2013 05-05 SuperHero iStock_000013976003XSmallLeadership View #5:

When leading change – get some early wins –this makes change irresistible to those that resist.  Getting these “early wins” may involve changing priorities or sequencing of events.

How often do we begin an initiative by setting a goal with a date when everything will be complete?

When starting a project we are excited to get “it” done. What if instead we focused on getting small wins and buy-in, how might we approach the project differently?

One of my favorite visible stories of a leader who understood the importance of early wins is The Chicago Wacker Drive Project. Mayor Richard M. Daley began this enormous project, raised the funds for it and hired the team to lead it. It was a massive undertaking. The job required rebuilding both Upper and Lower Wacker, a primary downtown Chicago artery.

What I remember most about this project is it began in early 2001 and was declared “finished” 20 months later in late 2002.  It was declared a success coming in on-time and on-budget. The reality was, only a portion of the Wacker Drive rebuild was completed during this period. Work on Wacker Drive continued for many years and continues today.

Mayor Daley knew he had to get an “early win” and sequence the events so that he could pause and celebrate success. The work that continued for ten years hence followed this same model. Small incremental projects are funded, begun and then completed and celebrated.

Here are my questions for you to consider when you next begin an initiative in your company:

  1. What is the ideal sequencing to get the job done right and on-time?
  2. If my goal is buy-in, what changes might I need to make to get that buy-in?
  3. Am I willing to go slower at the front-end to get to adoption?
  4. Who are the people I can count on to be early adopters and influencers? How do I engage them, so they are willing proselytize our success?
  5. How will I celebrate success?

Elisa K. Spain


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  • Good post. It is fascinating to see how positioning internally can have a dramatic impact – good or bad- based on setting up expectations. I think all too often business leaders fail to acknowledge and/or act on the “celebrate” factor, even if it is something as small as a high five. I recently heard on an NPR broadcast about an HBS study that said by far, the #1 want for employee satisfaction is the feeling of progress every single day.

  • I love this reminder. I was always facinated with the Wacker Drive project, Denise Castellino was the head of this project if my memory serves me…I never really thought about the duration of the project and how this was framed. I really thought they just did it all on time and on budget! This is perfect idea to reflect on as I implement the projects we are working.

    • EKSpain

      Thank you for your response and the additional info about the Wacker Drive project – and for validating the impact the success of the project had on you.

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