I feel like the Lorax.  They cut down the magnificent old-growth trees on the floodwall. I live on the south bank of the White River, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been floodproofing my neighborhood for 15 years. The latest iteration of the plan involved the industrial scale de-treeing of the levee. Nobody asked my opinion, and I’m in a stage of resentful mourning.

Even though I’ve been in the “change business” for over a decade, I’m occasionally caught off guard by my own response to disruption.

Candidly, I bear part of the blame for my reaction, because I didn’t go to any of the town hall meetings to discuss the project over the past few months.


One of the hardest things leaders do is navigate through the turbulence of disruptive change. Based on many toe-stubbing experiences, I believe there is one principle of leading change successfully that stands out above all others: Drive engagement from affected stakeholders as early and often as possible.

Satan Sandwich

Too many times I’ve seen leaders sequester themselves in a room, develop a vision and direction for the future, then unleash it on the world, expecting a standing ovation (or at least a little gratitude). To those receiving the change, it too often tastes like a “Satan sandwich.”  No one likes having change shoved down his throat. When leaders try to “make people like it” after it is fully baked, it just becomes a sugar-coated Satan sandwich.

A far superior approach is to intentionally invite stakeholder feedback early on. Even in a project’s nascent stages, it is beneficial to “pressure test” ideas with real world feedback. Change leaders can get stakeholder fingerprints on project charters, objectives, training plans, messaging, software configurations, processes, work instructions, SOPs, product specifications, or any other aspect of the change.

Getting fingerprints on your change early has two specific advantages. First, feedback improves the quality of the design. Second, people get more committed when they feel ownership. Owned solutions are better than optimal solutions. When I can see my own DNA in the new project, I work to ensure its success. It becomes my change.

I know the Army Corps of Engineers’ town hall meetings generated some goodwill and higher levels of commitment to the plan. There were some stakeholders who were initially vehemently opposed to the de-forestation plan, but who became more accepting as the project’s leaders engaged them.  By the time the cutting started, no protesters chained themselves to the trees.


But what can change leaders do to more actively engage those who don’t want to be engaged (like me)?

First, deliver tasty and solid communications. Get as much specific and authentic information out as early as possible. It’s always better to have a fair “fight” early rather than a street brawl late in the project. Check out Pablum—The Silent Killer for more on this topic.

Second, acknowledge the pain. Let people know what negative experiences they’ll likely have as a result of your change. And let them know that you don’t take those aspects of the change lightly. Don’t just sell the benefits. Recognize the costs. (cf. Acknowledging Pain)

Third, knock on doors. Engage more assertively and directly with those who are passively or actively disengaged. Some people require more time and attention than others, in order to ensure they process through the future change fully.


Here’s the bottom line: You’ll either pay for organizational change on the front end or on the back end. If you don’t spend the upfront resources to respectfully (and assertively) engage key stakeholders, you’ll end up wasting resources later, as you respond to lower morale, decreased productivity, declining customer satisfaction, increased turnover, or negative press. These issues tend to send an organization into panic mode. Leaders then lose their momentum as they take their eye off the change process to react to these fires.

So, I give you a B-, Army Corps of Engineers, for your engagement of stakeholders. You tried, but you could have done more. At times it felt like you were doing the minimum required to get the word out.

And I give myself a D+ for not engaging in the opportunities you did give me.

We can both do better.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
   — Dr. Seuss

8 Comments

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  1. Thank you Chip.

    Love your writing style, and uncovered truths.

    I miss the trees as well.

  2. Well done, Chip, as always.

    This bring a question to mind though: Is there another side to this bell-curve? If leadership is seen as sharing too much, have you ever seen it lead to a reduced level of confidence by employees? If 75% of employee want a feature, but you know eliminating it better aligns with future goals (think CD drives on laptops), will overruling their opinion do more harm than never asking in the first place?

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Three thoughts, Greg, in response to your query:

      1. Intent matters. If you really have legitimate constraints that can’t be modified (like a requirement to jettison the CD drive from the design), it would be inauthentic to ask if people think that element of the design should be modified. But it would be authentic to acknowledge the pain and ask how such a design would impact various stakeholders, including customers.

      2. A voice is not a vote. When engaging in dialog about a proposed change, it is often important to clarify who owns the final decision. Asking people what they think (and really caring) gives them a voice, but not the right to make the call.

      3. In asking what people think, you discover things you might not have thought of, even if the dialog dosen’t change your big picture decision. E.g., based on conversations with engineers and sales reps about getting rid of the CD drive, you might decide to add in different wireless features or OS capabilities to make it easier to upload new software or view movies.

  3. Good column Chip. I have lived that mistake and it was very costly. I discuss it now with mentoring groups

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Thanks, Carey. I’ve stubbed my toe on this one, too. Glad you’re passing on your hard-earned wisdom.

  4. Stefanie Krievins

    Chip, the way you present change management is really engaging! I especially appreciate that you gave the Army Corps a B- and yourself a D+. When we’re members/neighbors/employees, it’s easy to complain that the other side isn’t doing enough. As an individual that is part of a team/group/neighborhood, we also have to take responsibility for paying attention and participating!!