You have one opportunity to create a first impression.” This truism is particularly relevant for major change initiatives.

It’s human nature to wait – to reserve support until you see whether a program will be successful. If it reeks, the team takes the blame. If it’s got legs, there are 10,000 owners.

Establish that sense of success in the first three months – immediately after the initiative has been blessed and announced. That’s the window of opportunity to create adoption and momentum for the change.

Here’s what must happen:

First, create reference points. Describe what this change will be like, and what it will not be like. We compare every new experience to what we already know. Comparing is a hard-wired survival skill: Will this experience bring food or death? It’s absolutely critical to create the right comparison, or our stakeholders will create it for us.

Which projects had that sheen of victory? Describe how this new change is like those. Which left a bad taste behind? Describe the critical differences between your initiative and the duds. Be specific. Tell stories. As soon as it begins, plant your project on the right side of your organization’s history.

Years ago, a major retailer hired me to help implement PeopleSoft. For the third time. And guess what? Virtually every stakeholder I encountered asked the same question: “How is this different from the other implementations?” In the absence of the right comparisons, people had decided this project was like those that had failed. I was in a defensive position and damage had already been done. Since then, I’ve learned it’s more powerful to find positive examples and metaphors that resonate with my stakeholder groups. I jump into that space they’re trying to fill, and provide the right comparisons. It changes the conversation.

Second, capture those who are already “all in.” Every organization has a small percentage of people who are weirdly and enthusiastically drawn to anything new. They are the daredevils — the first penguins to plunge into the icy Arctic; if the daredevils aren’t devoured, the early adopters enthusiastically follow. Identify those who might be most positively predisposed to your project, and give them a feel-good interaction with the change. It’ll tip organizational momentum in your favor.

Third, use “operant conditioning.” Define the trigger, the behavior, and the immediate reward. A trigger is the context that causes a person to respond in a particular way. The behavior is what we want people to do in response. The reward is anything good – positive feedback, a happy interaction, or a treat. According to Dr. Edgar Schein, if a group engages in a new behavior, and has an immediate positive experience, they will repeat it. If they repeat it often enough, their behavior creates culture. Driving behavior through conditioning directly impacts culture and enables the ongoing success we’re looking for.

We can actually design adoption and momentum for our change. Defining reference points, getting the early adopters, and rewarding the right behaviors – regardless of the change – creates that early glow of success.

“A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”
Mark Twain

“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.”
Oscar Wilde