual. Gandhi had his Himalayan fault. The the first march against Washington, for women’s suffrage in 1913, was a disaster. The Martin Luther King campaign in Albany turned out to be a big waste of time. Many contemporary movements such as #OccupyTurkey Gezi Park protested and on arab springachieved little, if anything.

These are not just political movements. Good ideas fail all the time. Even important, revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, such as cancer immunotherapy and sanitary practices in hospitals, were flatly dismissed at first. Legendary entrepreneurs, like that of IBM Thomas Watson at IBM and Apple Steve Jobs there were miserable, heartbreaking breakdowns.

The problem is that every idea has flaws. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, because every plan, no matter how carefully thought out or how just the cause, is wrong. Sometimes it deviates just a little, and sometimes it deviates a lot, but it is always wrong. You have to be willing to take a few bumps along the way, pull yourself together, and apply what you’ve learned from the experience to do better next time.

Finding focus

Successful change efforts are not, as many assume, total efforts. Rather, they learn to focus their own relative strengths against the opponent’s relative weaknesses. They focus resources on a specific opportunity at a time and place of their choosing. Military strategists call this principle the Schwerpunktthe delivery of crushing force at a specific point of attack.

In that café in Belgrade in 1998, the young activists took a hard look at what worked and what didn’t. They knew they could get people to vote, and they knew that if the people went to the polls, they could win the upcoming presidential election in 2000. They also knew, from bitter experience, that if Milosevic lost the election, he would tried to steal it.

This, they decided, would be their focal point. They created a movement called Resistance which was imbued with patriotic imagery from the Second World War resistance. It grew slowly at first, reaching only a few hundred members after a year. But by the time the 2000 elections came around, Otpor’s ranks had swelled to 70,000 and had become a powerful political force.

When Milosevic tried to falsify the election results, mass protests began, now known as Bulldozer revolution explodes. This time Otpor was able to impose unity among the opposition parties and the Serbian strongman was forced to back down. He would later be extradited to The Hague and die in his prison cell.

Surviving victory

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned about change is that the winning phase is often the most dangerous. When you think you’ve won, then you take your eyes off the ball. But the people who oppose your idea don’t just melt down and go home because you’ve won an early battle. In fact, now that they see that change is possible, they are likely to redouble their efforts to undermine what you are trying to achieve.

Otpor activists knew this from experience. When the Zajedno coalition won an electoral victory in 1996, it was split from within as a result of some deft political maneuvering by the regime. After Milosevic’s ouster, they quickly moved to thwart such efforts. On the day the new government took power, billboards appeared all over Belgrade saying “Now we’re watching you!”

But the billboards were just a tactic. The real work started months ago. Activists had learned from previous failures and expected officials to turn away from the cause. So they made a plan to survive the victory and forced every opposition politician to sign a “contract with the people” so that they could not go back once the victory was won.

We do a similar exercise with our transformation clients. We ask questions like, “How would someone possessed by an evil demon undermine the change you seek? Where are you most vulnerable to attack? How can you use shared values ​​to mitigate these efforts? You can’t prevent bad things from happening, but a little preparation goes a long way.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that transformation is a journey, not a destination. Change has a life cycle. Whatever impact you want to achieve is much more likely to be a marathon than a sprint. No defeat or victory is final. The road is long, and to travel it effectively, you must learn to recognize and anticipate the various turns.

Greg Sattel is a transformation and change expert, international keynote speaker and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change. His previous efforts, Innovation Mappingwas voted one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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We All Need To Learn The Change Lifecycle

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